To agave or not to agave; that is the question. It seems that everything today creates scandal and confusion-our food, our politics, our neighborhoods, how we exercise and now even our sweeteners, natural and otherwise.
A relative newcomer to the culinary world (but not the world) is agave nectar, processed from the agave cactus. It became quite popular with the raw foods community because it is processed at low heat, but in reality, about 30 degrees higher than most raw foodists would deem acceptable, but let’s let that go for the moment.
It seemed that this low glycemic sweetener was destined to be the next big thing in healthy cooking. Deliciously sweet, naturally processed, gluten-free, delicate enough for most recipes, it had it all. Or did it?
Some facts about agave: agave plants are crushed and the sap is collected in tanks. It’s heated to about 140*F for about 36 hours to concentrate the sap into syrup and develop the sweetness. See, the main carbohydrate in agave is a complex form of fructose, one of which is insulin. I know; I know, too science-y. Anyhow, the sap is not very sweet, so when the agave sap is heated, the complex form of fructose is hydrolyzed and then filtered to obtain the desired sweet flavor, from the dark to the lighter, milder amber. In short, the complex fructosans are being broken down into fructose.
Based on my own research, I am not as in love with agave as I was in the beginning. I believe that it’s more processed than I originally thought and in that processing some of the vital nutrients that made it healthy for us are lost.
It is marketed as being low-glycemic and therefore safe for diabetics. Well, I say “Not so fast” on that one. Not only is the whole glycemic index misinterpreted and mis-used, but agave is considered low-glycemic because of its high concentration of fructose as compared to glucose (only about 10%). My concern is that this ratio of 90%/10% is not natural. Even high fructose corn syrup only contains about 55% fructose and we consider that to be the Darth Vader of food because of its high concentration of fructose.
And the big deal about fructose? Ay, ay, ay! While fructose naturally occurs in fruits and veggies, it is in small concentrations, so the liver can handle its metabolism. But when concentrated like it is in agave and high fructose corn syrup, an added burden is placed on the liver. Glucose, our body’s desired fuel is metabolized by every cell, while fructose is not. It has to be metabolized by the liver, which can lead to fatty deposits showing up in this most overworked gland. And since it’s metabolized by the liver, it is more likely to contribute to weight gain than other natural sweeteners.
Some studies also show that fructose can be indirectly linked to the inhibition of collagen and elastin production in the body, resulting in skin that is not so firm.
And finally, this form of hydrolyzed fructose contains no enzymes, vitamins or minerals, so like sugar; it can rob the body of these nutrients in order to assimilate itself for use.
Now that I front-loaded the bad news, there is good news about agave. First and most important, its high fructose concentration is where its similarity to high fructose corn syrup ends. Agave is natural, while HFCS was invented, making agave superior in quality.
Agave’s low glycemic index does make it an okay sweetener to use in small quantities. Its molecular structure allows it to provide sweetness without a “sugar rush” and resulting crash and no blood sugar spike. And it does make great tequila, so it can’t be all bad. (Kidding!)
Look, I have always found agave to be too sweet in taste, so I did not use it much in my cooking. But I have found it to be a nice alternative for people looking for a more intense sweet without sugar and a gluten-free option for natural sweetening.
Do I think you should throw out your agave and cower in fear? Nope. But I do think that I will stick with my old reliable brown rice syrup, which I have used with great success in both cooking and health for more than 25 years. After processing, brown rice syrup remains 50% complex carbohydrate, 45% maltose and 5% glucose. This strong polysaccharide structure allows brown rice syrup to be used by the body more efficiently and is less likely to store as fat. And it digests more slowly so you are less likely to crave more and more sweet taste and binge. You will be satisfied with less. And in most cases, it also is gluten-free, so read the labels before you buy if that is a concern.
Now that’s not to say you can use it without reservation. With about 70-75 calories in a tablespoon, brown rice syrup, like all sweeteners is calorically dense (about 60 in a tablespoon of white sugar) and can pack on the pounds if not used wisely. So while a better choice than white sugar, because it’s a polysaccharide, like all sweeteners, brown rice syrup is a treat, not a staple of life, as much as we would like that to be our truth. If it becomes a staple of life, you will have the waistline to prove it!
But, back to the topic at hand. Is agave healthy as a natural sweetener? In small amounts, I would say it’s okay, not the best, but okay. Is it healthier than HFCS? Yes, because it’s natural, not invented. Is it healthier than artificial sweeteners? Heck, yes, for so many reasons. Are there other options? Yup, from xlyitol to stevia, healthy, natural, low in calories. If you like them, go for it. And it’s vegan, as is rice syrup, so it ain’t all bad news. And as our modern food supply goes, you could do a lot worse than agave nectar.
I prefer (and will likely always prefer) brown rice syrup as my primary sweetener for baking, sauces, puddings and all things sweet. So relax and enjoy the sweetness of life!
This article originally appeared on Alicia Silverstones blog as a guest post by Christina Pirello