Agave Nectar – Friend or Foe?

Agave Nectar

Agave Nectar

Sometimes I wish I were one of those people who could casually take or leave a chocolate-caramel brownie. Or better yet, one of those strange specimens who actually find the taste of sugar too sweet and mildly unpleasant. But I am not. I am slave to my physiology and people evolved to enjoy sweet foods. In nature, sweet foods are rich in nutrients and carbohydrates (think carrots making them a good bet for a foraging human. Fortunately or unfortunately, what was once the simple pleasure of a wild berry or two is now conveniently achieved tenfold by scarfing down a chocolate chip cookie 3-pack in the McDonald’s exit lane. When those sweet molecules meet our taste receptors, it sets off a series of reactions resulting in the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine. In case you missed psych 101 in college, let me fill you in on what happens when people encounter a scenario where pleasure-invoking neurotransmitters are released in the brain. We tend to do that thing again and again like little robots with a short circuit. Sadly, it’s hard for a rational counterbalance such as “will make me unhealthy and feel bad at some nonspecific time in future” to compete with much effectiveness.

It is not surprising then that the selling of sweeteners is huge business. I imagine there are probably teams of food scientists across the globe whose sole job it is to come up with the latest greatest sweetener. Theres the cheap stuff food manufacturers use to sweeten food (forms of corn, and then theres the stuff marketed directly to consumers. While we’ll happily feed little Sally the chemically altered corn starch already in her cereal, it makes us feel bad to actually sprinkle or pour it on top of the cereal. Luckily, food marketers are ready in the wings to bring us some sweeteners that can make us feel good about ourselves. Enter agave nectar.

Agave nectar is made from extracting the juice from the agave plant (a succulent grown in Mexico also used to make tequila and heating that juice to form a runny syrup. You can buy it in light or amber forms, the latter having gone through less filtration and containing more plant solids. Agave nectar (notice its not called agave sugar, or agave fructose has been marketed to us as a natural sweetener, used by the Aztecs for centuries, with various anti-microbial properties and a low glycemic profile. It’s really perfect for the health-conscious, microbe-hating, Aztec-loving consumer.

I have only tried the amber form but I find agave nectar to have a pleasant, neutral sweet taste. Unlike honey or maple syrup which have very distinctive flavors (that I also enjoy related to their source, agave nectar doesnt remind you of anything. It’s just sweet. The main benefit in my mind is that the glycemic index of agave nectar is so much lower than your average sweetener something in the realm of 20-25. Low glycemic index means less impact on blood sugar which in turn means a little agave isnt likely to kick off a 10pm sugar binge.

Now for the sad part. The reason agave nectar scores so low on the glycemic index is that it contains only 10% glucose. What comprises the other 90% Fructose. Well, as it turns out, too much fructose isnt so good for you, either. Drat! Even though fructose does not cause the kind of immediate insulin response that glucose does, too much over time can lead to all the same old problems associated with a high carb diet, like insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and increased serum triglycerides. Furthermore, there is some question about the presence of saponins in agave. According to an article I read at the Weston A Price Foundation website entitled Worse Than We Thought: The Lowdown on High Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave “Nectar”, saponins are toxins that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and even miscarriage. Finally, the process by which agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup is made is very similar. Agave nectar is produced from the starch of the agave (not from boiling the sap or juice of the plant as the Aztecs would have just as high fructose corn syrup is manufactured from the starch of the corn. This brings about the desire to boycott agave nectar just to punish the industry for its deceptive marketing tactics.

So whats the bottom line My conclusion is that agave nectar is less desirable than honey and maple syrup in terms of its nutritional profile. However, I also think it can be useful in moderation for those who react to the glucose in honey and maple syrup by speeding off to the nearest 7-11 for a bag of Oreos. In my observations, “okay in moderation” isnt something that people are very good at. But here we encounter a nuance of the primal lifestyle the occasional vice. Eating large amounts of sugar, in all its forms, is bad for our health. But adding a few tablespoons to a batch of primal muffins, or opting for the occasional drizzle on some blueberries and yogurt isnt going to send you to the dialysis clinic. As long as it is eaten in small quantities consistent with a primal eating style, I think the type of sweetener you use is a matter of personal preference.

What are your thoughts on agave nectar versus other ‘natural’ sweeteners

16 Responses to “Agave Nectar – Friend or Foe?”

  1. Grok says:

    It’s great to see people spreading the truth about agave nectar. Thank you.

  2. Indeed, I kissed agave goodbye a few months ago in favor of more “Paleo-correct” honey. In moderation of course, like in your absolutely slamming coconut blueberry muffins.

  3. liz says:

    Thanks Shelley, for this great look at agave – we tossed ours a month or so ago, but I had been duped into thinking it was a good alternative … I recently learned that a number of items have “crystalline fructose” in them, which is kind of the “new age” version of HFCS … bummer .. had to toss some other stuff too !!

  4. Anuja says:

    Awesome. I was debating with myself on the benefits of agave! Glad to have more info! Keep up the great work.

  5. Chef Rachel says:

    Great post, direct and honest. I’ve known for a long time that agave’s low GI is the result of it’s high fructose content. However, I included agave nectar as an option, along with honey, in both of my recent cookbooks because I wanted to make my recipes suitable for both vegans (which I am not) and omnivores (which I am one of). My preference for many years has been to combine honey with a little bit of stevia to achieve a sweet taste in desserts w/out as many sugar calories.

    However, now I feel the responsibility of telling people about the hazards of agave nectar because so many have gotten the idea that because agave is low on the glycemic index it is some how better than sugar.

    People need to hear the truth, sweet or not!

    Chef Rachel

  6. Tricia says:

    Please read this article, it explains some of the “mistruths” out there about agave nectar and some different brands of it.


  7. Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much for this article.. I switched to agave nectar a few months ago and I really liked it but I can definitely see how it is yet another “pitfall” in my ongoing quest to make better choices. I am new to this lifestyle but so far it is going well. I loved the video on the squash fritters and look forward to trying them very soon!

  8. Lisa Zawrotny says:

    Thank you for providing an honest and far-more-accurate depiction of this “stuff” than has been offered. I was so excited after reading a diet book to go out and try it, but then thankfully had the benefit of reading the same article you reference to caution my steps. Now an unopened container remains in my cupboard as I reach for the local, raw honey instead. 🙂

  9. Rachel says:

    Im so sad that agave nectar isnt what we thought it was. Ive been using it for awhile, occasionally to sweeten some coffee or in baked items for the kids. I dont like the taste of honey so agave seemed perfect. Im going to keep mine around for the occasional use ….but thanks for the great information. I will definitely use it less now.

  10. iisierra says:

    Thanks for this information!!!

  11. Mary says:

    I just had a terrible stomach reaction and googled to see if I was crazy to think agave was the source…I guess I wasn’t crazy! I am SO not a fan of agave-thank you for the info. I recommend to NObody!

  12. Karen says:

    I had a very bad stomach and bowel reaction to agave – thank you for getting the word out. I’m adding my voice because it’s scary to me that it’s being pushed as healthy – I’ve never been so sick and for so long.

  13. Doug says:

    Thanks for this post.

    After reading the label about how much better than sugar this product is, I purchased Agave Nectar just yesterday. (Same brand shown in the photo at the top of the blog.) I used it to sweeten a pitcher of iced tea and was so happy with the results… that is until I awoke at 4:00 AM sicker than I can remember being in years.

    Actually missed work today and feel so nauseated that I can hardly believe it.

    This stuff should be banned or at least require a warning label stating that it can cause extreme gastrointestinal distress.

  14. cris says:

    Going on a Sugar-Free challenge even for just one week will change / re-train your taste buds, so you won’t crave sweets as much anymore & actually start tasting sweetness in other foods you normally wouldn’t consider to be sweet!

  15. Nicole Ellis says:

    one time i got diarrhea attack while riding on a long bus trip, it really sucks~.~

  16. chris says:

    Now I know why the Agave Nectar was left on the counter at work FREE TAKE ME HOME. My husband has had horrible gas and diaherra since putting some in his coffee yesterday and today. Thought this was going to be nice guess not. Glad to be able to google information. Thank you for telling the truth.


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