Agave is considered a natural and therefore healthy sweetener. But is it really? Here are five things you should know about agave.
The agave plant grows primarily in the rich volcanic soils of Mexico, but you can also find them in the southern and western US, as well as in South America. Agave sweetener is often used in as a natural alternative. Here are five things you need to know about agave nectar.
Agaves are not cacti, but are succulents of the yucca family. The flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap are all edible, and a mature plant ranges from 7 to 12 feet in diameter with leaves that are 5 to 8 feet tall. There are over 100 species, in a wide variety of sizes and colors and “agave" literally means "noble." It's generally recognized as a superstar of the herbal remedy world, claiming to offer relief for indigestion, bowel irregularity, and skin wounds. Ferment it, and you have tequila, tap and refine or filter the sap and you’ve got agave nectar or syrup.
How does it taste? The taste of agave nectar is somewhere between honey and maple syrup. Many people who do not like the taste of honey enjoy agave. It also has none of the bitter aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners. Most brands offer two types: a light and a dark. The lighter syrups undergo less heating and a more thorough filtration to produce a more mildly flavored product, neutral enough to be used in many culinary applications. The darker syrups are less filtered, and the solids left in the syrup make for a stronger nectar with a flavor sometimes compared to maple syrup.
Agave can have more fructose than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Yes it’s true, most agave nectar is nothing more than a natural fructose syrup. According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health: "Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing." Depending on the source and processing method used, it can contain (as little as) 55 percent fructose, the same amount found in HFCS. Some brands are less processed and so will contain some minerals as well as naturally occurring inulin so check labels.
Insulin resistance. We’ve heard that agave syrup is diabetic friendly, and has a low glycemic index, and does not spike blood sugar – the latter might be true, but because of the limited ability of the body to handle fructose, consuming agave can lead to an increase in insulin resistance i.e. insulin levels remain elevated unnecessarily, according to Dr. Oz. Do note that naturally occurring fructose in fruits and vegetables comes along with fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help blunt absorption, whereas fructose sweeteners are isolated sugars that are (usually) devoid of nutrients and rapidly absorbed by the body.
Metabolized by the liver to fat. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, new research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity. The less fructose you consume, the better. In addition to insulin resistance, your risk of liver damage increases, along with increased triglycerides, inflammation, and belly fat - risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.
If you love your sweets, exercise can be a very powerful tool to help control the body’s response to sugars in three ways. If you are going to consume fructose it is best to do so immediately before, during or after intense exercise as your body will tend to use it directly as fuel and not convert it to fat. Additionally, exercise will increase your insulin receptor sensitivity, helping to modulate the negative effects of fructose. Lastly, exercise will also help to blunt your appetite and control your sweet tooth. It’s important to note that exercise cannot make up for a poor diet. If you eat colorful whole fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, responsibly raised proteins you will more likely see better results from your workouts than if you consume a sugary diet and are exercising to cancel out the sweets!