Label.ology: Agave Nectar (Syrup)

February 11, 2015


In this feature, we’re taking labels…and ingredients apart.


It’s important to understand all the stuff that’s in what you buy. Then and only then can you can decide if you want it in your food, on your body or in your home.


So I decided to put all my years of label reading to good use.


Why label.ology? Well, the definition of ‘-ology’, that’s why: “the scientific study of a particular subject.”


It’s amazing to me how ingredients we might not want to consume are cloaked in complicated names; and with nutrition panels that read like a Russian novel, you have to be a detective to decipher what’s in your food.


Not anymore! I give you…label.ology


Agave Nectar (Syrup)

While not an additive, but an ingredient, there’s enough noise out there about agave that I thought I could clear it up for you so that when faced with a choice, you can make an informed one.


It seems that everything we do, say, read, write, tweet, post, blog and Instagram has the potential to create scandal and confusion…from our food, our politics, our neighborhoods, how we exercise to yes…our sweeteners.


As a result of our obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics, natural sweeteners are becoming more and more popular as fears about the health implications of white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup explode…as well they should. As a nation, our collective health is in jeopardy and processed sugar and the volume of it we consume is a big part of the problem.


One that seems to have the best public relations of any sweetener around is agave, an amber nectar that comes from the same cactus that yields tequila.


Fast becoming the sweetener of choice for health-conscious cooks, agave is being touted as the second coming of sweet taste. Not so fast, say experts, like Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD from WebMD. She says agave is really not much different than sugar and “is processed just like other sugars — and is no better for you than other sugars. And don’t be dazzled by the word “natural”; U.S. food regulators do not legally define the term, so it’s left up to manufacturers.”


And we all know how much we can count on them for the truth…



There are more than 300 species of agave cactus plants growing in the southern United States, northern South America, and some regions of Mexico. Used for centuries as a component of folk medicine, the Aztecs mixed it with salt and applied it topically to wounds and skin infections.


Marketing experts would have us believe that agave was part of traditional Mexican culture and cuisine. But was it? According to Rami Nagel from the Weston Price Foundation, the way the agave plant used traditionally in Mexico is quite different than the agave we market as a sweetener. Called ‘miele de agave’ this liquid was and is made from the sap of the agave plant and boiled for hours to reduce it to a syrup with the consistency of maple syrup…but without the sweet flavor. The resulting liquid is very dark and thick with strong smell and taste. With a rich concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium, it’s used to treat illnesses to this day and has been consumed in this fashion since pre-Hispanic times. It’s a far cry from the agave consumed in our modern diet.


Most agave sweeteners are produced from the blue agave plant. The core of the plant contains the aguamiel or “honey water,” the substance used for syrup production (and, when fermented, tequila). Although this part of agave starts out as a natural elixir from Mother Nature, the form you can buy has been processed to form a syrup or nectar.


Developed in the 1990′s and made primarily in Mexico, it seems there is really no such thing as agave nectar. Yup, you heard me. The sweetener as we know it is made from the starchy part of the yucca or agave plant, meaning the roots. Inulin, also a complex carbohydrate, makes up about 50% of the carbohydrate content of agave.


To produce what we call agave nectar, the leaves (from Agave Americana and Tequiliana plants) are cut off the plant after it has aged 7 to 14 years. The juice is expressed from the core of the agave, filtered, heated, (to hydrolyze the polysaccharides into simple sugars so it’s sweetly flavored).


This filtered juice is then concentrated to a syrupy liquid, with a texture a bit like honey, from light colored to dark amber. The color is dependent on the degree of processing.


If you remember, I said inulin is a complex carbohydrate and makes up 50% of the carb content of agave. It bears repeating because it takes a lot of processing to convert these carbohydrates into liquid nectar with an intensely sweet flavor. The process uses caustic acids (corrosive compounds that degrade tissue and dehydrate carbohydrates), clarifiers and filtration chemicals, resulting in a syrup that is from 70% – 92% pure fructose — quite a feat of processing, really. The end product, agave nectar, contains an even higher concentration of fructose than high fructose corn syrup at 55%, which we find alarming and link to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. This isn’t what I would refer to as a pure, raw product and more important, this processing method isn’t all that natural.


The light-colored nectar we consume resembles maple syrup or honey in flavor…and can be used in the same ways as these sweeteners, but the taste is more delicate — which has made agave a popular sweetener for energy drinks, teas, nutrition bars, and more.


Agave has about 60-63 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar. But because agave is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it – which means you can achieve the same sweetness for about the same number of calories. Finally, some good news.


The bottom line is that refined agave sweeteners are not inherently healthier than sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup or any other sweetener. Nutritionally and functionally, agave syrup is similar to high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (Karo) syrup. Its trace amounts of mineral residues from the original, unrefined syrup are not enough to matter nutritionally.


Concentrated fructose sweeteners don’t seem to offer any health advantages. In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggested that “consuming fructose may be less healthy than consuming similar amounts of glucose. Study participants who consumed fructose were found to gain more unhealthy visceral fat, were more insulin-resistant, and were at greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.”


But wait. Agave nectar is marketed as being low-glycemic and therefore safe for diabetics.


Not so fast.


Not only is the whole glycemic index misinterpreted and mis-used, but agave is considered low-glycemic because of its high concentration of fructose as compared to glucose (only about 10%). Remember the glycemic index monitors the glucose load in the bloodstream. My concern is that this ratio of 90%/10% is not natural to agave and places a burden on digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Not to mention that it creates a skewed view of purpose of the glycemic index.


In fact, the American Diabetes Association lists agave along with other sweeteners (table sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, maple syrup, and confectioner’s sugar) that should be limited in diabetic diets.


And the big deal about fructose? Ay, ay, ay! Chemically, fructose is a hexose that is just the mirror image of glucose, meaning it is an isomer that is active levo-rotatory, hence the name levulose. In fruit (also known as fruit sugar) levulose is naturally occurring and contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin which all help to digest and assimilate the levulose in the intestine.


But when concentrated and refined like it is in agave and high fructose corn syrup, an added burden is placed on the liver. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin and fiber, all necessary for assimilation. Glucose, our body’s desired fuel is metabolized by every cell, while fructose is not. It requires the liver, which can lead to fatty deposits showing up in this most overworked gland. And since it’s metabolized by the liver, it is more likely to contribute to weight gain than other natural sweeteners since the liver is responsible for metabolizing our macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates).


Research also suggests that fructose actually promotes disease more readily than glucose. Again, this is because glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body, but fructose must be metabolized by the liver.


Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco where he is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, has spoken a lot about the research that shows the ill effects of consumption of concentrated fructose. His work has shown that when fructose hits the liver with sufficient speed and quantity, the liver will convert much of it to fat. If this occurs chronically, it will induce insulin resistance — a condition that is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity and which leads to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.


Additionally, many researchers also believe that it is sugar in the modern diet that provokes cancer. Current studies have shown that having insulin resistance can actually promote tumor growth, because in this condition the body has to secrete more and more insulin and/or insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and these chronically elevated insulin levels can support malignancy.


And if that’s not enough, remember that fructose reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors. This raises insulin levels and contributes to metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes.


Studies indicate that dietary fructose adversely affects macro-mineral homeostasis in humans. Consumption of fructose causes a significant increase in the concentration of uric acid. An increase in uric acid can be an indicator of heart disease and contribute to decreased calcium levels as calcium is our body’s natural buffer to excess uric acid production. I think further studies are needed to see if a high fructose diet coupled with low dietary magnesium and marginal calcium can lead to bone loss.


So…Are we doomed to life without sweet taste? As a former pastry chef, I can assure you that would make for a grim existence. However, there are far superior ways to create sweet delectable flavor without compromising your health.


Personally, I favor brown rice syrup and coconut sugar as my sweeteners of choice. Brown rice syrup is a fermented sweetener that digests easily in the body. Derived by culturing cooked brown rice with enzymes, the liquid is strained and cooked to the desired consistency. The resulting sweetener is 45% maltose, 3% glucose and 52% maltotriose. Interestingly, maltotriose is a trisaccharide, with a glycemic index in the 60’s, very similar to cooked brown rice.


Now before you freak out, screaming that I am recommending a sweetener laced with arsenic, hold onto your Italian Renaissance! I am not talking about turning you all into Lucrezia Borgia as you poison your families oh, so sweetly. A few facts, if you will.


According to the USA Rice Federation, inorganic arsenic is pretty much unavoidable. Arsenic has always been present in water, air, soil which is how rice plants absorb it, whether farming is organic or conventional…and how other foods absorb it as well.


According to Consumer Reports: Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15% of rice acreage was in California, 49% in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.


It seems that rice produced in the southern-most regions of the country have the most challenges with arsenic. However, the FDA states that rice tested from all major growing areas of the country shows arsenic levels in rice contributed to about 11% of the arsenic we take in…including in our water.


Further, the USA Rice Federation states that the ‘estimated level of consumer exposure to arsenic through diet is 80% lower than the level imposed by law to protect consumers from long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic in cooking and drinking water.’


According to the EPA, arsenic is measured in parts per billion, which translates like this: 1 part per billion is equal to a single drop of water in a swimming pool. So when Consumer Reports throws around numbers like 92 parts per billion in rice, I am not sure panic should ensue.


I think this particularly when foods that contribute to our intake of dietary inorganic arsenic include: vegetables (24%), fruit juices and fresh fruit (18%), rice (17%), wine and beer (12%) and flour, corn and wheat (11%). No one is telling us to give up veggies (thank goodness) or bread.


In the end, the brown rice syrup used by most of us in the United States is derived from brown rice from California and Pakistan, both areas of the world where arsenic was not used as a pesticide and has proven to be a non-issue. I had samples of brown rice syrup tested and they came back with no contamination of arsenic.


So that’s that.


Coconut sugar is my most recently discovered sweet love. Also known as coconut palm sugar, this granular, brown sugar-like sweetener contains less than 9% fructose, has a glycemic index of 35 and is loaded with minerals and vitamins (even B vitamins) essential to health.


Made from the sap of coconut buds, this caramel-colored sugar substitute is delicate in flavor, with not a hint of coconut taste that could alter the end result of a baked good. Used 1 to 1 for sugar in recipes, I am in complex sugar love.


And with 48 calories in a tablespoon, it’s a bit of a calorie saver when compared to agave at 63 calories for the same amount. And with sweets, every calorie counts.


In the end, is agave healthy as a natural sweetener? In small amounts, I would say it’s not the best, but probably okay to use now and then. Is it healthier than HFCS? Yes, because it’s natural, not invented. Is it healthier than artificial sweeteners? Heck, yes, for so many reasons. Are there other options? Yup, from xlyitol to stevia, brown rice syrup to coconut sugar, all healthy, natural and some are low in calories. If you like them, go for it. They are all vegan so there’s good news.