Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Agave Syrup

Anna brought up agave syrup in a comment on the last post, so I thought I'd put up a little mini-post so everyone can benefit from what she pointed out.

Agave syrup is made from the heart of the agave plant, which is pressed to release a juice rich in inulin. Inulin is a polymer made of fructose molecules. The inulin is then broken down either by heat or by enzymatic processing. The result is a sweet syrup that is rich in fructose.

Agave syrup is marketed as a healthy, alternative sweetener. In fact, it's probably as bad or worse than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). They are both a refined and processed plant extract. Both are high in fructose, with agave syrup leading HFCS (estimates of agave syrup range up to 92% fructose by calories). Finally, agave syrup is expensive and inefficient to produce.

The high fructose content gives agave syrup a low glycemic index, because fructose does not raise blood glucose. Unfortunately, as some diabetics learned the hard way, using fructose as a substitute for sucrose (cane sugar) has negative long-term effects on insulin sensitivity.

In my opinion, sweeteners come with risks and there is no free lunch. The only solution is moderation.


Allison Bojarski said...

Would you recommend honey as a better choice, if I have to choose between either honey or agave nectar?

brian said...

I like the look of Agave plants, kind of rustic and tough looking. Oh yeah, and tequila too!

Unknown said...

What about stevia?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Allison,

I do think honey would be a better choice, but you can probably overdo that as well.


Tequila is a much better use of the agave plant!


Anything that tricks your body into thinking it's getting calories when it's not is potentially problematic. Artificial sweeteners cause weight gain in rats even though they aren't caloric. It may be the effect of the sweet taste itself on the nervous system. I don't see any reason why stevia would be different.

I think stevia is probably fine in moderation, but I'd be wary of using it a lot.

AngloAmerikan said...

Honey could possibly be classed as one of the few 'real' foods along with milk, egg yolks and animal fat - products that were developed to supply energy to living organisms. A report out recently also indicates that some honeys are better than antibiotics at destroying harmful bacteria and it doesn't seem to be just because of honey's ability to suck the moisture out of cells as not all honey is the same. I'm considering using more honey, especially manuka honey as a sweetener.
Some tests on rats have also shown that it has anti-aging, improved memory and anti-anxiety properties as well.

Unknown said...

I wonder if "miracle fruit" has harmful side effects (other than hurting your wallet, as it is pretty expensive).

"... after eating [miracle fruit] stout beers taste like chocolate milkshakes, grapefruits taste like pixie sticks, cheeses taste like frosting, it will make even the crappiest tequila taste like lemonade (and strangely enough, it will make all wine taste like Manischewitz).
- Flavor Tripping blog, entry "mad flavor science".[9]

mtflight said...

I'm glad you posted about this! health nuts have suggested I try something natural instead of Splenda and equal and whatever, for example agave nectar.

Luckily I did not find it. I went to wikipedia and was astounded at the high fructose content. Unbelievable they sell this stuff at so-called health food stores.

I went to a sugar free candy/bakery and asked for stuff sweetened with glycerine. The owner of the store told me they didn't have that. They use maltitol (laxative) and or agave nectar. I told him about the high fructose content. He insisted I was wrong.

I tried to explain I was right by telling him fructose was low on the glycemic index because it's mostly metabolized in the liver. He said I was wrong basically that fructose is high on the glycemic index. I left puzzled. Then I figured it out. He was thinking "high fructose corn syrup."

So one has to watch out for what he puts in his body, and not trust that because it's sugar free it's gonna be good. As you say, it's probably worse than sugar--screw the trace minerals/nutrients.



Stephan Guyenet said...


Let's hope the honeybees survive colony collapse disorder!


I wouldn't worry about it too much since no one eats it on a regular basis.

László said...

I'm used to bake some cookies with agave syrup, before I ditched the grains. Is it that bad to eat a little bit more fructose? I only used about 2 tablespoons agave syrup, how much fructose is? I think it's about a few apple's fructose quantity. I guess it is "moderation" if i use this quantity once in one or two months..
However i'm more worried about the cane sugars, so is this not logical?

Stephan Guyenet said...


I wouldn't worry about it every now and then. I don't see any reason to believe agave syrup is better than unrefined cane sugar.

AngloAmerikan said...

That miracle fruit sounds like interesting stuff. Made me wonder if it is a part of plant life's ongoing chemical war against those that would eat them. You eat a few miracle fruit and the next thing you know is that poisonous food tastes good so you eat that too and then cease to be a problem for the miracle fruit plant - mission accomplished.

Anonymous said...

I tried raw agave syrup once and it made my joints tingly for about one hour. The next time I ate it, there was no effect. probably wouldn't be bad to use it occasionally in small amounts. Unheated honey is a better sweetener, IMO. I've read that some old doctors cured diabetes and many other diseases with unheated honey. It's also been used to cure ulcers, infected wounds, and so forth. Most honey is heated and strained of all nutrients. Comb honey and "unheated honey" are the most natural.

ItsTheWooo said...

I don't think fructose is such a problem if one is on a low carb diet. I do much better with frutose than glucose. My daily carbohydrate is so low that my liver turns fructose into glycogen.

If someone is eating a high carb diet fructose might be more of a problem.

Fructose has been getting blackballed and IMO it's kinda ridiculous. One of the most ridiculous anti-fructose positions is that fructose does not raise leptin to stimulate satiety. Duh, that's because fructose isn't insulinogenic. Hyperleptinemia is one of the major signs of hyperinsulinemia.

Anonymous said...

"Fructose has been getting blackballed and IMO it's kinda ridiculous."

I can't figure out why smart people fail to see the large difference in say table sugar and unheated honey. To say they are the same thing is a little like saying that raw milk is the same as pasteurized homogenized milk. Many old time doctors praised the healing abilities of raw honey. My grandparents ate comb honey from the store. Now it's hard to find it as most honey is heat processed.

So I don't put much faith in people who claim that "all carbs are bad", "fructose is bad", "grains are bad, esp wheat", etc. Like Stephan said, in another thread, a lot depends on how foods are prepared.

I think you some people can do well eating wheat. There are cultures in the world who eat wheat and are not afflicted with modern diseases that are often blamed on wheat. I recall Chris Masterjohn said the people in Crete traditionally ate goat cheese and wheat as staples. They had zero heart disease. Blaming all diseases on wheat or fructose is a religion, not a science. You're right that it is getting ridiculous. No attention is paid to food quality, freshness, preparation method, etc.


SingSing said...

I've been sweetening when I bake with unsweetened apple juice. I feel like when I cook with apple juice I use less sugar overall and it adds some flavor. Any thoughts on cooking with unsweetened juices versus refined sweeteners. Is it the same effect?

Stephan Guyenet said...


I'd favor fruit juices on principle, but my opinion is that these can be overconsumed as well.

Roxanne Ong said...

Can you comment on Lakanto?