What’s so good about agave syrup?
Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO
March 1, 2012
Reading this morning’s New York Times while watching a storm bluster outside our cabin windows I opened today’s recipe for a beet and berry smoothie that looks more than a little tasty:
While the Times recipe looks quite good and I was about to forward it to all of you, I noticed that for sweetener they suggest honey or agave syrup.
When or how did agave syrup achieve status as a healthful equivalent of honey?        I must assume some very good marketing firm has been at work.
The following information on agave syrup is quoted directly from a posting on Food Renegade’s website (http://www.foodrenegade.com/agave-nectar-good-or-bad/)
“Native Mexican peoples do make a sort of sweetener out of the agave plant. It’s called miel de agave, and it’s made by boiling the agave sap for a couple of hours. Think of it as the Mexican version of authentic Canadian maple syrup.
"But this is not what agave nectar is. According to one popular agave nectar manufacturer, “Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed in the 1990s.” In a recent article now posted on the Weston A. Price foundation’s website, Ramiel Nagel and Sally Fallon Morell write,
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.
"The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which cornstarch is converted into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.
"Compare that to the typical fructose content of high fructose corn syrup (55%)!
In a different article, Rami Nagel quotes Russ Bianchi, managing director and CEO of Adept Solutions, Inc., a globally recognized food and beverage development company, on the similarities between agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup:
“They are indeed made the same way, using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes. They are also using caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches into highly refined fructose inulin that is even higher in fructose content than high fructose corn syrup.”
So there you have it. Agave nectar is not traditional, is highly refined, and actually has more concentrated fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. It is not a “natural” sweetener.”
[Dr Schor writing again]
If agave syrup is just a sweeter version of high fructose corn syrup, why have so many health conscious shoppers become enamored with it?  Clearly this isn’t evidence based.  Searching PubMed for scientific journal articles describing agave syrup’s effect on health yields only 3 citations.        A similar search on honey yields, 5,470 articles.  There’s no comparison.  Scientists are not singing praises for agave.
The most recent article on agave is revealing.        Published in Physiology and Behaviour back in 2009, Figlewicz et al fed rats moderate amounts of different sweeteners including high fructose corn syrup or agave.  Agave’s effect on the rats was similar to that of high fructose corn syrup except that “serum triglycerides were higher in the Agave” group. Looking at the overall effects of even moderate consumption the researchers wrote: “We conclude that even moderate consumption of fructose-containing liquids may lead to the onset of unfavorable changes in the plasma lipid profile and one marker of liver health, independent of significant effects of sweetener consumption on body weight.” [1]
High fructose syrup isn’t particularly healthy.  We’ve known since the 1970s that high fructose aversely impacts cardiovascular risk factors.  If anything agave, because of its higher fructose content, may be worse.
The only good thing about agave syrup is cost.        Perhaps its expense may limit use.  Let’s not let them fool us though.  Agave syrup is not natural and not particularly good for us.        Better stick to honey.
[1] Figlewicz DP, Ioannou G, Bennett Jay J, Kittleson S, Savard C, Roth CL.Effect of moderate intake of sweeteners on metabolic health in the rat. Physiol Behav. 2009 Dec 7;98(5):618-24. Epub 2009 Oct 6.