At Natural Grocers we have decided to limit the number of agave syrup/nectar-containing products we carry on our shelves. This is primarily due to the high fructose content of these sweeteners. This position includes pure agave nectar as well as products sweetened with agave nectar. We understand and respect that some of our customers prefer agave as their sweetener of choice and therefore we will always carry some products containing these ingredients, but we also work to provide our customers with the healthiest possible options and believe that many people have been misled about the safety of agave. We recommend anyone interested in a healthier, vegan sweetener look to Coconut Nectar or Cassava Syrup.
Our company’s concern with agave is that it is primarily fructose (~70%-85% of its carbohydrates) and also contains some fermentable compounds known as polyols.i Because agave syrup is composed largely of fructose, it has a relatively low glycemic index and therefore minimal effects on blood sugar. As a consequence, it is a popular recommendation in the natural foods industry. However, recent research has begun to suggest that consuming large amounts of any sweetener high in fructose may have negative effects on human health.ii
The agave plant grows natively in the southern U.S. and South America. It is most commonly associated with Mexico. Like many plants in their natural state, agave probably does have some health benefits. However, as is so often the case, when the product is processed and refined, it tends to lose some (or all) of its beneficial health effects. This appears to be the case with the refined agave sweetener that people are consuming today.
When agave is processed into a syrup, the manufacturers break the complex fiber down into fructose by processing the fluid with heat and/or enzymes. This process destroys the health-promoting properties of the agave plant and produces the concentrated syrup available on store shelves that is claimed to be healthy. The manufacturing process is similar to those used in making other unhealthy sweeteners, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup. This processing results in agave 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 is of particular concern due to several unique metabolic and neuroendocrine properties it possesses.iii It is metabolized almost exclusively in the liver where it is removed from the blood stream; there is nothing for the body to do with it except convert it into fat and store it.iv People who consume too much high-fructose food can in time become overweight and develop high blood pressure, dyslipidemia with fatty liver (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease) and insulin resistance—conditions that doctors group together under the name metabolic syndrome. Also fructose engages in non-enzymatic fructation (a process similar to the non-enzymatic glycation that generates advanced glycation end production) and reactive oxygen species production which cause cellular dysfunction.v Lastly fructose possesses unique neuroendocrine properties. It does not suppress production of the hunger hormone ghrelin as other carbohydrates do, leading to excessive consumption and because it stimulates the part of the brain associated with reward it can result in continued ingestion. Short term studies demonstrate that excessive fructose consumption increases serum triglycerides and visceral fat more than glucose, indicating the potential for foods containing large amounts of “free fructose” to cause metabolic damage. Furthermore, new research has identified a previously unknown molecular mechanism that points to fructose as a key driver of uncontrolled and unhealthy growth of the heart muscle.vi This can lead to a condition known as cardiac hypertrophy and can lead to fatal heart failure.
Coconut nectar and cassava syrup– Both of these syrups are fructose-free, plant-based sweeteners. Coconut nectar is a low glycemic liquid sweetener derived from the liquid sap of the coconut blossoms, and it naturally contains vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients such as vitamin C, and some varieties contain medium chain triglycerides. Natural coconut blossom sap contains about 1.5% fructose when collected from the blossoms. As this sap is dried and thickened, removing much of the water, the free fructose content of the final liquid reaches only about 10% -- far lower than the 50% - 90% fructose found in agave nectar products.vii Cassava Syrup is a natural liquid sweetener made from the root of the cassava plant. Natural enzymes are used to convert raw cassava into this sweet, neutral-flavored syrup. It is fructose-free, vegan, and gluten-free and is lower in calories and carbohydrates than regular cane sugar.