The subject of sweeteners is something I’m rather passionate about, as I’m sure it is with most of the health-seekers who read this website. There is so much misinformation about artificial sweeteners and even natural sweeteners. One that is causing a current controversy is agave. I get asked whether agave is a good sweetener or not so often… it’s time to set the record straight.

First, here is the controversy:

Agave manufacturers claim agave is the best sweetener and also a superfood, full of healthy nutrients.

Agave naysayers claim that it’s as bad as high fructose corn syrup. One article even listed agave as the #3 worst sweetener (behind Nutrasweet and Splenda). HFCS was not on their list of bad sweeteners. 

So, agave will either make you super healthy, or kill you. Majorly polarized viewpoints! And I should add, that those with the strongest statements regarding agave have pretty obvious agendas: Agave manufacturers are the strongest supporters, and of course they have their bottom-line to protect. If you trace back to the source of all the negative agave press, you’ll end up at HFCS manufacturers and other sites selling competitive products and/or those who make a habit of profiting by instilling fear in their readers. It makes you a little skeptical of the information.

I don’t CARE what the answer is. I don’t CARE whether agave is good or bad. But I will warn you: I, too, have an agenda. It regards solely the health and safety of my own family, and providing the best information to you. So here’s an explanation on agave that makes sense scientifically and logically.

Before we can begin to see through the agendas and get to the facts, there needs to be an understanding of the molecular makeup of agave and high fructose corn syrup. Here’s a good way to illustrate it:

Let’s compare soda to an apple. Which is healthier? Clearly the apple, right?

Or is it?

Apples and soda both contain simple sugars. They’re both full of fructose, and they both end up as glucose in the body. So, what’s the difference?

No difference, right? Well, I can guarantee that many health professionals will tell you there really is no difference. Fructose is fructose. But here’s the real deal:

All fruit contains fructose. But fruit also contains fiber, tannins, and small amounts of protein. Fiber slows the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream. Tannins remove insulin from the bloodstream. Much of the sugar in fruit is automatically negated and/or converted to energy.

Coke doesn’t contain fiber, tannins or protein. And on top of that, the fructose is anything but natural. It’s a completely processed, chemical version of fructose.

Yes, fructose is in bananas and agave. It’s in HFCS and Coke. I hope you’ll conclude with me that fructose can be either good OR bad, depending on how it’s made and what other “ingredients” are naturally included in the end product. Plants are amazing. They naturally include nutrients and co-factors that make them work just how they should in your body. Agave, when extracted properly and minimally processed is no exception.

The fructose in agave is a long-chain polymer of fructose. Polymers are made up of a bunch of molecules all strung together to form short chains, long chains, and sometimes complicated structures. Depending on the length of the chain or the makeup of the polymer structure, your body will process polymers differently. In the case of long-chain fructose polymers, the body doesn’t absorb them. Because it’s not absorbed, it doesn’t have as much of an impact on your blood sugar. This explains why agave’s glycemic index is less than half of what honey’s is.

Anyone claiming that organic, raw agave is as bad for you as high fructose corn syrup clearly doesn’t understand the simple concept explained above. Or if they do, then something else is going on (like they’re selling a competing product or really love to create DRAMA for their readers).

If you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, agave can be a good option for you. I have recommended agave as a sweetener to clients with diabetes who test their blood sugar several times a day, and their blood sugar remains steady when agave is used in moderation instead of refined sugar.  If you’ve tried agave in the past and have experienced blood sugar problems, this is an indication that the agave you’re using is not organic and/or highly processed. AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING, the brands I have personally confirmed to be of good quality are XagaveMadhava and Aunt Patty’s. That’s not to say there are other brands that aren’t acceptable, or that these brands will not lower their standards in the future.

So here’s the bottom line regarding agave:

Is it full of health-giving nutrients? No. But if you’re going to use a sweetener, organic agave is a good option. Stevia is even better, but not as versatile. And of course, ALL sweeteners should be used in moderation.

p.s. Many of the questions I receive on agave stem from Dr. Mercola’s negative comments. He bashes agave in general in many articles, but he does explain that there are some agave companies that do it right (see the brands listed above). Here are some direct quotes from his web site, I copied these directly; didn’t even fix his spelling errors 😉

“Use high quality agave that has fructose in it’s conjugated from.” —> As opposed to free form.

“…however the fructose is not in its free from so that moderates the damage.” —> Referring to honey here, but the same goes for good agave. Fructose in its free form means it has a much greater effect on your blood sugar.

“Carefully add the total grams of fructose (including fruits) and keep them under 15 grams per day.” —> I agree. Fructose becomes toxic to the body when more than 25 grams per day are taken. Keep it under 15-20, including fruit.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and personal experiences with agave in the comments below.