Why I Don’t Use Agave, by Dr. Jessica Nagelkirk

The agave craze has caught on in the world of natural cooking and healthy eating.  Agave is a honey colored liquid that tastes sweeter than sugar, is gluten free, vegan and low on the glycemic index.  Because of its glycemic index rating, it is often marketed as “diabetic friendly”.  What you might not know about this sweetener is agave nectar is basically high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as health food.  The high level of synthesized fructose puts people at risk for obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance.  Sally Fallon, nutrition expert and author of “Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought“, found that obese individuals who drink fructose-sweetened drinks with meals have triglyceride levels 200 times higher than equally obese individuals who drink glucose-sweetened drinks.  

Agave is not natural

Agave was developed in the 1990’s primarily in Mexico.  There actually is no such thing as agave nectar.  The sweetener is made from the starchy root of the yucca plant.  In order to produce agave nectar, the leaves are cut off the plant once it is between 7-14 years old and juice is expressed from the core.  The juice is then filtered, heated (to hydrolyze the polysaccharides into simple sugars), then converted in to liquid nectar using caustic acids, clarifiers, and other chemicals.  The end result is syrup that’s 70%-92% pure fructose- an even higher amount than high fructose corn syrup, which contains 55% fructose.

The Burden of Fructose

Glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body for energy production.  Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, putting a significant burden on an already taxed organ of detoxification.  Animal studies have shown that livers of animals fed large amounts of fructose develop fatty cirrhosis of the liver.  The same studies also show that consumption causes insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, hyperinsulinemia, hypertriglyceridemia, and hypertension, all of which are leading causes for the chronic health problems Americans face – obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

If diabetes and coronary artery disease don’t scare you, fructose has also been associated with cancer.  Many researchers believe that it is sugar in the modern diet that provokes cancer growth.  Studies have shown that having insulin resistance actually promotes tumor growth.

What to use?

Honey and grade B maple syrup, used in moderation, appear to be the sweeteners our bodies are best able to deal with and also contain additional nutrients.  Both have more complex flavors than cane sugar so people tend to use less. This is really the only difference between the sweeteners because your body processes all forms of glucose in the same way.  If you’re on the GAPS or SCD diet, honey and dates are best because they are simple sugars.  And of course, eat whole fruit in moderation.

Dr. Jessica Nagelkirk is a licensed Naturopathic Physician (ND) specializing in integrative primary care medicine.  She is a current faculty member at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and sees patients privately at Apis Integrative Health in Marquette, MI.  

This article was reprinted with permission from the Winter 2013 – 2014 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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