Agave: The controversy

Some prominent health and wellness websites have been claiming that agave syrup is just as bad as high fructose corn syrup. Others claim it is a harmless, all-natural sugar substitute with a low glycemic index, suitable for diabetics. So who is right?

The agave plant is, of course, natural. It is most common in Mexico and is closely related to the lily. The flowers, stalks, leaves and sap are edible. When the sap is fermented and distilled it becomes mezcal, with tequila being the best-known.

The un-processed juice that comes out of the plant is not very sweet, so it is processed to convert long-chain complex sugars into the sweet simple sugars, fructose and glucose through a process called hydrolysis of polysaccharides. There are several different ways to process agave into the syrup or nectar that you can buy in a bottle at the store. There are three ways to convert complex sugars into a simple sugar sweetener such as agave syrup. It can be done thermally, chemically, or enzymatically. Most commercially sold agave syrup is processed using enzymes.

Agave salimiana is processed by cutting off the stalk and collecting “aquamiel”. Once the aquamiel is collected, it is taken to the production facility. There, an enzyme is added, transforming the naturally occurring sugar molecule chains into more simple sugars, mostly fructose or “fruit sugar” and a small amount of glucose. Excess water is then evaporated.

Agave tequilana or Blue agave is processed by collecting the bulbous and fibrous piña which contains inulin, a dietary fiber. After havest it is taken to the mill and pressed where the inulin rich juice is collected. It can then be heated or be subjected to chemicals or enzymes to convert it into a sweet syrup.

There have been claims that the chemicals used are caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals such as sulfuric and/or hydrofluoric acid, dicalite and clarimex. Others state that the enzymes used are organic and all-natural. The problems is that it is pretty hard to know for sure how that bottle of agave was processed and if any chemicals were added.

But this is really not the problem. The real problem is the percentage of fructose that the juice is converted into to. It can be up to 80% fructose which is a lot higher than high fructose corn syrup. Fructose in its natural form is not bad and is found in many of our foods such as honey, tree fruits, berries and melons. However, consuming a lot of highly refined and processed fructose does have its risks as pointed out in my previous post  “What’s wrong with corn? Part II”.

The issue really is the AMOUNT of fructose you consume. A teaspoon of naturally processed agave nectar in a cup of tea is not going to do the same harm as drinking a soda that contains quite a bit more fructose. The key is being aware of what products contain fructose and moderating your total consumption. Most people I know have no idea that agave syrup contains so much fructose.

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4 thoughts on “Agave: The controversy

  1. Daisy says:

    Okay, you’ve got my attention. Terrific blog entry, great explanation, one lingering question: Among all that chemistry, what’s the basis for claims that agave syrup has a lower glycemic index and thus doesn’t spike your blood sugar like sucrose or fructose or both (I can’t remember). Do you know?

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    1. chiquituno says:

      Agave syrup is mostly fructose (I’ve seen reports of up to 92%!), and low in glucose, the type of sugar measured by the GI. It has a GI mean value of 11 while honey has a mean value of 55. Also, fructose is absorbed 40% slower than glucose. Because it is metabolized by the liver, fructose does not cause the pancreas to release insulin the way it normally does. Fructose converts to fat more than any other sugar. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose.

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  2. Alexsandra says:

    Hey great post, can you direct me/us to some of the reports that Agave is 92% fructose….its down to the processing basically, kinda like maple syrup…well, not exactly. But getting the low down on agave aquamiel vs agave syrup vs types of agave–the blue is better is it (because of more inulin?
    thanks for your great blog full stop!
    cheers from London

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