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.

Healthy Cooking: Anniversary Cake!

by Valerie Wilson

Everyone who knows me knows that my favorite sweetener is brown rice syrup. But recently I made a cake for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, which would serve many people who eat the average American diet. I was very concerned that everyone like the cake, so I made three attempts in order to perfect the recipe. I wanted it to be moist, light, sweet enough for the crowd, and delicious. I believe I achieved all those things – my family said it was the best cake I had ever made and I received compliments from the rest of the guests as well!

To make the cake sweet enough for everyone without using refined processed sweeteners that my health-conscious guests would not eat, I used Sucanat. It’s a dehydrated, granular, brown, all-natural sweetener found in most health food stores. It’s made by pressing the juice from natural cane sugar and cooking it down to a thick syrup. The syrup is then dehydrated and ground into sweet small pits. All the nutrition from sugarcane remains in Sucanat.

I originally wanted to create a vanilla cake, but using Sucanat turns the cake a light brown color with a rich maple, almost molasses-like taste to it. To create additional moisture, I used apple sauce. I made my own by simply cooking down some chopped up organic apples. You can also use store-bought apple sauce.  I chose spelt flour because it does not have the distinct taste whole wheat flour has. Spelt is also light and does not create a dry cake.  For the frosting, I used maple syrup and amazake for sweeteners. Amazake is made from brown rice. You can find it n the freezer section of health food stores.

For your next special event, here is one of my best recipes!

Anniversary Cake (thick 9” round cake)


1 T. flax seed meal

1 cup rice milk

1/4 cup canola oil

1/4 cup applesauce

1/2 cup Sucanat

1 T. vanilla

1/4 tsp. sea salt


1 T. baking powder

1  3/4 cup whole grain spelt four

Blend the flax seed meal and rice milk in a blender or food processor for about a minute until it looks frothy. Add the remaining wet ingredients. Blend until smooth. Sift the baking powder and flour into a bowl. (Sifting creates a lighter cake.) Now mix together the wet ingredients with the dry. Pour into oiled 9” cake pan. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Let cool completely before frosting.

Anniversary Frosting

3/4 cup rice milk

1/2 cup amazake

1/4 cup maple syrup

4 T. agar flakes

pinch sea salt

2 T. kudzu (dissolved in 1/4 cup water)

1/4 cup Earth Balance vegan natural buttery spread (has to be cold)

1 to 2 tsp. rice milk

In a sauce pan, heat the rice milk, amazake, agar flakes, and sea salt. Let simmer 10 minutes. Whisk in the kudzu mixture. It will thicken as it cooks. Once thickened, remove from heat and place in refrigerator a couple of hours until completely cold. Put in food processor along with cold Earth Balance. Blend until smooth. Add the rice milk slowly while it blends to create the desired consistency. Be very careful not to add too much or the frosting will become runny. Frost cake.

Valerie Wilson is the author of Perceptions in Healthy Cooking. She teaches cooking classes and offers counseling in Westland, Michigan. She can be reached at (734) 722-4553 or http://www.macroval.com.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2012 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2012.