Why Agave Syrup, a So-Called Natural Sweetener, Isn’t as Healthy as You Think

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ou know you should eat less sugar, but you still can’t adapt to drinking coffee or tea without sugar. Sugar does nothing positive for your body. It’s nothing more than empty calories devoid of nutrients. That’s why you people are intrigued by alternatives to sugar that contain few or no calories.

One source of no-calorie sweetness is artificial sweeteners, but they have their drawbacks. In fact, some studies suggest that they’re as unhealthy as sugar because they may disrupt hunger signals and alter the gut microbiome in a way that increases the risk of insulin resistance.

More popular these days are natural sweeteners, including a popular one you find in little bottles at many natural food markets called agave syrup.

What is Agave Syrup?

Agave syrup sounds healthy at first glance, especially when you consider its origins. Agave syrup is made from the Mexican blue agave plant, the same plant used to make tequila. The sweetness of the agave plant comes from a compound called aquamiel and with a little heat and processing, manufacturers turn it into agave syrup, a thick, sticky syrup that lines the store shelves of many natural food grocers and mainstream grocery stores alike.

In reality, agave syrup undergoes several layers of processing, so it’s altered to a significant extent from the unaltered agave plant. Yet manufacturers like to portray agave syrup as natural when they market it. Plus, one of the simple sugars that increases with the processing of agave syrup is fructose. Table sugar is 45% glucose and 55% fructose.

Fructose is a controversial sweetener. Although it doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes, it’s metabolized differently than glucose, the other component in table sugar. Fructose travels directly to the liver where this large organ metabolizes it in a way that increases blood triglycerides.

Despite being “natural,” commercial agave syrup can have a fructose content as high as 90%, much higher than the quantity in table sugar.

Agave Syrup and Blood Sugar

One of the biggest markets for sweeteners, like agave syrup, is diabetics. People with diabetes believe they’re making a healthy choice because agave syrup doesn’t cause the blood sugar spikes that table sugar does.

But when you consider that agave syrup raises blood triglycerides, it’s not a good alternative for diabetics. Elevated blood triglycerides are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetics are already at higher risk of dying of heart disease.

Plus, when the liver gets a large load of fructose, liver cells convert the excess to fat. Over time, the fat can build up in the liver. In fact, studies show that fructose is linked with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, one of the most common causes of liver disease unrelated to alcohol consumption. Studies show a link between consuming large quantities of fructose with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Is Fructose Really That Bad?

Some experts believe high-fructose corn syrup and fructose from sources like agave syrup are no more harmful than sugar. Table sugar is 55% fructose too, but we also know that sugar does the human body no favors. The only advantage of agave syrup is it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar, but it may be harmful in other ways including its effect on blood triglycerides, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Plus, the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup is unbound, meaning you absorb it faster than the fructose in table sugar.

Alternatives to Agave Syrup

There are natural sweeteners that won’t cause a spike in blood sugar or supply your body with fructose. One example is Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant that grows in South America.

Stevia glycosides are the part of the plant that tastes sweet and this is the portion that Stevia makers extract to make the sweetener. It has zero calories and no impact on blood glucose.

Another alternative sweetener is monk fruit (aff), made from the monk fruit that grows in Southeast Asia. Both sweeteners are at least a hundred times sweeter than table sugar, so you don’t need as much to get a sweet taste. Monk fruit tastes sweet because of a high concentration of mogrosides, compounds that also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.

Although these sweeteners are from natural sources, some manufacturers add a sugar alcohol, like erythritol, to modify the sweetness. Erythritol is considered safe, but it’s best to choose the least processed product available.

The Bottom Line

Despite its natural origins, agave syrup is a controversial sweetener because of its high fructose content. Most versions are also highly processed too. There are better alternatives, including monk fruit and Stevia if you must have a sweetener. Even better, taper back on the amount of all sweeteners you use. Your body will adapt, and you won’t crave sweetness as much. It’s one of the healthiest moves you can make!

References:

  • Anal Bioanal Chem. 2013 May;405(13):4397–407. doi: 10.1007/s00216–012–6693–0.
  • Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007 Nov;58(7):548–56. doi: 10.1080/09637480701336360.
  • International Food Information Council Foundation. “Everything You Need to Know About Stevia Sweeteners”
  • African Journal of Biotechnology. Vol 10 No 82 (2011)
  • J Med Food. 2014 Sep;17(9):1017–21. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2013.0162. Epub 2014 Jul 10.

I’m a family physician who believes in the power of lifestyle to transform health and prevent disease. Food is the best medicine!

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