Agave nectar seems to be taking the health and natural foods communities by storm. Why wouldn’t it? After all, it’s labeled as a “natural” sweetener. It’s not sugar. It’s not high fructose corn syrup. It’s mildly flavored and can therefore be used in a variety of recipes unlike honey or maple syrup with their unique flavors that can overpower a mild-flavored dish. And it’s proponents are quick to point out that that it’s lower on the glycemic index than other sweeteners.
Before I looked into it further, I loved agave for those precise reasons. Nothing sweetened lemonade better than agave, and it worked so well as a white sugar replacement. In fact, you might find a recipe or two on this website from when I used agave nectar.
Yet, the more I looked into the sweetener, the more it disturbed me. While it is considered a natural food by the FDA (yeah … those same folks who’ll tell you that high fructose corn syrup is natural), agave like high fructose corn syrup doesn’t really fit the bill.
You see: agave nectar as we know it was not actually developed until the 1990s. It is a new sweetener, not one that has nourished humans for thousands of years like honey has. Agave nectar’s concentrated syrupy sweetness is a result of an intense, multiple step manufacturing process, not mother nature.
First, the juice of the agave plant or aguamiel or “honey water” as it’s been known to Mexican natives is extracted. Aguamiel, incidentally, is a traditional food that has been used by inhabitants of the area for several thousand years as a sweetener; however aguamiel in its unprocessed state should not be confused with agave nectar.
After extraction, aguamiel is forced through a centrifuge, into a holding tank, back through the centrifuge in process that repeats until all the visual impurities of the juice have been removed and the resulting liquid takes on the desired color. At that point, the aquamiel is sent through yet another centrifuge (this one heated) until the desired temperature is reached at which point an enzyme is added which converts the original sugars into – get this – high fructose and dextrose. At this point, the syrup is sent through another centrifuge to remove any further “impurities” not caught in the first series of centrifuges. From here, it’s sent through a filter using yet another centrifuge pump which serves the purpose of suspending the sugars in the syrup to prevent crystalization. As if that’s not enough insult to the original, traditional aguamiel, the syrup is sent to an evaporator which reduces its water content and doubles its sugar content before being sent for final packaging.
The manufacturing process changes the sugars dramatically and concentrates them, and it is precisely that process that renders the original substance (aguamiel which had a place as a sweetener of beverages in traditional societies) into something far from wholesome. Once the process of turning aguamiel into agave nectar is complete, the end result contains as much as 90% fructose. Keep in mind that high fructose corn syrup with all its documented ill effects attributable to its fructose content is only 55% fructose.
Nowhere in the collective past of humanity did we eat such a concentrated source of sugars – particularly fructose – as we do now. Ancient humans ate honey in small amounts and only when available and they ate fruit on a seasonal basis. In both these cases, the naturally present fructose is tempered by another component such as glucose in the case of honey and fiber in the case of fruit.
While fructose is lower on the glycemic index which leads some of agave nectar’s proponents to believe its healthier than other sweeteners; fructose is metabolized directly by the liver which could prove dangerous when such concentrated amounts are eaten. Some researchers now believe the glycemic index to be a less valuable resource than the fructose index for evaluating foods.
Consumption of concentrated amounts of fructose – like those amounts found in high fructose corn syrup and to a greater degree in agave nectar – is linked to multiple diseases including fatty liver disease, obesity, hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease.
Though a product can, indeed, be called natural that doesn’t necessarily make it natural, nor does it make it healthful. In choosing our foods, we ought to seek whole foods and eat them the way they were eaten by our ancestors. Foods processed as a result of modern technology and manufacture, like agave nectar, are not traditional foods regardless of whether or not they lurk on the shelves of health food stores.
So … skip the agave nectar and get your fructose where nature intended: fruit.