Agave: a Healthy Alternative or a Hyped-up High Fructose Syrup?

"Agave" - sounds beautiful, right? Whether it's the word itself or all of the positive media marketing surrounding this "alternative" sweetener, the name sounds romantic. Replace "syrup" with "nectar" and man does that sound great! I was introduced to agave shortly before I started naturopathic medical school and I was pretty enthused by this new sweetener. Made out of the same plant that, when fermented, makes tequila? Cool! Used historically as a medicinal plant, even better! Health nuts and vegans alike seemed pretty excited about this new, better, liquid sweetener so I jumped right on that bandwagon! 

Until, during biochemistry class, my professor brought up the topic of agave while reviewing how our bodies process sugars. An engaging lecturer, his background was in genetics and biochemistry, not natural medicine. But he knew he needed to keep starry-eyed young naturopaths-in-the-making interested in those complicated biochemical pathways he was teaching so he often went off topic. He was discussing the regulation of fructose and glucose in our cells and the pathways that make too much fructose harmful to our health. He brought up high fructose corn syrup and I imagine we booed and hissed - everybody has read health articles about the dangers of this highly processed and "unnatural" sugar form. While table sugar is 50% fructose (one glucose molecule for one fructose molecule) high fructose corn syrup is typically 55% fructose, 45% glucose. 

But get this: agave ranges from 55% to 97% fructose!!!! What!? And, to turn that medicinal desert succulent into a high-fructose syrup takes a whole lot of processing!! A process very similar to that which turns cornstarch into high-fructose corn syrup. Agave is often marketed as a "low-glycemic index" food. While not incorrect, this statement is misleading. Fructose may not spike insulin in the same way as glucose, but it does contribute to insulin resistance and diseases like type 2 diabetes. 

Moral of this story? No sweetener is a freebie in terms of health. My preference is to stick to whole food sources of sweetness such as whole dates, bananas, and sweet potatoes when baking and cooking. These foods provide the same sweet taste as table sugar, corn syrup, and agave AND they are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For the occasional instance when a liquid sweetener is required I use honey. The caveat with honey is moderation (as in all things) and to know your source: even if the label says "100% pure" honey, the FDA allows a portion of it to be added corn syrup or table sugar!! Therefore, raw, unfiltered, local honey is best. Like high-fructose corn syrup, honey is also about 55% fructose, so I don't recommend you go wild with honey. However, raw, local honey is less processed and the pollen it contains can help provide some protection from seasonal allergies!

So next time you reach for a sweetner, skip the agave and choose an unprocessed whole food source!