When Natural Foods Aren't Natural: Agave Nectar

Blue Agave

Agave in the Dry Mexican Desert

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.

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What people are saying

  1. says

    Super post!

    As you may know from my previous comments about agave syrup, for the last year I’ve been concerned about the increasing use of agave syrup, as I’ve learned how high in fructose it is and how damaging excess fructose it as well as it’s very new existence. You really summed it up well, but there’s a good page on agave syrup/nectar wikipedia.org, too for those who want to see some more info. Otherwise, it’s fairly hard to find information that isn’t marketing propaganda from the manufacturers and vendors.

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t really understand the chemistry and biochemistry of sugars (yes, there are many sugar molecules). For instance table (granulated) sucrose, made of one molecule of fructose and one of glucose. That’s still 50% frucose if it ‘s cheap grocery store baking sugar or if it’s expensive organic “evaporated cane juice”.

    And the public especially doesn’t know what happens to their “edible food like products” between the time of leaving the source and showing up on the store shelf. Those “how it’s made” TV shows make the “machine cuisine” look like an orchestrated marvel, but they never probe the health and culture issues raises by consuming such standardized and manipulated foods. And the makers of this “machine cuisine” work overtime to form our impressions of their products with legal, but misleading labels such as “natural” and illustrations of red barns, verdant fields, and smiling animals.

  2. says

    Excellent point. I was wooed by agave’s low glycemic index but upon further thought began wondering if it really is ‘healthy’ just like you are pointing out. I will say that it has tremendously eased the transition off sugar for me. I use a very small amount of agave here and there and having that option has helped me get off sugar entirely and stop craving that sweet, sweet taste! Honey is good too but the taste is more distinct and it’s just a lot messier to use, frankly. Thank you for the good thoughts and warnings about complex food processing methods.

    Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good?’s last post: Just a suggestion: reversible pants.

  3. Luis Cruz says

    The picture at the top of the article shows a blue agave plant, it does not make aguamiel. The aguamiel is obtained from Salmiana agave. This plant was the representation of mother earth for the native people since it would give them clothing, housing and food.
    Can you explain where you obtained the process information? is this proces description the same for both blue agave syrup and salmiana agave syrup?
    regards

  4. Jenny says

    Good questions, Luis. First, while the salmiana agave plant may have been traditionally used as a source for aguamiel, many modern manufacturers of agave nectar extract it from blue agave.

    Regarding the process of turning that extraction into the agave nectar, I sourced that information from agave manufacturer product data and nutrition sheets which are available publicly.

    And, yes, the process is the same for salmiana agave as it is for blue agave: a result of centrifuge, heat, enzymatic reaction and vacuum evaporation.

  5. says

    AMEN! I’ve been warning my clients about agave since this ‘miracle’ sweetener came out. Fructose is not the inert sugar found in fruit. This is a stripped down, highly refined fructose that behaves very differently in our bodies than what you would be finding in an apple complete with all of its fiber, vitamins and minerals, and enzymes. There are a multitude of studies and information about the hazards of fructose. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a good one on the effects of consuming high fructose corn syrup which, as you smartly pointed out, actually has far LESS fructose than agave.

    Love your site – what a treasure you are!

    Tara’s last post: Sweet Misery.

  6. Mary (Mary's Nest) says

    First I want to say that I am so happy to find your blog. It’s a wealth of information.

    And about the agave…I agree. I have been trying to avoid it.

    Thanks for keeping us informed!

    All the best,

    Mary

    Mary (Mary’s Nest)’s last post: Happy Thanksgiving!.

  7. Cristy says

    This is a very informative site…thanks!

    It sounds like salmiana agave is the way to go. Is there a way to get it the same way as our ancestors? Can we grow this in our own backyards and extract the natural sugar ourselves? Would that be safe?

    Great site!

    Cristy

  8. Josh says

    Your article (or more accurately, post) brings up a lot of good questions that people in the health community should be seeking the answers too. But it also brings up some unecessary cause for concern.

    As far as agave being processed, doesn’t molasses go through quite a complex process (which involves cooking/heating the sugar) as well? Doesn’t it also contain large amounts of fructose and glucose? Most honey, unless raw, is heated and refined. And of course, regular corn syrup (not high-fructose corn syrup) goes through a process as well. Do you suggest that the reader group these sweetners together based on the fact that they are all ‘processed’?

    In suggesting to “eat like our ancestors” many people have claimed that anything that’s even cooked is poisonous, and that things like bread are the worst for the human digestion, so this argument is quite a loaded one. Some processed foods have turned out not the be that bad afterall, when eaten in moderation.

    Before writing something off completely, one should consider all angels and have lots of studies and personal experience upon which to make a decision for themselves. Maybe this sweetner is bad for some people and not others.

    I think the best thing to do is proceed with caution, continue raising these questions and, as in all things, especially sweetners of any kind, CONSUME THEM IN MODERATION.

    • says

      @ Josh

      “Most honey, unless raw, is heated and refined.”

      As a beekeeper I can assure you that your quoted statement is absolutely false. Most honey is not heated or refined unless you are buying it from China. Honey is pure from the hive, filtered of bee parts and nothing more. I don’t know where you buy your honey but if it is heated and refined than you are definitely not buying from an honest beekeeper. Please, in the future, do not give this misinformation about honey to the public, it does beekeepers a disservice.

      • Christina Thompson says

        Michelle, my beekeepers have always told me some heating/straining is done to the honey. My beekeepers are from Oklahoma, maybe it is the law here. They have told me a maximum temp. that is heated too(I can’t remember that).

    • Christina Thompson says

      Josh finally some common sense. Moderation sounds like the key. Everyone is getting scared about everything. I had recently purchased some organic agave nectar from C and H sugar and in so telling a friend tonight she exclaimed it is so to be avoided. So I googled and found this website, but like you I am scratching my head, why does heating/cooking it make it immediately evil. I again say in moderation but we cook/boil down maple syrup too, does that make it evil??? I will eat it. I believe in taking care of God’s creation and went totally organic with growing my vegetables this year and feel good that I am not using poisons that don’t seem to work anyway, but I can’t help it that some of my seed was grown by Mansanto and although I don’t like Mansanto; what they are doing to us I will buy what I can afford/find right now. But IF I had a choice I would avoid them, alas I am sorry I am getting on a tangent. What I guess I am saying is that we can only do so much and getting scared over everything like the chicken who was scared the sky was falling; I am more concerned with what is being put into our food regarding artificial and/or pesticides being leached than I am about cooking down food.

      • Jenny says

        Re-read the piece. The issue IS NOT heating. The issue is the introduction of enzymes that artificially transform the naturally occurring sugars into one that is not natural and that has mountains of data behind it that illustrate it is actually worse for you than table sugar.

  9. says

    I don’t belive the question about Raw Agave Nectar was answered, that’s the only kind I buy. It is not heated as regular agave nectar is heated, so what’s the process for Raw Agave? I’d love to find out.

    Also, I do think we have to be careful of the interests of the sources that we get our info from. For example, many basher of agave nectar end up actually being connected to the high fructose corn syrup industry, so I would also love to know where the sources came from. If it’s truly dangerous, I’d like to be able to do my own research and stop eating it if it is dangerous.

    Thanks!

  10. jana says

    Great explantation! I will have to give the agave nectar some more thought. And I thought I was eating something good for me.

  11. G says

    It bothers me how people always try and frighten others with this type of thing. First of all, please dont compare “our ancestors ” diet to today because theres just no comparison. Also, theres probably bad to everything. I dont really know what to believe, I actually like agave nectar and I dont over consume it so I guess I shouldn’t lose sleep over it. I figure that “in moderation” is key to practically everything so to me, those people that are always trying to frighten everybody else should not over do it with everything in site and use things in moderation- and you should be fine.

    • Neiceylove says

      I am on this site because I bought Agave Nectar at Sams club yesterday a d made 2 cups of lemonade. After consuming I had the worse gas ever. My stomach doubled in size and became hard and then I had repetitive gas all night. As I released my stomach would fill up again on air. I immediately knew it was the Agave.

  12. Meiks says

    @G – There is a lot of fructose in much of our food these days. It is nearly impossible to avoid. Thus, while you might eat Agave nectar in moderation, you are still adding another source of fructose to your diet, and it is likely that your overall consumption of fructose is very high. That is all the author of this post is trying to convey; she is not trying to scare anyone. She is simply trying to make people aware that consuming agave nectar is not consuming a natural sweetener; it is adding another processed, concentrated sugar to our diets. If you like agave nectar and don’t care that it is 90% frutcose, then go for it! The article is just trying to make sure readers are informed of what they are actual eating since it is being marketed as ‘natural’ and it clearly isn’t.

    @Josh – like I said to G, “CONSUME THEM IN MODERATION” is impossible if you don’t know what you are consuming. With fructose and other concentrated sugars included in almost every food label I read, as a whole we are not consuming these things in moderation. Our diets have a massive excess of them. If every specific item you eat is ‘consumed in moderation’, but every one of those items have fructose in them, then you are clearly not consuming that concentrated sugar in moderation! That is why articles like these are good, so we can be aware of what exactly we are putting into our bodies.

    @Jenny – great information. Thank you very much!

  13. Jenny says

    Meiks -

    Thank you very much for your comment about Agave Nectar.  It is so nice to hear from people who truly “get it.”

     

    Take Care -

    Jenny

  14. says

    Hi Jenny:

    I’m so confused. If agave nectar is 90% fructose — how is it lower on the glycemic index than table sugar?

    And is there a difference between agave nectar labeled “Raw” and that not labeled raw?

  15. Jenny says

    Bobbie Ann -

    That’s a very good question.  Different sweeteners, just like different foods, place differently on the glycemic index.  90% fructose agave nectar rates an 11 on the glycemic index, while table sugar rates at about 60, this is because the two sugars are metabolized differently by the body.  Table sugar is comprise of both sucrose and fructose, while agave nectar is almost all fructose.  The only difference between “raw” agave and agave that is not labeled raw is that “raw” agave is not heated to as high a temperature as regular agave, however the enzymatic conversion of sugars (which is the problem, not the heat) is the same.

    Take Care -

    Jenny

  16. Debi C says

    I had done a cursory research only to read exclusively about agave “nectar’s” benefits and it being touted as an ancient food. I’m sad that it’s not all it was cracked up to be, but not frightened. It simply arms me with knowledge for which I’m grateful to have and can act accordingly. Honey, I love you all over again. ;) And, Jenny? Thank you for the much needed, much hidden, info.

    (Bravo to you, Meiks, too, for your clear comment.)

  17. says

    I haven’t seen anyone post on what they are using instead of agave? What do we do? Just not ever eat anything sweet?? My body doesn’t tolerate refined sugar well and since I stopped eating it I noticed a big difference. If I eat a cake with a little sugar I get antzy and agitated and full of a crazy energy vs. agave where I feel completely normal after eating it.

    I personally would rather use a half cup of Agave than 1 cup of sugar cane when baking for my family. I use Stevia as well but I suppose there are bad things about that too. I agree that consuming too much of any sweetner is a bad thing but once in a while we need something a little sweet whether that be something made with fruits or a simple lightly sweetened dessert. In my house we have Raw Honey, Raw agave, molasses, stevia, rice syrup and maple syrup.

    Every now and then I crave something sweet and rather than eating the brownie and icecream dessert from Chilis like I used to(which sounds disgusting to me now) I have a pumpkin bread or gingerbread made with agave or stevia and Im proud of that even if agave is not all its cracked up to be. Besides, If you overconsume broccoli its not good for you either.

    I think we all just have to do what we feel is best for us and our family and never stop learning.

    thanks

    • Laura says

      Hello I would also like to know what would be the alternative for using a sweetener………should I go back to using organic raw sugar……?

  18. Douglas Shaw says

    No one has mentioned Xylitol which is the only sugar substitute I would use. Totally natural and with health BENEFITS like dental and heart health improvements and for sinus and ear problems. Tastes like sugar too. Its a sugar alcohol. Google it or check on Wikipedia.

    • Megan says

      The word “natural” has no defined or regulated meaning.
      Xylitol is produced through the hydrogenation of xylose, converting the sugar into an alcohol. Hydrogenation is the same industrial process that creates trans-fats in oil. There is nothing natural about that.
      It does occur naturally in plants, but in minuscule amounts, and so it is synthesized through non-natural means.
      It also causes diarrhea and gas.
      I’m not saying it is any worse than agave or stevia or other natural sweeteners, but it is probably not any better either.

  19. says

    Thank you Jenny! Very informative. The E environmental magazine quoted a doctor saying that agave was just fructose syrup (posted here on their site: http://www.emagazine.com/archive/5073) but it didn’t give the in depth info on how it comes to be fructose the way you explained it. I’ve not tried agave but I know others that have used it quite a bit and they will be very interested in this information.

    • Amanda says

      Nevermind! I just read a comment about the difference between the labeled raw and not labeled raw.

  20. says

    Fructose is a five-ring monosaccharide, and cannot be converted to a six-ring one such as glucose. The reason it is very low on the glycemic index is because of that, because it cannot be converted to glucose, so can’t raise blood glucose. For a long time, purified fructose was sold to diabetics as a “sugar replacement” because of this.

    Because it cannot be converted to glucose, the liver instead breaks it down and converts it to triglycerides and then dumps it into the blood. This is the infamous “triglycerides” measured in a cholesterol panel – the vast majority of which comes from fructose.

    Triglycerides are eventually removed from the bloodstream and stored in adipose tissue. Once stored, they are no longer called triglycerides by anyone except chemists; the rest of the world calls them “fat”.

    When the liver has more fructose than it can dump into the bloodstream, it winds up stored in the liver, thus resulting in “fatty liver” which eventually results in insulin resistance.

    This is what “metabolic syndrome” is… disordered blood lipids, fatty liver and insulin resistance… which eventually results in diabetes and heart disease. Thus the very stuff once sold to diabetics as “good” because it didn’t raise blood glucose turns out to cause diabetes.

    Agave syrup is SIGNIFICANTLY worse than HFCS which is somewhat worse than white table sugar which we’ve known to be pretty bad from the beginning…

    As bizarre as it sounds, white sugar is much healthier than agave.

    Because I am diabetic, I primarily use stevia as a sweetener. I use the refined kind, but no additives like erthyritol or maltodextrin, etc. It gets used primarily in coffee, in extremely tiny amounts.

    But for my family, I primarily use molasses, maple syrup, honey and unrefined cane sugar. I would not be opposed to coconut, date or palm sugar either. IMNSHO, these are not so much healthier because they are less refined or because they contain a smattering of minerals and B-vitamins, but because they have strong tastes and therefore get used in much smaller quantities.

    White sugar tastes like NOTHING but sweet. It’s easy to add more and more over time, and we all then become accustomed to very sweetened foods. I remember hitting a mainstream buffet a few years back and nearly gagging on the potato salad cause it was so sweet. Sweet becomes “normal” with white sugar… even in bizarre places like potato salad.

    It is much harder to use more and more molasses or maple syrup over time, thus the sweet tooth gets trained to much lower levels of sweetener. No one is REALLY going to overdo molasses… it’s just too strong.

    But really, the ideal “sweet” when you want something sweet is simply whole fruit (not juice) – berries, melons, kiwi, apples, pears, peaches… all of which taste AMAZINGLY sweet when you get off the so-called “normal” consumption of sugar.

    I make “ice cream” with nothing but frozen fruit and cream in my Vitamax. That might not taste sweet to someone who just ate a Krispy Kreme, but it tastes wonderfully decadent to me.

  21. says

    Thanks for the illumination. I’m always curious about “wonder” sweeteners like this. I bought some last year and haven’t really used it and I found your site when looking for a recipe to use agave nectar to make cranberry sauce. Guess I won’t be doing that after all!

  22. Manuel Herrera says

    Dear Jenny, we want to make clear that, in the agave syrup manufacturing process is not necessary to add enzymes, hydrolysis is a natural process, when you cook an onion you get a sweet onion, this phenomena is called a hydrolysis, the same goes for agave juice, you can produce sugars from thermal hydrolysis. The centrifugal process does not alter the fructose characteristics, the same process is used to remove the wax in the honey bee, you should know that honey bee has a 40% fructose and apple juice have 65% of the same fructose (no difference between fructose from apple juice or agave juice).
    You can’t eat unlimited fructose or sucrose, since any excess has consequences for the organism, both produce triglycerides and fat.
    You can call a food Natural if any synthesized chemical or other components are not added,

    To obtain agave syrup from agave juice we use similar processes to the ones that regular people use on their kitchen when they cook vegetables or meat.
    Cooking our food, like meat and vegetables does not make these foods synthetic or dangerous

    • Kathryn Arnold says

      What brands of agave do not use enzymes?

      If I eat even two teaspoons of honey a day, my appetite goes berserk and for days I am 24-hour hungry in a way no amount or type of food can satisfy. :-( Agave syrup got me off that treadmill, thank God, but it gets bad press for its fructose content and intense processing.

      Am I weird? Does anyone else have this form of carbohydrate intolerance? And does it indicate insulin resistance? How do you know if you’re insulin resistant, anyway? And how do you counteract it?

  23. carlos says

    this is not true, the agave nectar is not processed like you said, the sugar from the plant its extracted and then it only has 3 steps more. you have to take out all the impurities to the aguamiel in a filtration system this is because the agave plant is almost all fiber and the same fiber goes with the aguamiel in the extraction of the sugar. then goes to a deminalization process, you dont heat the aguamiel over 68°c to keep it raw and also dont break the sugar chain in the process, so it is the same sugar chain from the agave plant, and then you have to evaporate the excess of water in order to be syrup, thats the process you dont add anything not enzymes or thing like that. all this its because i know the process i have been in a agave nectar industry and there is too much false information believe me.

  24. Gavin says

    What a shame. I had thought agave is so much better than sugar, and it turns out to be the opposite. So this would be true of organic agave too, right?
    I still have about 1.5 L of organic agave in my pantry, could it possibly be used in water kefir or kombucha? As in would the SCOBY eat up enough of the fructose to make it safe for consumption? I’d hate to just totally toss all of my agave out.

  25. Emily says

    Can we see the research that was used for this information. specifically about the percentage of fructose, the metabolisation directly by the liver, and the professionals who say that the fructose index of food is more important than glycemic.
    thank you!

  26. says

    This is the right web site for anyone who wants to find out about this
    topic. You realize so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I
    really will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a brand new spin
    on a subject that’s been written about for decades. Great stuff, just wonderful!

  27. George says

    Why the outrage over the use of a centrifuge? A centrifuge is simply a machine that spins a substance at a high speed and is a very precise way of filtering impurities.

    Our local honey producer uses a centrifuge to remove impurities from their raw honey: bits of honey comb, bee parts, etc.

    A local kombucha brewer in Portland also uses a centrifuge in the making of their kombucha, in this instance it allows them to extract the alcohol to keep the alcohol content within the acceptable range.

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