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The Great Agave Debate: Is It as Healthy as We Think?

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Is anything sold at the supermarket safe anymore? Here I thought that agave nectar, a product that lines the shelves of reputable, organic-friendly shops like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, was a healthful alternative to sugar. But recently, my friend schooled me on that misassumption when I tried to put some in her tea. “It’s worse than high-fructose corn syrup!” she exclaimed as I shoved the bottle back in the cabinet, away from her judgmental eyes. (Just kidding—my shame was entirely self-inflicted.)


Based on what I’d read on the matter, which I’ll admit was limited to the occasional health article in a magazine or newspaper, I assumed everyone was singing the sweetener’s praises. But actually, there might be good reason to jump off the agave bandwagon.


The Good
Agave nectar—or agave syrup, as it’s often called—comes from the juices of agave plants that grow in Mexico. There are numerous species of agave, including Rainbow, Green, and the sweetest and most popular variety, Blue. (Blue Agave’s also the species from which tequila is distilled.) It’s offered four different ways—light (a mild flavor), amber (a subtle caramel flavor), dark (a bolder caramel flavor), and raw (processed below a certain temperature). It dissolves easily in liquids, and the spectrum of available flavors makes it an all-purpose sweetener. Vegans enjoy agave because it doesn’t affect bees the same way honey does; raw-foodists use it because it meets their standards regarding acceptable food preparation. But it also has a following among health-food enthusiasts for reasons beyond ethics or temperatures.


Though agave nectar has about the same calories as honey and slightly more than table sugar, it’s significantly sweeter and therefore requires less consumption. In fact, it’s almost one and a half times as sweet as sugar, depending on the agave variety. Since weight loss is all about calories in versus calories out, it’s touted as a good alternative to higher-calorie sweeteners.


Agave nectar also offers an advantage in terms of its glycemic index (GI). A food’s GI is based on how quickly it spikes blood sugar; when the spike’s too fast, it causes a severe energy crash and stresses out the body. While honey and table sugar rank medium on the GI scale, agave nectar’s low glucose levels mean its blood-sugar impact is comparatively minimal. However, what makes up for the lack of glucose is a large amount of fructose, which presents other problems.


The Bad
The way agave is processed affects its fructose-to-glucose ratio. Though many brands emphasize its GI superstar status because of its high fructose content (almost 90 percent in some cases), a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times found that it can be as little as 55 percent—about the same as high-fructose corn syrup, that dastardly substance we’re all trying to avoid. And even if agave contains almost all fructose, is that really a good thing?


Some studies have linked increased fructose consumption with a greater risk of serious medical conditions. In 2005, University of Toronto researchers emphasized a link between large doses of fructose and metabolic syndrome, a potential precursor to strokes, Type 2 diabetes, and coronary issues. And a 1993 University of London study showed a correlation between fructose and more uric acid in the blood. Too much uric acid can lead to gout and kidney disease, among other ailments.


Agave also might put diabetics at risk. In 2009, tests performed by the Washington, D.C.–based Glycemic Research Institute (GRI) on diabetics’ consumption of agave resulted in some participants’ passing out and being taken to the hospital. The amount consumed wasn’t specified, but it’s an important reminder that diabetics shouldn’t give agave a free pass merely because its effect on their blood sugar is subtle.


The Questionable
As if these risks weren’t enough, one report actually links agave ingestion to potential miscarriages. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit charity focused on public nutrition habits, released a particularly scathing paper in 2009 called “Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought.” The authors state that saponins, naturally occurring chemical compounds in agave plants, are steroid derivatives that can lead to poor health and problems for pregnant women. They cite the book Toxic Substances in Crop Plants as their source, but here’s what the book has to say: “[Saponins] … are generally harmless to mammals when ingested, although large quantities can be an irritant and cause vomiting and diarrhea.”


Saponins’ effects on physical health are as hotly debated as agave’s; some believe they’re medicinal, while others worry about the steroid association. Dr. Andrew Weil, who famously champions a combination of alternative and mainstream medicine, considers agave’s impact on pregnant women to be “very low risk.” The Weston A. Price Foundation, on the other hand, wants a warning label put on agave nectar bottles. Unfortunately, more research is needed before we know who’s right.


Should We Use It or Not?
After reading all of this, you might wonder how agave nectar earned such a great reputation. Well, the aforementioned Los Angeles Times story also found that the amount of agave nectar products in supermarkets tripled between 2003 and 2007—around the time the backlash against high-fructose corn syrup began. We might’ve replaced one bad ingredient with another. And according to 2009 GRI tests, some brands even contain high-fructose corn syrup but don’t include it in their ingredients lists.


But does that mean agave syrup should be avoided at all costs? If you’re an “everything in moderation” kind of person, the answer’s no. Like a little table sugar or honey, agave here and there probably won’t do much harm, but (as with any sweetener) you should avoid overusing it. At the end of the day, glycemic index and fructose content aside, sugar is still sugar. Eating too much of it in any form is bad for our bodies, even if you find it on the shelf at Whole Foods.

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