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You Ask, I Answer: Agave Is The New Enemy?

Posted Apr 19 2010 8:03pm

agave-nectarMy girlfriend likes agave nectar in her coffee.  I’m seriously considering throwing it out  since reading this article that says it is worse than high fructose corn syrup, contains pesticides, and is addictive.

Should I forward this article to my girlfriend?  I’m sure she’ll be as shocked & upset as I am.

Thank you so much.

– Edrie Moore
Orlando, FL

Sigh.  As much as I love the Internet for allowing access to a surplus of information, it also poses an inherent danger anyone, anywhere, can write anything and reach a large audience.

Case in point: Dr. Joseph Mercola.  Dr. Mercola is an osteopath (similar to an MD) but considers himself an expert on many things outside his scope, including nutrition.  He is not trained in nutrition, nor do his credentials reflect any assurance that he is well-versed in the subject matter.

FYI: He also belongs to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.  Sounds uber serious and professional, right?  Well, consider some of their core beliefs .  Yikes!  Red flag!  Funny, by the way, how the name of that organization is oh-so-similar to one that actually reputable.

Alas, mainly due to slick marketing tactics, endless self-promotion, lots of product hawking, and lots of fear-mongering (forget sex, people, it’s fear that sells!), Dr. Mercola has amassed a large following.

Unfortunately, this means many of his inaccuracies end up published in online portals like The Huffington Post, and then inevitably spread like a wild fire of misinformation that can be hard to control, no matter how much reason and how many facts you attempt to put it out with.

Before reading my response below, I recommend you read his article first .

One more thing before we get started.  Look back at previous posts on this blog and you will see I am by no means an agave enthusiast.

Since I started Small Bites, I have always said that, as far as I am concerned, “sugar is sugar is sugar”.  All sweeteners offer 4 grams of sugar (16 calories) per teaspoon.  The best thing you can do is limit added sugars whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave.

That said, I don’t see the need to demonize agave, which brings us to this post.

Dr. Mercola’s statements are in red.  My responses are in black.

“We have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn’t until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause – - fructose.”

Here we have one of the most basic (yet very prevalent) erroneous statements about obesity rates that a certain component in food “causes” obesity.

Rising obesity rates are clearly linked to increases in caloric consumption.  Technically though very misleadingly one could argue that carbohydrates are behind rising obesity rates in the sense that some of the additional calories consumed over the past thirty years come from carbohydrates.

Protein intake has also increased in the past forty years, so one could also technically claim protein is behind rising obesity rates.  Of course, those sorts of statements are ultimately untrue and distract from any sort of serious conversation on the matter.

The issue with sweeteners ALL of them is that they provide empty calories.  Empty calories do not satiate.  That is why we can easily drink 600 calories of soda (whether it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, or agave nectar) and still feel hungry.  Eat 600 calories of a whole food that offers fat, protein, and fiber and I guarantee you will be full for hours.

“Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.”

Except that no one who consumes agave seeks it out because of lower fructose levels.  The main reasons why individuals prefer agave over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) include:

  • Protesting against agrobusiness
  • Avoidance of genetically modified organisms
  • Flavor/texture preferences
  • Veganism (the filtration of white table sugar often utilizes bone char from animals, thereby making it unsuitable for vegans)
  • Practical use (you can purchase agave nectar and bake with it, add it to beverages, or pour some over yogurt)

“Most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals.”

Okay, and most yogurts contain excessive amounts of sugar.  That doesn’t mean all yogurt should be avoided.  Similarly, a lot of salmon is farmed and offer less omega-3s than wild salmon.  The key isn’t to completely shun salmon, but to know which types to pick.  That said, though, the processing of agave only requires one step.

As Marion Nestle explained on her Food Politics blog earlier this year, “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.”

Raw agave nectar achieves this process through enzymes, while other varieties utilize heat.  I don’t know where the “caustic acid” notion comes from.

“While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

Terrible, terrible analogy.  I am not a fan of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” based on their glycemic index .  However, the glycemic index is an important tool for people living with diabetes.  In that case, agave is a better choice than other sweeteners with higher glycemic indeces.

“There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess.”

Concerns that have never been substantiated, to the best of my knowledge.  Again, they key is to look for reputable sources.  Look for the USDA Organic seal on bottles of agave nectar (I have yet to ever come across organic corn syrup anywhere), and make sure the ingredient list only lists agave nectar.

“Agave is known to contain large amounts of saponins. Saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting. There is also a possible link between saponins and miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus, so if you’re pregnant, you should definitely avoid agave products.”

Let’s hear it for fearmongering and pearl-clutching!  Saponins are found in a variety of foods, mainly legumes and beans.  They actually have health-promoting effects, including the lowering of LDL cholesterol.  When consumed in extremely high amounts, they can cause gastrointestinal distress.  Look at the data, though. and the amount of saponins needed to experience those symptoms is ridiculously high.  Dr. Mercola’s hyperbolic statements would be akin to a warning not to drink wine because it contains alcohol, which is capable of causing alcoholic poisoning.

“Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations, that is one tablespoon.”

Oh, yay creative writing!  I have absolutely no idea where the “25 grams a day” figure comes from.  It is not referenced and I certainly have not seen it in any reputable journal or publication.  What is most ridiculous about this quote is that it makes absolutely no mathematical sense.

One tablespoon of agave nectar contains 12 grams of sugar.

Let’s assume we are talking about one of these “super high in fructose varieties”.  Fine, if ninety percent of that sugar is fructose, that leaves us with 10.8 grams of fructose.

How Dr. Mercola concludes that a tablespoon (12 grams) of agave equal 25 grams of fructose beats me and scientific reasoning.

For the record, a medium mango contains more than 25 grams of fructose.  Or, a medium pear with breakfast and half a mango after dinner is also “metabolically poisonous.”

As for pesticide claims: if this is a concern for you, look for certified-organic agave.

Is agave addictive?  I have yet to see any evidence of that.  The very preliminary and very controversial research on sugar addiction only places the spotlight on sucrose, not fructose.

As I have stated before, I never considered agave a “wonder” food.  I never advocated liberal consumption, nor did I classify it as “healthy”.  While I take issue with anyone who classifies agave as a health-promoting “super food”, I also will not stand for absurd demonizations of it.

As one distributor or raw, organic agave put it, “[Agave] not going to solve world peace, cure cancer or do your laundry, but it will provide a delicious alternative to highly refined sweeteners, poor tasting nutritive sweeteners, and high glycemic natural sweeteners.”

One last point what is it about the word “Dr.” that turns so many people into sheep-like automatons?  For years now, I have heard people parrot absurd nutrition “facts” with the assumption that said information must be true because it is on Dr. Mercola’s website.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many, many knowledgeable, intelligent, well-meaning doctors.  There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe an MD after their name makes them THE authority on every topic under the umbrella of health.

The word “doctor” before someone’s name simply means they were granted an MD or PHD.  It tells us absolutely nothing about someone’s character, motivations, or extent of knowledge.

So, no, Edrie, please do not forward that inflammatory article to your girlfriend.  Allow her to enjoy a small amount of agave nectar in her coffee.

And, please, go on a Dr. Mercola detox.  It will do your brain good!

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