Friday, February 5, 2010

Showdown! Agave VS. High Fructose Corn Syrup


Let the showdown begin, but first, a word about agave.

I love it in Coconut Bliss ice cream and I love it in cookies and cakes. I love the perfectly moist consistency without compromised flavor. I love agave-sweetened lemonade. Agave is easy to substitute, relatively cheap to buy (2 bottles for xx bucks at Costco) and easily satiates the pesky sweet tooth.


I'm very suspicious of it.

Even the organic, raw, "high quality" versions. I'm suspicious even though high quality health food stores carry it. No sweetener should become my darling like agave has become the media's. And something I need to be reminded of--all sugars should be eaten in moderation, even the good ones.

Why I am suspicious of agave:

*It is high in fructose.
*It is higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup. It ranges from over 55% to 90% fructose.
*Too much fructose is bad for our bodies (see Wiki Fructose, below).
*It is not a locally grown plant. Most agave is imported.
*It is relatively high in calories/about the same as white sugar.
*Though it plays to the tune of my sweet tooth, it keeps me addicted to wanting more sweet stuff.
*It offers no nutrients or benefits to my body.
*There are healthier sweeteners like date sugar, fruit, honey, molasses and stevia.
*There are weak labeling laws for the term "Raw". For the raw foodies out there, you may not be getting what you think you're getting.
*It is touted as low glycemic, however, the glycemic index uses glucose as a measure, not fructose, which can be especially harmful to diabetics, the very people agave is often marketed towards.
*It is touted for it's use in weight loss, but has just as many calories as sugar.
*Fructose has been linked to: raised triglycerides, fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, belly fat, and Metabolic Syndrome.

Why high fructose corn syrup deserves more credit than agave:
*It is a by-product of locally-grown corn, whereas most agave nectar is imported.
*It is lower in fructose than agave. The HFCS used in soft drinks is 55/45, fructose/glucose and the HFCS in foods and baked goods is about 42/58, fructose/glucose.
*It's cheaper (true, but obviously tongue-in-cheek)
*Yes it's more processed than agave, but there is no fear of any company adding high fructose corn syrup as a fill to high fructose corn syrup.....
*I have no idea if high fructose corn syrup comes organic.

High fructose corn syrup makes me cringe, so don't get me wrong. It's just that agave should make me cringe, too, but because it is touted as this super-wonderful alternative to sugar the vibe seems to be positive. Neither one offers much of anything but calories. Ahhhh, media hype.

For those of you who read my previous post about agave, here are more bits and pieces of information:

"Refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar contained minimal antioxidant activity...." -Journal of the American Dietetic Assocation .

"Fructose consumption has also been related to the metabolic syndrome and to abnormal lipid patterns. This evidence suggests that we should worry about our current level of fructose consumption, which has been increasing steadily for over 200 years and now represents over 10% of the energy intake of some people." -Int J Obes

Marion Nestle mentions agave in her blog, Food Politics:

"Q. Can you please explain what benefits, if any, there are in using a “natural” sweetener, e.g. agave, over regular sugar? Are there any differences in terms of glucose/fructose makeup?

A. Agave is more expensive so you probably won’t use as much of it. Beyond that, it is higher in fructose than table sugar or honey. This is because agave contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener. It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high fructose corn syrup. It has the same number of calories as any other sugar, about 4 per gram or 16 per teaspoon."

"HFCS [sub the word agave here] does contribute to added sugars and calories, and those concerned with managing their weight should be concerned about calories from beverages and other foods, regardless of HFCS content." -Am J Clin Nutr.

The following articles have more information about agave and fructose:
Unfortunately, some of my favorite sources had very little or nothing to say about agave nectar. To me this means it is under-studied and another good reason to stick to other sweeteners.

This article is from the Mercola website:

{"Agave syrup is neither a natural food nor organic.

Fully chemically processed sap from the agave plant is known as hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup. According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, '[Agave is] almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing.'

Agave syrup is not low calorie
Agave syrup is about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as table sugar.

Agave syrup may not have a low glycemic index
Depending upon where the agave comes from and the amount of heat used to process it, your agave syrup can be anywhere from 55 percent to 90 percent fructose! (And it's likely you won't be able to tell from the product label.) This range of fructose content hardly makes agave syrup a logical choice if you're hoping to avoid the high levels of fructose in HFCS. And if you're diabetic, you should know that the alleged benefit of agave for diabetics is purely speculative. Very few agave studies have been documented, and most involved rats. There have been no clinical studies done on its safety for diabetics.

Other Reasons You Should Steer Clear of Agave (Mercola article, continued)
1. There are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup. Nearly all agave sold in the US comes from Mexico. Industry insiders are concerned agave distributors are using lesser, even toxic, agave plants due to a shortage of blue agave. There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup--how often and to what extent is anyone's guess. In addition, the FDA has refused shipments of agave syrup due to excessive pesticide residues.

2. Agave syrup is not a whole food--it is fractionated and processed. The sap is separated from the plant and treated with heat, similar to how maple sap is made into maple syrup. Agave nectar is devoid of many of the nutrients contained in the original whole plant.

3. Agave syrup is not a live food. The natural enzymes are removed to prevent agave syrup from fermenting and turning into tequila in your food pantry or cabinet.

4. Agave is, for all intents and purposes, highly concentrated sugar. Sugar and sweeteners wreak havoc on your health and are highly addictive."}

Let's keep the discussion open. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one!


Dorothy said...

Wow this is so interesting! I never knew all those facts about agave and HFCS! I just always thought agave was healthier because everyone believes it is! Now the two look a lot more similar to me! Great post!

(Hmmm i can't link my blog to my comment? -

Kati said...

Yikes! I love me some agave :> Thanks for such an informative post! I do love the taste, the cost (I can get it at Walmart!) and the consistency...hmmm. Everything in moderation but I do tend to THINK of it as healthier from all the marketing!

Krista said...

Looks like you were able to get some good info pulled together. Well done!

Heather and Jed said...

Thank I have been trying to do without sugar and love reading your blog, but I have been wary of agave, brown rice syrup and then I am wondering if you are ever using foods that have "evaporated cane juice". Is that any better than white refined sugar? In your experience how do you feel about brown rice syrup and evaporated can juice...I am new at this and want to make sure I am going about this the right way!

Farty Girl said...

Thanks so much for this info! It definitely will affect my decision to use agave. Like you, I have noticed an addiction to the stuff, despite its alleged "low gi." The only thing that I disagree with is sustainability of HFCS in comparison to agave. This is totally just my opinion, and I think you show how HFCS trumps agave in many ways. However, it takes A LOT of corn to make corn syrup - corn that could be used to feed thousands upon thousands of people. When we sweeten with HFCS, we're contributing to hunger across the globe. I'm sure agave affects poor people in negative ways as well... I just wonder to what extent.

That said - when it comes to how agave affects the body in comparison to sugar - I totally agree with you. :) Sugar is sugar.

Marika said...

Great post! I've been off refined sugar for about a month now and I find your blog delightful :)

I've been wary of agave for a while now. It's highly processed nature has always been a huge turn off for me - and the fact that you see it marketed as a health food product just never made a lot of sense. With regard to agave nectar production I've also read that there are issues with sustainability and endangerment of the local nectar bat population - also big turn offs.

Organic maple syrup is my all-time favourite liquid sweetener, and I also really like organic brown rice syrup and organic barley malt syrup for baking. When I need something granulated though, I love organic date sugar and organic palm sugar (also known as coconut sugar) - both are rich in nutrients and metabolized more slowly than refined or concentrated sweeteners. They are pricier of course, but then agave is not that cheap either.

Keep up the awesome work! I'm loving all the info :)

My Year Without said...

Dorothy and Krista-Thanks!

Kati-Hopefully this gives you something to think about and some alternative sweetener ideas.

Heather & Jed-Hi! I have not used evaporated cane juice because I read somewhere (maybe in Sugar Blues?) that it is basically no different than white sugar. When I don't know for sure about something and have strong doubts, I just don't use it. I've used brown rice syrup because it is less processed than, say, white sugar, but it is still heavy "sugars"....I also keep evaporated cane juice off my list.

How do you feel so far being without sugar?

Farty-Interesting! I'm going to find out for sure, but I thought corn syrup was made with by-products of other words it would just go to waste if we didn't make HFCS. I will find out.

Marika-I also love maple syrup....but actually only on pancakes or French toast. In baking it tends to overpower other flavors. I LOVE date sugar and have still not tried coconut sugar, although I am very curious!

Zoe Tattersall said...

Great post! I was all into the hype about Agave when I first found out about it but the more I researched the more I found not enough conclusive research or evidence that it is either 'good' or 'bad' as far as sugars go.
Whilst I do not go sugar free totally, I certainly do not put refined sugars into my body; sticking with honey, fruits, agave (?!), molasses, evaporated cane juice sugar and very occasionally low GI raw or brown sugar.
It certainly is a tricky sugar world out there!!

Jen said...

I'm so glad you posted this!! So many people don't understand that agave is a processed sugar. Thank you for clearing up the facts!

Sandi Delia said...

Thank you!!! This explains why I had such an addictive response to agave. I had made a pudding with cocoa, agave, and tofu. Started out able to eat just 1/2 cup and within three days (maybe less), I was justifying eating a huge bowl for breakfast. Just like the evil white stuff.

Joshua said...

Excellent comparison! You really nailed down quite a few great points so thank you for sharing. I agree with you, sugar is sugar and must be regulated. Though between the two, the jury's still out for me too. I do a blog ( on detoxing and wonder often about these so-called "natural substitutes" that people go ga-ga over. Thanks for the post.

Heather and Jed said...

Oh my, I didn't have ANY sugar for 10 days, and then I totally had a feeling sorry for myself day, and ate some sugar. Hmmm, not too proud of myself! :) But if at first you don't succeed, try try again right? Did you have any slip ups that first year?

My Year Without said...

H&J-Yes, I had one slip-up in 2008, but it wasn't really my fault. Here is a link to that story:

Faulty/incomplete/tricky labeling is definitely my pet peeve!

Kendra said...

Did you know that many diabetics find they can't handle Agave due to the sugar content? We use it rarely around here and in small doses. My son and I have a huge sugar sensitivity which turns us into mean angry beasts who can't get enough of it when we eat it. We gave up sugar a long time ago because of it. We use lots of normal natural sweeteners to make all of our own stuff. In fact, we just learned how to make our own chocolate!

However, I'd much rather use Agave over corn syrup! For one thing, most off label non organic corn products come from Genetically Modified Food (GMO), which is why corn and corn products can be so cheap. It's why they use it as fillers and it's why you'll find corn in everything from dog food (often the first ingredient) to packaged snacks. While I'm all for locally grown, I'm also about feeding my family natural and real foods.

However, we don't use Agave often, and I can't even tell you the last time corn syrup entered our home. The thing is, you can use something like honey, agave, or maple syrup (which, to me, tastes a lot like agave) very sparsely (say 2 T) and use 1/2 teaspoon of pure stevia (NO FILLERS) to make a very sweet and decadent cake.

Anyway, I completely agree with you on the fact that agave can play with the body as badly as sugar can, but if I had to choose between it and corn syrup.. I'm going for agave. ;)

This is our story: said...

Thanks for this post. I am so glad I found your blog. My family has been off refined sugar for about 2 months now including my two children ages six and four. They have been doing surprisingly well considering they are bribed with sugar almost daily at school. I am always looking for yummy foods to feed them so they do not feel deprived. We have loved "Hot Chocolate" made with carob and honey. I too just purchased Agave maple syrup for thier pancakes and am sad to find out it isn't as healthy as I think. Would you try pure maple syrup or is that just as unhealthy? We do use a lot of honey now!

My Year Without said...

Kendra-I'll have to remember to use Stevia AND a natural sweetener together sometime. I have not done that yet.

Story-That's great that your kids are off of sugar! What an accomplishment! I like maple syrup for some things because it's not so high in fructose like Agave and HFCS. According to the American Heart Association, females should eat no more than 6 teaspoons/100 calories of added sugars daily and for men it's around 9 teaspoons. Since kids eat less calories, I'm sure they should eat even less sugar than this daily....and the AHA includes any added sugars including natural sweeteners: maple syrup, agave, honey, etc.

I guess in the end, it's how much we use as well as what we use. I like honey, too, but it has almost 250 more calories per cup than white sugar. Oh the decisions!!