Agave Nectar: Friend or Foe?
By Emily Powell
If you’ve been paying attention to the “health foods” aisle of your grocery store, or you’ve stayed updated on your favorite vegan recipe website, or you happen to subscribe to the vehement lamentations of Dr. Oz, you’ve probably seen or heard a lot about a particular sweetener substitute called agave nectar. What exactly is agave nectar? Why has it gotten so much attention recently, both positive and negative? Is it sustainable? In this article, I’ll do my best to give you the lowdown on this highly visible star of the modern health food craze.
For thousands of years, residents of the Sonoran Desert have used the agave plant for medicinal, culinary, and alcoholic purposes. The sweet liquid extract of the agave leaves, called “miel de agave” in Spanish, or “agave honey”, was fermented to create tequila. However, this sweet liquid is also the ancestor of the dark “agave nectar” syrup that can be purchased in the syrup aisle of your local grocery store.
Agave “nectar” as it is sold in grocery stores today is miel de agave that is heated to temperatures just below 118 degrees Fahrenheit to break down the natural compounds called “fructans” into a type of sugar called “fructose”. This yields a product with a carbohydrate composition of 90% fructose and 10% glucose. For reference, table sugar has a carbohydrate balance of precisely 50% fructose and 50% glucose (the combination of which creates a new compound called sucrose). Because fructose is much sweeter than glucose, the excess of fructose in agave nectar makes it much sweeter per tablespoon than table sugar. This means, essentially, that you need less agave nectar to create the same sweetness as a certain amount of sugar; thus, less calories (hooray!). But the story doesn’t end there.
The debate on the healthiness of agave nectar extends beyond the calorie count. Although less agave nectar is needed to create the sugary sweetness we crave, there is scientific debate on the positive and negative effects of consuming such high levels of fructose. As the Atlantic article Being Happy with Sugar by James Hamblin says, “the metabolic effects of fructose in ordinary human diets remains poorly investigated and highly controversial.” Despite this lack of sufficient scientific evidence to make a universal conclusion about agave nectar, it has been demonstrated that fructose does NOT lead to a short-term spike in insulin and blood sugar levels like glucose does. Because agave has a high fructose-to-glucose ratio, it is commended as a sufficient sweetening substitute for diabetics. On the other hand, fructose is processed exclusively through the liver, which means that exceedingly high levels of fructose (“exceedingly high” means 30% or more of your daily calories are from fructose, as was the case in a particular scientific study) consumption could cause potential liver damage and force your body to store the carbohydrate as “bad” cholesterol in arteries.
It is important to point out that ALL sweeteners have pros and cons (sugar, honey, stevia, agave, Splenda), and that spectacularly ridiculous levels of consumption of ANY sugary product can potentially lead to poor bodily function and troublesome things like heart disease. Agave nectar is no exception. However, based on the research I’ve done and compiled here to show you, I would venture to conclude that agave nectar, like table sugar, is perfectly fine in limited quantities. But is the consumption of agave environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable?
The availability of analysis from that kind of research is also widely underwhelming. Agave has long since been the livelihood of thousands of Mexican and other Latin American families who produce tequila for consumption and export. The rage of agave nectar has expanded the market for these farmers, but it has also limited the supply of the plant, which takes six years to mature and must surrender the entirety of the plant to make agave nectar. Agave itself is a highly drought-resistant succulent, making it the exception to the global issue of agricultural irrigation. For far more impressive analysis, check out the University of Groningen’s “Sustainability Analysis of Agave production in Mexico” and make the decision yourself.
If this article aided you in any way on your quest to find the most wholesome, healthy, sustainable diet possible, leave a note in the comments. Thanks for reading, and stay sweet.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietitian credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.