When agave nectar burst onto the health food market, many people were excited about it as a substitute for refined sugar. But a growing body of research indicates that agave nectar — which is not, in fact, a nectar and is processed in much the same way as high-fructose corn syrup — might be as unhealthy as HFCS is purported to be.
One article even states that "agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause a miscarriage" due to its high quantities of a chemical called saponin. In the highly competitive, high-stakes business of selling alternative sweeteners to a demanding public, how do we know what to believe?
If you believed that agave nectar is similar to honey or maple syrup in being a simple, naturally derived product, you're in the majority. As this recent post on Food Renegade says:
Based on the labeling, I could picture native peoples creating their own agave nectar from the wild agave plants. Surely, this was a traditional food, eaten for thousands of years. Sadly, it is not... It's not traditional, not natural, highly refined, and contains more concentrated fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
This article at the Weston A. Price Foundation website -- dated last April, when "Agave-gate" started to gain momentum -- explains how agave nectar is manufactured:
Agave "nectar" is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules. Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave.
Agave syrup is a manmade sweetener which has been through a complicated chemical refining process of enzymatic digestion that converts the starch and fiber into the unbound, manmade chemical fructose. While high fructose agave syrup won't spike your blood glucose levels [as HFCS is reported to do], the fructose in it may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
What's your take on all of this? Do you plan to investigate further? Will you pour your agave nectar down the sink? Or will you modify your intake and recognize it as a sweet treat that is acceptable in moderation?
Edited to add: Thanks to readers Kreeli and Deb Schiff for pointing us toward this link and this link, in which Madhava owner Craig Gerbore explains and defends his company's agave nectar manufacturing processes.
Related: Survey: Do You Use Sugar Substitutes?
(Image: House of Sims, via Creative Commons license)