Is Agave Good or Bad?

by McKenna Gordon on January 26, 2012

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.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Tara January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

Thanks for clarifying! I do have a question though…how do I know how much fructose is in each fruit? Just want to make sure I’m not over doing it :) . Thanks!

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Lynn Brown January 26, 2012 at 9:15 am

Thanks,
I am trying to lose weight ,have been confused from day 1.
.I use honey, Stevia , and agave.I use in different things,and I don’t use a lot, agave in cooking, coffee sometimes, Honey in apple cider vinegar for my belly or coffee and teas. I do get my agave at a natural food store. but weight lose is my worry whats better for it,or am I using so little it prob doesn’t matter. prob end the day with 2 tbl agave.Is that a lot? tthanks

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Karlene January 26, 2012 at 10:37 am

I’ve tried agave a few times and it really spikes my blood sugar. BUT, I have not tried the three brands you suggested, so maybe I just got a lower quality brand.

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Kelle January 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

I think we all have our own opinions and that is okay. I also think we all have our own priorities and that is also okay. It’s really hard to determine what is really healthy for you versus what isn’t with all the different opinions from health care providers or even just everyday people. I have organic raw blue agave, honey, and stevia that I use as sweeteners. I also choose to use Truvia in my coffee in the am because I prefer the taste over any of the other sweeteners. Truvia I believe does have some artificial ingredients in it but I don’t use it all day, I use maybe 1 to 2 packets. Even if someone uses a packet or two of Splenda I don’t see an issue because they are not going overboard with it. To much of a good thing no matter what it is can be bad if you have to much of it. In my opinion you have to look at the bigger picture. Are you leading a healthy lifestyle daily, do you make health conscious decisions during the day for the most part, and do you stay active. I agree with using a sweetener that isn’t refined, however no matter which sweetener that you are using, if you are using it in moderation how does that differ from the occasional “Cheat Meal” that people incorporate into there diets up to as often as once a week. If you are truly living a healthy lifestyle and using sweeteners in “Moderation” you will be better off no matter what. As for certain health conditions you as your own person need to make sure you are following a healthy diet regimen or doctors orders to ensure you are keeping yourself healthy. I started my journey with nutrition and exercise in February 2010, I am not a professional, but I do read a ton of books on nutrition, I do ask for advice from others, and I do a lot of my own research when I have questions. Each and every person will have an opinion ranging from the same as yours to totally opposite than yours. I follow what works best for me based of the things I personally try. Happy day everyone :)

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Dani January 31, 2012 at 2:07 pm

As someone who endured years of infertility, my RE always reminded me to steer clear of agave while I was trying to concieve. It has been thought to be an organic form of birth control and has been linked to miscarriages. One of my close friends had 4 miscarriages before her doctor told her to discontinue using agave (her only form of sweetener) until she was done having kids. She has since carried a baby full term. I’m not saying this happens to everyone or is 100% bad for you, but with my personal experiences I have no intention of using agave anytime in the near future.

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McKenna Gordon January 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Thanks, Dani. You’re right, agave in high amounts can be used as a natural (not very reliable) birth control. So can stevia. So can parsley. So it’s best to keep these things to a minimum when trying to conceive and when pregnant, but small amounts shouldn’t have any effect (just as small amounts of parsley won’t cause miscarriage). I, too, have been infertile for over 10 years, and it wasn’t until after switching from regular sugar to more natural sweeteners such as stevia and agave and sucanat, coconut sugar, etc. that I finally got pregnant–on accident– for the first time. I don’t credit the sweeteners AT ALL… I’m just saying that in small amounts, it shouldn’t have an effect. What will have a greater effect is keeping your blood sugars at a healthy level, as high blood sugar, which causes insulin resistance, can make it very difficult to get pregnant. Controlling my blood sugars is one of the catalysts to healing my infertility. But I would DEFINITELY say it’s better to be safe than sorry if you have any concern whatsoever. Thanks again for this comment! It’s a very valid point.

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Kim February 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Thanks for a great article about agave. I recently bought it, tried it and liked it, but wasn’t completely sure it was a healthy option.

I appreciate all of your great info.
Kim

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David March 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm

One of the few balanced discussions I’ve seen. Well done. I’ve been using agave for about 3 years, and also mix it up with other sweeteners like stevia and coconut sugar. I’ve lost about 35 lbs (230 down to 195) and use agave in moderation. Love it! I am pro-agave, and I have also seen the syrup being produced first-hand, so I believe my own eyes and how my body does with it. When I am asked about the rumors of agave being worse than HFCS, it makes me shake my head. Seriously? HFCS is bad for several reasons, like GMO-based, subsidized farming, not organic, heavy chemical process, and so cheap its used in everything. Agave is organic, comes from a plant, is produced without any chemicals, and contains small amounts of minerals and up to 5% of inulin fiber. I truly believe that overconsumption of calories is the real culprit and should be the focus of the scornful anti-agave pundits. I know several healthy, nutrition-focused people who love agave, and they are very fit and happy with it.

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McKenna Gordon March 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Thanks, David!

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Leslie Tucci December 2, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I agree, David. I’ve been using it in moderation for six years with excellent results!

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Ingrid July 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm
Ellen September 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I am insulin dependent. Agave had an adverse effect, driving my blood sugar up. I can use honey and real maple syrup, in small amounts with no adverse spikes in blood sugars. No matter how small the quantity of agave, it was not the right choice for me.

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XARA November 4, 2012 at 12:12 am

Agave is another hoax….period….

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Bron October 19, 2012 at 11:42 am

Hi, I was diagnosed with diabetes type 3 (same treatment and symptoms as type 1) in November 2010. I inject insulin twice a day. I have been using Maguey Agave (http://www.agavenectar.co.za/) since then. I have 2 teaspoons in my tea and about 6 cups a day! I’m not sure what effect this has on my liver as I know the liver can struggle when one ingests so much fructose. However, as far as blood sugar goes – mine is stable with an excellent 6mnthly reading on the HbA1c of 6%. <3 – Bron in South Africa

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XARA November 4, 2012 at 12:10 am
Leslie Tucci December 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Thank you so much for that explanation. I am carb intolerant so I don’t eat many sweets or high-carb foods as they make me feel sick. After discovering raw unprocessed agave 6 years ago, I can actually enjoy a slice of homemade pie or caked occasionally with no side effects or blood sugar spike. Recently I have been discouraged because of Dr. Mercola’s negative reports about agave, so I went with a friend’s recommendation to use erythritol or Just Like Sugar as an alternative, These sweeteners are carb-free, but I just don’t feel good after eating stuff made with them whereas agave agrees with me without any after taste or side effects. What do you think about erythritol and other alternative sweeteners?

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Ophiolog July 28, 2013 at 3:57 am

There are a number of fallacies about agave syrup and fructose from Dr. Mercola that you might put to rest. For a start, no one has shown that fructose at more than 25 g/day becomes “toxic” to the system or that moderate amounts (up to 50 g/day) are deleterious to one’s health. The mean intake of fructose in the U.S. of 49 g/day has not been shown to cause health problems.

For diabetics, the recommend daily limit for fructose when used as an added sweetener is 60 g/day. That’s because they lack insulin to process triglycerides and fructose can produce a modest increase in triglycerides in diabetics at a greater amount. For healthy people, it would take at least 105 g/day to make their levels budge and 135 g/day to raise them to clinically unhealthy levels.

Agave sap contains fructose and glucose in bound form as fructans until the sap is heated to release the sugars in free form. When regular sugar is digested, the glucose and fructose and metabolized in free form. Fruit contains fructose and glucose in both free and bound forms and the sugars are metabolized in free form.

High-fructose corn syrup contains glucose and fructose in free form. Is it metabolically different in its effects compared to table sugar in which the sugars are in bound form until they are digested? No.

The reason that agave syrup “doesn’t have as much of an impact on your blood sugar” is not because of a lack of absorption of fructose due to fructose being in polymer form (fructans), but because it contains higher amounts of fructose compared to glucose. That’s also why it has a low glycemic index value and is sweeter than table sugar by 1.4 to 1.6 times. Some diabetics tell me they use half a teaspoon of agave syrup in place of 1 teaspoon of table sugar.

Don’t believe the claims of over 90% fructose. Fructose contents of the liquid syrup vary from around 50% to 74%. The figures of 90% and more are based on analyses of the sugars in the solids with all the moisture removed. At even 90% fructose, any syrup with that much could hardly be poured.

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