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What’s Up With Agave?

by Liz Bygrave (October 2010)

For the past few years, agave syrup, also known as agave nectar, has been one of the most popular natural sweeteners, widely used amongst the health conscious as an alternative to sugar. Despite being a fructose (generally seen as being not much healthier than sugar, perhaps even less healthy than sugar), agave was seen as the exception to the rule where fructose is concerned, because it has a lowish GI (of around 40).

However, recently, there has been a big furore around agave syrup, mainly in the raw food world, with lots of articles coming out which cast doubts on the healthfulness of this sweetener, and which urge people to stop eating it.

As I’ve reported in my newsletters, I personally remain on the fence about this one. I think it’s all too easy, when a product is seen as a healthier alternative to something else, to expect it to be absolutely perfect. Agave syrup, like other natural sweeteners, is not perfect. Like any sweetener it should be used in moderation. However, I’m not sure that this means it’s necessary to avoid it altogether. Like most foods, it seems to suit some people better than others. I have never had a reaction to it, apart from one weekend a few years ago when I overdid it on my dessert consumption (and if I say I overdid it, then I REALLY overdid it as I do like my sweet food). I experienced a bit of a ‘sugar low’’ for about a day. More than anything, this was interesting to me in that a) it took A LOT of agave to give me this sugar low, and b) it was such a long time since I’d experienced this feeling (ie not since I’d stopped eating sugar) that it was a good reminder of what a sugar low felt like (ie not terrible, but not an experience I care to repeat that often).

But some people do react to agave, generally through experiencing a sugar high, often followed by a sugar low. These people tend to know who they are and therefore limit their consumption of agave,turning to other sweeteners that suit them better (see below).

Of course, just because you can’t feel any negative effects from a food, doesn’t mean it’s not having a negative effect on you. One of the recent arguments about agave is that, as it has to be broken down in the liver, it places a strain on this organ, potentially leading to a condition known as fatty liver, and possibly to insulin resistance. If so, this is troubling. But as you will see if you read the articles that I give links to here, not everyone thinks agave is such a big bad wolf.

One thing that emerges for me from reading all these ‘pro’ and ‘con’ pieces about agave is the impossibility of discerning the truth about it, unless perhaps you’re a scientist with a laboratory, and you can test the stuff for yourself. Read a piece by someone like Dr Mercola and you think ‘Oh boy, I’m never eating that stuff again!’. Read Green Smoothie Girl’s response to Mercola and you think ‘Hey, what’s all the fuss about?’

So, rather than say more when I’m not qualified to comment on it, here are some links to articles on agave so that you can attempt to make up your own mind. Good luck!

Dr Mercola - www.mercola.com - you have to subscribe to his site before you can read the article, but this was the one that started the ball rolling

Green Smoothie Girl http://www.greensmoothiegirl.com/blog/2010/04/26/joe-mercola-and-greensmoothiegirl-on-agave/- a convincing rebuttal of the Dr Mercola article

David Wolfe http://www.sacredchocolate.com/agave-blues-david-wolfe - mostly advising that you reduce your consumption of agave

Groovy Foods - click here - an article from one of the suppliers of agave (Groovy Foods) arguing the case for agave

If you feel after this that you don’t want to eat agave any more, the alternatives are as follows:

Coconut Palm Sugar - this is gaining in popularity now that agave is having such a bad press. One raw chocolate bar company has even switched from using agave to using coconut palm sugar in its products. This is a very natural product with a GI of about 35 (ie low). It has a lovely rich caramelly taste and it is available in the Sweet Sensations online shop. (Bear in mind that It’s not raw if you’re concerned about eating a high raw food diet.). Click here to buy coconut sugar from the Sweet Sensations online shop

Sweet Freedom - a syrup with a very similar taste to agave (the Mild version anyway) made from carob, apples and grapes and with a GI of around 35. (It’s not raw if you’re concerned about eating a high raw food diet.) Click here to buy Sweet Freedom from the Sweet Sensations online shop.

Yacon Root Syrup - a low calorie, gut-friendly sweetener from South America. It’s got a more ‘medicinal’ taste than agave, so it doesn’t always work as a direct replacement, but there are some recipes (like the Butterscotch Bars and Rocky Road Chocolate Chunks) in my I Love Raw Chocolate! Recipe book, that I actually prefer the taste of when I use Yacon Root Syrup. Click here to buy yacon root syrup from the Sweet Sensations online shop.

Lucuma Powder - this is the dried powder of a Peruvian fruit which has a wonderful butterscotch/shortbread-type taste, and is low glycemic. I use it a lot, and especially love adding it to chocolate recipes, as it’s a good way of satisfying any desire for the taste of milk chocolate. Whilst lucuma is often promoted as a sweetener, I don’t find myself that it is sweet enough to be used on its own for this purpose. However, using it in a recipe does mean that you need less of whatever other sweetener you’re using, so it’s a good one to have in your kitchen cupboard for various reasons. Click here to buy lucuma from the Sweet Sensations online shop.

Xylitol - there is lots of info about xylitol on this site so I won’t go into it here. As a granular sweetener (like sugar) it doesn’t always translate well in recipes where agave is used (ie where a syrup is required) but it’s a sweetener I like and is being suggested by people like David Wolfe as a good alternative to agave. (It’s not raw if you’re concerned about eating a high raw food diet.) Click here to buy xylitol from the Sweet Sensations online shop.

Erythritol - a cousin of xylitol but with zero calories. More widely available in the US than in the UK, but again this is a sweetener I hope to stock in the future.

Dried Fruit - you could use dried fruit instead, even making a date syrup by blending dates and water.  Personally I don’t use dried fruit much because of the high sugar content (dates are worse than sugar for instance), their negative effect on the teeth (though you will get some negative effect on the teeth with sweeteners like agave and sweet freedom of course) and the possibility of mould on the skins. But, if you’re a fan of dried fruit then this is certainly an option.

Honey - again, I don’t use honey because it’s a high GI food, but you could try it in place of agave.

Maple syrup - I’m never quite sure about maple syrup, as when I first started investigating the various sweeteners a few years ago, it didn’t seem to score that highly in healthfulness. But many people are turning to it now that there is doubt about agave so you may want to look at this one.

*What is Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) represents the rate at a which a food is broken down in our digestive systems and released into the blood stream. The more slowly a food is broken down, the lower the glycemic index, and the better that food is for us, as it keeps our blood sugar stable. Foods which are broken down quickly (sugar is one such food) are regarded as less healthy, among other things because they force the pancreas to release lots of insulin all at once in order to transport the glucose extracted from that food from the bloodstream into the cells. In the short term this can lead, among other symptoms, to that well known sugar rush, quickly followed by an energy slump. In the long term, it is likely that this kind of eating over taxes the pancreas and the cells, and may be a factor in weight gain and diabetes.

**Glycaemic Load is another way of  measuring the rate at which a food is broken down in the body.  It is regarded by many nutritional experts as a more accurate way of assessing a food’s affect on our blood sugar as it measures the effect on blood sugar of eating a normal portion of a particular food, as opposed to the amount of that food that contains 50g of carbohydrate.  This can mean eating an awful lot of a food that contains a lot of water for instance.  Most, if not all, of the sweeteners mentioned in this article would have a low GL as well a as low GI.

Other articles on this site:

Xylitol: Ahealthier Way To SweetenYour Food?

My Top Six Favourite Ingredients

A Beginners’ Guide to Raw Chocolate

Superfoods Part One

Superfoods Part Two

Essential Equipment for a No Cook Sweet Treats Kitchen

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Please note that any information given on this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be taken as such.