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Is Agave Nectar More Hype Than Healthy?

The popularity of agave syrup, also called agave nectar, is on a meteoric rise -- thanks in large part to clever marketing which positions the product as a healthy alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. Now, more experts are speaking out on the debatable health benefits of agave.

Agave is also heavily promoted as a low glycemic food, enticing diabetics.

The Amazing Power of Marketing

In case you doubt the influence of marketing in setting trends and consumer buying habits, look at these statistics:

* Agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007.

* McCormick & Co., a major food manufacturer, placed agave syrup in its “top 10 fla­vors” list for 2009.

Agave can now be found in prepared tea, energy and “health” drinks, nutrition bars, desserts, and other food items typically found in health food stores.

Agave is also quickly crossing over from the health food market to mainstream grocery chains, and consumers (especially vegans and raw food enthusiasts) are buying up bottles of the stuff to use in place of other sweeteners, like honey.

Why Agave Syrup is the Hottest New Trend in Sugar Alternatives

Taste. Agave has a subtle, delicate flavor many people enjoy.

Sweetness. Agave syrup can be up to three times as sweet as table sugar, so it takes less to sweeten a food or beverage.

Public perception. Highly effective agave product marketing campaigns have per­suaded consumers the sweetener is a healthy alternative to sugar. As more and more people veer away from deadly artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup (but not from their sugar addiction, unfortunately), they are on the hunt for safer, healthier alter­natives.

About the Agave Plant

Agaves grow primarily in Mexico, but you can also find them in the southern and west­ern United States, as well as in South America. Previously, it was most commonly known as a primary ingredient of tequila. Agaves are not cacti, but are actually related to the lily and amaryllis families of plants.

There are over 100 species of agave plants, in a wide variety of sizes and colors.

Edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap. It is the sap of the plant that is used to make agave syrup.

Commercially available agave syrup or nectar is thought to be produced primarily from blue agave plants grown in Southern Mexico. This is because the blue agave has a high carbohydrate content which results in a high concentration of fructose in the final prod­uct.

Harvesting the Sap

When an agave plant is about seven to ten years old, the leaves are removed to expose the core, or pina, of the plant. The harvested pina looks like a large pineapple and can weigh anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds.

Sap is removed from the pina, filtered, and heated to break down the carbohydrates into sugars.

The same agave plant produces all three varieties of commercially sold syrup, depend­ing on the amount of heat used in processing. These varieties include:

* raw (color is similar to maple syrup and flavor is similar to caramel)
* light (lighter color and flavor than raw)
* amber (similar in color and flavor to raw)

Many varieties of agave nectar are processed at relatively low temperatures (below 118°F) and are marketed as a “raw” food.

When the agave sap is heated, the complex fructosans are hydrolyzed, or broken into their constituent fructose units. The fructose-rich solution is then filtered to obtain the desired products that range from dark syrup with a characteristic vanilla aroma, to a light amber liquid with more neutral characteristics.

The Myth of Agave as a “Healthy” Sugar Substitute

* Agave syrup is neither a natural food nor organic

Fully chemically processed sap from the agave plant is known as hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup. It needs to be hydrolyzed so that the complex fructosans are "broken down" into fructose units or it won't be sweet!

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, highly processed sugar with great marketing.”

* Agave syrup is not low calorie.

Agave syrup is about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as table sugar.

* Agave syrup may not have a low glycemic index.

Depending upon where the agave comes from and the amount of heat used to proc­ess it, your agave syrup can be anywhere from 55 percent to 90 percent fructose, whereas sugar and honey are closer to 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Fructose is much sweeter than glucose, and this chemical makeup also explains why the glycemic index is lower (it only takes glucose into account).

This range of fructose content hardly makes agave syrup a logical choice if you’re hoping to avoid the high levels of fructose in HFCS (high fructose corn syrup).

And if you’re diabetic, you should know that the alleged benefit of agave for diabetics is purely speculative. Very few agave studies have been docu­mented, and most involved rats. There have been no clinical studies done on its safety for diabetics.

Since most agave syrup has such a high percentage of fructose, your blood sugar will likely spike just as it would if you were consuming regular sugar or HFCS, and you would also run the risk of raising your triglyceride levels. It’s also important to understand that whereas the glucose in other sugars are converted to blood glucose, fructose is a relatively unregulated source of fuel that your liver converts to fat and cholesterol.

A significant danger here is that fructose does not stimulate your insulin secretion, nor enhance leptin production, which is thought to be involved in appetite regulation.

Fructose is also more readily turned into fat than glucose, and it must be processed by the liver before being used as energy (unlike glucose which can be used by cells for energy more directly).

Because insulin and leptin act as key signals in regulating how much food you eat, as well as your body weight, dietary fructose can also contribute to increased food intake and weight gain.

Therefore, if you need to lose weight, fructose is one type of sugar you’ll definitely want to avoid, no matter what the source is.

Other Dangers of Fructose

In addition, consuming high amounts of concentrated fructose may cause health problems ranging from mineral depletion, to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and even miscarriage in pregnant women.

Fructose may also interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize copper. This can result in depletion of collagen and elastin, which are vital connective tissues. A copper deficiency can also result in anemia, fragile bones, defects in your arteries, infertility, high choles­terol and heart disease, and uncontrolled blood sugar levels.

Additionally, fructose consumption has been shown to significantly increase uric acid. Elevated lev­els of uric acid are markers for heart disease. It has also been shown to increase blood lactic acid, especially in diabetics. Elevations in lactic acid can result in metabolic acido­sis.

Isolated fructose has no enzymes, vitamins or minerals and can rob your body of these nutrients in order to assimilate itself. Hence, consumption of fructose can also lead to loss of vital minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.

Other Reasons You Should Steer Clear of Agave

1. There are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup. Nearly all agave sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico. Industry insiders are concerned agave distributors are using lesser, even toxic, agave plants due to a shortage of blue agave.

There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup -- how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess. In addition, the FDA has refused shipments of agave syrup due to excessive pesticide residues.

2. Agave syrup is not a whole food -- it is fractionated and processed. The sap is sepa­rated from the plant and treated with heat, similar to how maple sap is made into maple syrup. Agave nectar is devoid of many of the nutrients contained in the original, whole plant.

3. Agave syrup is not a live food. The natural enzymes are removed to prevent agave syrup from fermenting and turning into tequila in your food pantry or cabi­net.

4. Agave is, for all intents and purposes, highly concentrated sugar. Sugar and sweet­eners wreak havoc on your health and are highly addictive.

The Case Against Sugar

No matter your nutritional type, sugar (including fructose or sucrose) is not good for you. Certainly you can tolerate small amounts if you are healthy and the majority of your diet is healthy, but let’s face it the average American is consuming over 150 pounds a year of sugar or nearly half a pound a day. Ideally your annual consumption should be well under ten pounds per YEAR.

Sugar increases your insulin and leptin levels and decreases receptor sensitivity of both these hormones. This can lead to a wide range of health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, premature aging, and heart dis­ease.

Sugar suppresses your immune system, causing problems with allergies and digestive disorders. It can even bring on depression.

Worse Than Any Sugar: Artificial Sweeteners

The worst of all possible choices are artificial sweeteners. They are, without question, far more damaging to your health than regular sugar.

While it's not recommended, consuming sugar in moderation isn’t likely to cause serious health problems. Moderation in this case is five pounds or less per year, which is a far cry from the 150 pounds per year consumed by the majority of Americans.

If you’re interested in kicking your sugar addiction, try a meridian tapping technique called Turbo Tapping, which has helped thousands of people kick their sugar and soda habits.

Have You Tried Stevia?

If you’re determined to sweeten your foods and beverages, consider using stevia. Stevia is a sweet herb, safe and natural. It is much sweeter than sugar, but has no calories.

In the U.S., you’ll find stevia not in the sweetener aisle of your local grocery, but in the supplement section. It can be used in appetizers, beverages, soups, salads, vegetables, desserts -- just about anything.

If you’ve tried stevia and were bothered by an aftertaste, it could be the way the plant was processed. You should try a few different brands until you find one that tastes good.

Avoid the white stevia powder and the stevia liquid drops as they have been highly processed.

However, if you have insulin issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or if you’re overweight, avoid all sweeteners, including stevia, since any sweetener can decrease your insulin sensitivity.

For everyone else:

* eliminate all artificial sweeteners
* avoid agave
* limit sugar
* use raw, organic honey in moderation
* use regular stevia in moderation, but avoid stevia-based sweeteners like Truvia and PureVia

Healthier Alternatives

- Use ripe fresh fruits. Ripe fruits contain nutrients, fiber and water, a complete package, as nature intended. Ripe and organic fruits are usually sweetest.

- Use dried fruits. If you need a “syrup” consistency, just soak the dried fruits in some water and blend them up with the same soak water. Dates, figs, and prunes are some of the sweetest dried fruits that tend to work well in recipes. Try wet Barhi dates blended with a little water for an amazing maple syrup substitute. Please note: Since there are no raw labeling standards, some dried fruit may be dried at higher than 118 degrees, and thus, not really raw. If you want to ensure you are eating really raw dried fruit, it is best do dehydrate it yourself.

- Raw Honey is a concentrated sweetener, and although not recommended, it is better than agave syrup because it is a whole food and occurs naturally. Of course, honey is not vegan and that may be a concern for some.

Other “concentrated sweeteners” that are often seen in raw food recipes include:

1) Maple Syrup which is not raw and heat processed. If it is not organic, it may also contain formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.

2) Sucanat or evaporated cane juice is pure dried sugar cane juice. Unfortunately, this is processed at a temperature above 118 degrees and therefore can’t be considered raw.

3) Yacon Syrup is a syrup from the root of the yacon plant in South America. It is once again, a concentrated sweetener processed at a temperature of up to 140 degrees farenheight.

Eat whole fresh fruits and vegetables, they are always best. Always question processed and concentrated foods that are not found in nature, even if “raw”.

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