The Truth About Agave Nectar: It’s All Hype

by Dr. Jonny Bowden · 59 comments

Agave nectar/ syrup is basically high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food.

It’s easy to understand how agave syrup got its great reputation. Even the word “Agave” has a fine pedigree, coming from the Greek word for noble. The blue agave species- considered the best for the making agave nectar- flourishes in rich volcanic soil— (it’s also the only variety permitted to be used for the making of tequila). And extracts from the agave plant have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. (Unfortunately there’s zero evidence that any of those compounds are present in the commercially made syrup.)

Agave nectar is an amber-colored liquid that pours more easily than honey and is considerably sweeter than sugar. The health-food crowd loves it because it is gluten-free and suitable for vegan diets- and, most especially, because it’s low glycemic (we’ll get to that in a moment). Largely because of its very low glycemic impact, Agave nectar is marketed as “diabetic friendly”.  What’s not to like?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Agave nectar has a low-glycemic index for one reason only: it’s largely made of fructose, which although it has a low-glycemic index, is now known to be a very damaging form of sugar when used as a sweetener. Agave nectar has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener (with the exception of pure liquid fructose).

All sugar- from table sugar to HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) to honey- contains some mixture of fructose and glucose. Table sugar is 50/50, HFCS is 55/45.  Agave nectar is a whopping 90% fructose, almost- but not quite- twice as high as HFCS.

Fructose- the sugar found naturally in fruit- is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7% fructose)—it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetner, it exacts a considerable metabolic price.

Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that’s the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resisitance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome (a kind of pre-diabetes) .

And fructose has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease. Rats given high fructose diets develop a number of undesirable metabolic abnormalities including elevated triglycerides, weight gain and extra abdominal fat.

In the agave plant, most of the sweetness comes from a particular kind of fructose called inulin that actually has some health benefits- it’s considered a fiber. But there’s not much inulin left in the actual syrup. In the manufacturing process, enzymes are added to the inulin to break it down into digestible sugar (fructose), resulting in a syrup that has a fructose content that is at best 57% and- much more commonly- as high as 90%.

“”It’s almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing,” said Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when (consumed) at higher doses”, she told me. “Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though their blood [sugar] is OK”.

Agave nectar syrup is a triumph of marketing over science. True, it has a low-glycemic index, but so does gasoline- that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

If you simply must have some sweets once in a while, a small amount of agave nectar every once in a while isn’t going to kill you. Just don’t buy into the idea that it’s any better for you than plain old sugar or HFCS.

In some ways, it may even be slightly worse.

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{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

Halli Magg

Another brilliant blog.
But what do you think about the sweetener Just like Sugar? Of course it’s just best to get rid of the sugar devil by eating a balanced diet which is adjusted to the needs of each individual. But of all the sweeteners this one looks best to me (of course not in excess)

http://www.justlikesugarinc.com/
(I think they should get the best website award of the millenium :-)

Thanks for all the good, honest info
Halli Magg
Osteopath

Reply

Dr. Jonny

it looks pretty good to me, but i’ve been burned before on some of these, so i’m probably going to wait and see. On the surface, it looks like a good product!

warmly
jb

Reply

Julia Olson

What is a good replacement then if agave is out? What a bummer! I have a low glycemic cookbook, thinking it was really healthy and now I’m finding out otherwise. I guess the bottomline is just to cut some sugar out of my diet. Thanks for keeping us informed on the FACTS!

Julia

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Hi Julia

It’s not that agave is “out”- we used some in our cookbooks when something just had to have some sweetener (like a real food brownie)- it’s just that it’s not a “free lunch”, “use all you like it’s a health food”. Small amounts of any sweetener are OK for MOST people (there are exceptions). I was merely commenting on the fact that many people have bought into the marketing of this syrup and have wrongly come to believe that it is fine to use as much as you like because it’s “healthy”. It’s not going to kill you, but it’s not much better than HFCS… use with discretion.

warmly
jb

Reply

Grace

What is your opinion on the use of real honey, I make my version of pancakes with oats, eggs, cinnamon,water and stevia. Instead of the commercial syrups I use honey, I buy it with the honeycomb.
It’s the fructose in the honey not a good healthy choice?

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Real, cold pressed organic honey is a great food. Remember the body still treats it like sugar, so if you’re a diabetic or have metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, etc you still need to realize it’s sugar- but it IS a food with nutrients, etc; The fructose found normally in natural foods is rarely if ever a problem. It’s when it’s chemically extracted, concentrated and made into an added sweetener that it’s a problem

warmly
jb

Reply

Dr. Jonny

real honey is a good food. Still sugar, body still treats it that way (so if you’re diabetic, etc you still need to treat it like sugar) but it DOES contain actual nutrients and is a very healthy food.

i don’t worry about the natural fructose in real foods- i worry about fructose extracted from its source, concentrated, and added back to other foods that never had it in ridiculous amounts.

warmly
jb

Reply

Karen Yost

Oh my! I thought I had found a little bit of a “cheat” to flavor my tea and my yogurt. Thanks for clearing this up!

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Hi

As i said, using a little bit of sweetener here and there- including agave–to make life more fun isn’t a bad thing. We used agave in some of the recipes in Healthiest Meals. The point is to not be dulled into thinking that it’s somehow “better” than sugar or that you get a free pass with it. Life wouldn’t be as much fun if you couldn’t have sweets sometimes– (I guess that point is debatable, but you see where I’m going..) The point is that agave is no better than the rest of them!

warmly
jb

Reply

Tim Shape

Thanks Jonny, I was just telling a patient about agave last week and she was hesitant to believe. Marketing is a powerful force. We were all sold on the evils of fat and the wonders of refined unsaturated oils like corn, soy and cottonseed. Look where that got us. Soy sort of fits in this picture too, though as you’ve written (referenced below) soy is complicated. Clinically it’s even more complicated than you wrote, but not something you could fit into a blog. Thanks for your continued efforts.
http://www.jonnybowden.com/2008/10/another-look-at-soy.html

Reply

Ralph

Lee,

Interesting stuff

Reply

Daneen

Dr. Jonny,

My family loves the real food brownies from your Healthiest Meals on Earth book but it uses agave nectar. Do you recommend using another sweetener or is the amount in the brownie recipe small enough to still make them a healthy alternative to other desserts?

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Actually I just referred to that in a reply to Karen (above). We did indeed use some agave in some of the recipes in Healthiest Meals– it was a compromise. The book is, after all, a cookbook, and needed some desserts so we tried to make them as healthy as could be, and yes, we used some sweetener. I don’t think the point here is that you can never ever use this stuff- just that you should be conscious about what it is (and what it isn’t). Agave has such great marketing that many people were beginning to think it was in a class by itself and that it was a “free pass” food. It’s not. That doesn’t mean you can’t sweeten something with it. And in the case of those great brownies, you have to balance the fact that they have 5 grams of fiber per serving, use real cocoa, etc etc with the fact that yup, it has some sweetener to make it taste more like a brownie. By the way, those are one of my favorite recipes in the book!

warmly
jb

Reply

Tiffany

Jonny,

I have been using agave for a long time. But I recently came across a very expensive pristine agave nectar that is sold as truly raw agave and it is clear. It is not heated above a certain degree and you can’t find it in stores, in fact it is pretty hard to find unless you know right where to look. Here is what is said where I purchase mine.

“Agave Nectar is a great product, when it’s really Raw. When Agave Nectar is heated it’s Inulin is disabled. Inulin is the substance which resists and defers the majority of digestion to the small intestine and colon. Inulin is also Prebiotic, supporting rapid multiplication of friendly intestinal flora (bacteria) which is essential to nutrient uptake. ”

Also…

“Agave’s rich density of saponins increase hydration as their soapy, surfactant nature enhance its wetting angle, supporting most rapid cellular water upatke, especially when used with Sun Fire Salt.

Agave is low glycemic and rich in inulin, which resists digestion until the lower intestinal tract. This supports pancreatic enzymes for tissue regeneration, immune function and longevity rather than digestion.”

I know the story of the man who is selling these products and it’s pretty compelling. He swallowed a lot of gasoline when he was 2 and nearly died and is very sensitive to many foods and has developed products that are prisitine raw superfoods and strives for the best in every aspect of how it is harvested, created, how it gets here- the whole 9 yards- I have written you before about using some of the products on the DBC program and even sent you the link.

ANYWAY, I respect you a lot and appreciate what you write and your knowledge and wanted to challenge it and find out if there are any exceptions to the rule that you know of. :-)

I appreciate you.

Thanks!

Tiffany

Reply

Dr. Jonny

thanks tiffany this is good info. Good to know. Unfortunately the VAST majority of agave nectar is not of this quality. Great to know some good stuff does exist

warmly
jb

Reply

Tiffany

Well actually I wanted to know if you personally believe that agave can be good in this truly raw form as I have found it stated. I wouldn’t touch the blue agave anymore after reading your blog but wondered wondered if you believe that there can be a real true agave. If you don’t think so than I may rethink using it as well.

Reply

Dr. Jonny

hi tiffany

i haven’t seen the exact product you’re talking about but my conceptual problem is that no matter how great the basic plant is, to make the syrup/sweetener, something still has to be extracted and that syrup is still going to wind up being high fructose, unless i’m missing something. Now understand- i do NOT think using some sweeteners to make some foods more palatable is the worst thing in the world. My point was only that this is not a “free pass” food. And again though i don’t know this particular product- which SOUNDS a lot better than the commercial ones- my gut feeling is to agree with Tim who responded earlier. I kind of think his .o2 cents was pretty right on. Does this mean you should never ever use it and fear it like the plague? Not at all. Just understand what it is and use accordingly. which means not all the time and not in huge amounts.

warmly
jb

Reply

Dr. Jonny

PS- while the inulin component, etc and the other good things that are left in the truly raw version may not- as tim points out- nulify the fructose problem, they still add to the value of the product. As with raw honey– it’s still sugar, it still raises blood sugar, etc– but it does have some nutrients in it which make it preferable to processed sugar or commercial “honey in the bear squeezy thing” stuff. So if i were going to use sweeteners- which i sometimes do- i guess i’d pick the one you’re talking about. Alternately why not try TruVia or Xyltiol? they work well, and have no glycemic issues. Or stevia if you can stand the taste (I can’t)

warmly
jb

Reply

Brian

On the topic of inulin, I’ve come across in my reading that it not only feeds the good bacteria, but the bad like klebsiella. The cottage cheese I eat recently added inulin as an ingredient which I thought was a good thing, now I am confused. Thoughts?

Reply

Tim Sharpe

Tiffany, the glycemic index ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on our blood “glucose” levels. Fructose is a low glycemic sugar as Jonny points out, but is devastating in anything larger than small quantities. It encourages the production of triglycerides and fuels lipogenesis (fat production). Raw agave may be better than processed agave, but it is still nearly pure fructose. The inulin and saponin components, for all their benefits, will not significantly impact these troubling issues.

By all means, use that nice raw agave for Jonny’s brownie recipe, but don’t confuse it for a health food. My $.02

Reply

Tiffany

As always Jonny thank you for personally replying and carrying on the conversation. This has been helpful for me because at one point I was using HUGE amounts of this raw agave. I have switched over to Stevia. I just wanted to double check with ya. :-)

and Tim, thanks a lot for your two cents! much appreciated.

Reply

Anna Romano

It just goes to show that the best product doesn’t always win, but YES, the best marketer always wins!!

Reply

Jane

Thank you Jonny! I knew it was too good to be true! I have bottles of this stuff at home – I will gladly dispose of it. Keep up the great research!

Reply

Jeff Ventura

Excellent topic. Someone saying this is long overdue, as I watch this stuff fly off the shelves at my local Costco.

Reply

mperry48

Thanks for a very informative article on agave, one of my former so-called “healthy” sweeteners. I’d like to know how you feel about the sugar alcohol xylitol as an alternative sweetener. I use USA-made xylitol in my baking and erythritol in my coffee with no adverse effects so far.

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Love it. We even carry it on the website. I also like erythritol which you can get in the supermarket under the name TruVia

warmly
jb

Reply

Eric Wolff

I have a question:
Are there any artificial (no calorie) sweetners that you believe are safe? I bought Truvia recently, and it tastes pretty good. (Ingredients: Erythritol, rebiana, and natural flavors)

Dr. B, Thanks for all the great information!

Reply

Dr. Jonny

i love TruVia. Also I use Xylitol a lot. Both are terrific

Stevia is terrific but i personally can’t stand the taste

warmly
jb

Reply

Doug Beardsley

JB, so… where would you go to get the none distilled agave nectar with all the other important ingredients. AKA really raw…. any way, if you think there is a reputable source. Doug

Reply

Dr. Jonny

you’d have to ask tiffany (above)- she’s the one who found it. I haven’t actually seen it myself

warmly
jb

Reply

Bobby Nagle

Hey Jonny,

I workout (mostly olympic lifts) 3-5 days a week and play basketball for 2 hours once a week. Bodybuilders and personal trainers recommend consuming a high-glycemic carbohydrate with a post workout shake to replace glycogen levels in the muscles as well as to stop catabolisis (sp?) For years i’ve been adding a product that is pure powdered glucose to my shakes and I was wondering if you thought that was a safe/smart move. My diet is about 90% paleo (per your recommendations) and even in the paleo books they recommend eating a sweet potato instead. are all high glycemic carbs created equal? what are your thoughts?

Reply

Dr. Jonny

HI

All high glycemic carbs are NOT created equal by a long shot. For example, pure domino sugar or Wonder white bread is about as high as you can go on the glycemic scale, but sweet potatoes- not quite as high but still moderately high- isn’t even in the same ballpark when it comes to nutrition. I understand the need for a high glycemic carb with a postworkout shake especially for varsity or professional athletes doing two workouts a day where quick recovery is important, but for the life of me i can’t possibly see why adding pure powdered glucose makes sense. Sweet potato yes. PUre sugar? I can’t see it.

You might also browse around the website of my friend Charles Poliquin. I tend to defer to him on issues of sports nutrition, as he’s trained more olympic teams, professional athletes and bodybuilders than anyone i know and he’s pretty smart. But that’s my off-the-cuff opinion.

hope that helps

warmly
jb

Reply

Nancy Cullinan

Jonny, Thanks for the info on blue agave. I, too, have bottles of the stuff from Trader Joe’s and was using it freely. No longer!
Best wishes,
Nancy

Reply

Katy

Very interesting, but also confusing.

Of course, these guys have an interest in saying agave is great, but how does their research measure up to what you found?

http://www.coconutbliss.com/assets/Agave_Syrup_9.4.09.pdf

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Hi Katy

very interesting article, but i’m unconvinced. The standard response of the food industry to any criticism has always been to deflect by saying “in moderation… part of a healthy diet…. no proof our ingredient BY ITSELF does x, y, z..”. On the final page he says “Agave syrup is fructose syrup”. So we’re in agreement on that, at least! His argument seems to be that you have to consume a lot of fructose to have a negative impact. I’m not so sure of that.

it’s not all that much different from the argument the corn refiners association made in their PR campaign for HFCS..

anyway, as i said, i don’t think using small amounts of it from time to time is the worst thing- we used some in our cookbooks, since no one (including me) seems willing to give up ALL sweets FOREVER… but i still think it’s HFCS in disguise and wouldn’t consider it a great food by any means..

warmly
jb

Reply

Rosa

what do you think about the sweetener” Just like Sugar” ?

Reply

Joanna

Hi, thanks for the great info. I just found your site and this was interesting for me as for the last six months i have been using agave a little to much beleiving it was good for me now i know to cut back. I would though like to know your thoughts on rapadura sugar. It is the sugar cane juiced and then evaporated and ground up no other processing. So still has all the molases and minerals etc in it and apparently dosnt have the same spike in your body. Do you know if this is true.

Joanna

Reply

Dr. Jonny

Hi Joanna
thanks for the kind words. I actually have never heard of rapadura sugar. My guess is the body still treats it like sugar, so use sparingly.

warmly
jb

Reply

boxing training dvd

Useful information and popular structure you received review! I in actual fact to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the points you post!! Thumbs up!

Reply

Dave James

I gave up Truvia for Stevia and notices a little weight gain over a month of use of Stevia. I picked up some Agave Syrup and read the nutrition label. 16 grams of carbohydrates and 16 grams of sugars per tablespoon when plain sugar only has 8 grams per tablespoon. Wow, doesn’t sound like a fair tradeoff to me.

Reply

Dave James

I Tried the Agave Nectar and quickly got a headache, started getting the shakes and dizziness. It really threw me for a loop so I threw out the rest. Apparently I just can’t tolerate it but others have no problem with it.

Reply

Ruby

Hi Jonny,
I just came across this product after reading several negative things about agave. Please let me know what you think about this. I actually don’t use a lot of sweeteners but the holidays are upon us and I wanted to make some treats for family.
Here is the link:
http://www.coconutsecret.com/aboutus2.html

Reply

Heidi Miller

WOW! I am shocked. Thanks so much. Agave will now be off my shopping list.

Reply

Juan

Thank you for the info. I guess over all cold pressed agave is better than plane old sugar right?

Reply

Chris

I feel you may be lumping ALL agave into one category…but what about organic, raw agave nectar? I am under the impression that organic, raw is much different that non. Please advise. Thanks

Reply

Angela

Hello, I just came across this article- there is a juice bar near where I live and they have a daily juice cleanse pack you can purchase, all fruits and vegatables of 6 bottles for one day- all of the juices have agave nectar added. This can’t be good for a cleanse if it is just like sugar? That’s what you do a cleanse for, to get rid of sugar and toxins, right?

Reply

Dr. Jonny Bowden

i myself have been guilty of using agave nectar in several cookbooks i co-authored, but here’s the thing. Sometimes we have to compromise with reality. In our cookbooks, for example, we sometimes did things like high-fiber brownies (made with garbanzo beans) which were light years above any brownie in terms of health benefits.. but no one would eat them unsweetened. So we occasionally added a drop of agave (or another sweetener). Tiny amounts here and there probably aren’t the worst thing in the world, and if they get you to eat healthy food you might not otherwise eat, then fine. My issue is when people believe the marketing material on this stuff and think it’s a “free food”, not like sugar, and can be eaten in any quantity.

I don’t know the juice cleanse pack of the place you’re talking about, but most of these juices are really high in sugar, and if there’s added agave, even more so. Not saying they’re necessarily bad, but i tend to be suspicious of these expensive “detox” packages, when i think you can usually get all the ingredients and benefits by putting your own fruit and vegetable juices together at considerably less cost. And for people who are very reactive to sugar in any form– including healthy foods– there might be a better way than sweetened juices.

warmly
jb

Reply

Levi

Honey is 1/3 fructose and 2/3 glucose. Would it not be the best sweetener? Local honey also has traces of your local plants in it which can help with allergies.

Reply

Dr. Jonny Bowden

i’m a big fan of true, raw (cold pressed) honey. My only concern is that it still raises blood sugar so if that’s a big concern– as it is for many– you should use cautiously. It’s still sugar, even though real honey is a real food and contains vitamins, minerals and enzymes.

warmly
jb

Reply

Flo Van

How about 100% pureorganic blue agave nectar in bottle

Reply

Dr. Jonny Bowden

it’s still high fructose sugar, organic or not

Reply

Davor

Hi, I would also like to know more about “just like sugar” and why are Truvia and Xylitol good alternatives?

Thank you

Reply

Dr. Jonny Bowden

Both are fine.

Reply

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Reply

Liz

Dear Dr Jonny,

Thanks for the great info,I have been using organic blue agave on my babies green smoothie everyday otherwise she won’t drink it lol, should I start looking for an different alternative?
Is TruVia, Xylitol or Stevia safe for babies?
I was thinking on some brown sugar since she doesn’t like honey : /
any recommendations?

Reply

Dr. Jonny Bowden

Look for 100% pure stevia. Monk fruit is also fine.

Reply

Ryan W. Reed

Hmmm I eat healthier then most not only do I eat organic but I also eat and live a cut above organic. I find that many stuff that says is organic is not, and that many things they say are good are not, and that many things the say are bad are not. I think there is a lot of deception and confusion out there in the food/health industry. In my mind agave nectar is much better then most alternatives and I believe that fructose is much better the glucose (white refined sugar) glucose seems to be in everything even organic stuff, and I believe our bodies recognize it as a drug! And fructose in my understanding is fruit sugar. I believe what ever we eat it needs to be in its most raw unadulterated state, and not modified. All I know is when I use agave in moderation I feel amazing! Better the I do when I use organic can sugar, which in my estimation is really not much different then white refined sugar. I could say a lot more but all I will say is I have noticed that people seem to call everything bad you could do a google search on honey and find blogs of people calling honey evil, and I know this much I want to live a healthy life and live well into my hundreds but I am not going to eat cardboard to get there lol.

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