Agave Nectar: Food For Thought

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At roadshows, one of my favorite things to demonstrate with the Blendtec is its ability to make ice-cream.  Of course, when it comes to ice-cream (made in a blender or not), there are options in textures and ingredients.  But our true affinity for it is obviously because it tastes great.  Several of the recipes I make in the Blendtec call for added sweetener.  In these instances I’ll use a product that has been for the past few years building quite a reputation, both positive and not so:  agave nectar.  I use it at my shows for two main reasons.  First, it contributes to making an unbelievably great-tasting ice-cream.  Second, in exchange for offering it for sale at my booth, one particular manufacturer of agave nectar lets me use their product in my demonstrations.  It’s a win-win-win situation for them, club members, and me.

Its taste notwithstanding, any actual nutritional benefits of the product assume agave nectar, itself, isn’t just a thinly-veiled reincarnation of the de facto devil of all sweeteners – High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – which is the exact claim many of its detractors make.  Because I demonstrate with it I consider it my duty to familiarize my customers with agave nectar to the extent I can.  Even though I don’t work for the manufacturer, I am technically selling their product at my shows.  More importantly, I’m using it in the recipes that potential customers of my product are trying.  And whether they buy my blender or not, if they’re trying my samples, I feel they have a right to know what’s in them.  With all due consideration given to the assertions of its opponents, the following explains why I think agave nectar is, indeed, worthy of a spot in your pantry.

What It Is

In a word, agave nectar is sugar.  The product itself is relatively new on the sweetener scene, having first appeared commercially in the mid-1990s.  The sweetening properties of the agave plant, though, have been utilized for hundreds of years in Mexican cultures dating back to the Aztec civilization.  The nectar is derived either solely or in combination from one of two species of the agave plant:  Blue Agave (Agave Tequiliana) and White Agave (Agave Salmiana).  Processing techniques vary and can have significant impact on final nutritional properties, but the end result is a fructose-based sweetener similar to honey in both flavor and color, though slightly less viscous.  Extremely sweet, its flavor is also generally considered quite mild, adding to its appeal.

To produce a raw, organic agave nectar from the Blue Agave plant, the bulb, or root (called the piña) is ground down to a pulp using a water-injection process called hydrolysis to extract the naturally occurring fructans (chains of fructose molecules) called inulin.  The inulin juice can then be either heated or injected with organic enzymes, effectively breaking it down to simple sugars – fructose and glucose.  After evaporation, the juice develops a syrup-like consistency in its final form.

In the center of the White Agave plant grows a large stalk called a Quiote.  The Quiote is essentially a flower.  To nourish the flower, the plant produces a sweet liquid called aquamiel.  If the Quiote is removed prior to maturation the plant will continue to produce aquamiel.  This liquid is harvested daily and, again, organic enzymes are added to convert it to simple sugars, followed by a final evaporation which results in the bottled product.  Though roughly equal in the percentage of fructose content as other popular sweeteners like table sugar and honey (pure Blue Agave nectar can be higher, depending on processing technique), the lower glucose levels result in a significantly lower overall sugar content and much lower ratings on the glycemic index as it is glucose, not fructose, which primarily contributes to short-term fluctuations in blood sugar levels.

What It Isn’t

The universal misconception in seemingly endless blog posts and articles condemning agave nectar is that processing techniques mirror those of HFCS and result in an altogether similar product.  In a nutshell, HFCS is the result of starches from genetically modified corn which have been converted into simple sugars via chemical processes separating them from the corn’s insoluble fiber.  The starch is then mixed with acids and filtration chemicals, and heated to form a glucose-based syrup.  Ratios from 40% to 90% of this syrup is next further processed to convert the glucose into fructose, which is then added back to the original glucose-based syrup.  The result is high-fructose corn syrup, so labeled because of added converted fructose to a glucose-based initial product.

The fructose levels of both HFCS and agave nectar can, again, depending on processing techniques, be similar.  In no uncertain terms, however, does the processing of HFCS allow for any nutritive value from the original food (in this case, corn) to be preserved.  Not so with organic, raw agave nectar, and this is the main difference in the two:  the calories of HFCS are empty calories, meaning, they contain none of the nutritive properties of agave nectar:  vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.  This is in no way an assertion that agave nectar is actually health food.  Again, as mentioned earlier, it is sugar.  Ingesting excessive amounts of any sugar, agave nectar included, comes with consequences.  This claim is not that agave nectar is good for you.  Rather, that it is a better alternative than most sweeteners – all of which must be used in moderation.

Of course, not all agave nectars are created equal, and it is highly likely there are manufacturers producing it with very similar processing techniques as that of HFCS.  An example would be grinding the piña to a pulp and boiling it, then processing it chemically to form syrup.  It is also possible the addition of non-organic enzymes for sugar conversion takes place with some makers.  In fact, any processing methods other than those mentioned earlier probably result in a product no more beneficial, health-wise, than HFCS.  It is always wise to do your due-diligence before purchasing.  Short of visiting the manufacturing plants, themselves, my advice is to look for “raw” and, of course, “organic” on your labels.  I also tend to gravitate toward lighter-colored agave nectars.

Common Sense Prevails

With any true raw, organic agave nectar, its user is benefitting from a sweetener devoid of additives and fillers, yet also contains vitamins, nutrients, and even inulin – a beneficial fiber known to promote healthy, functional bacteria in the digestive tract.  In general, it will contain a lower overall percentage of actual sugars on a gram-for-gram basis than other sweeteners, yet its higher fructose ratios make its sweetness more easily detectable, meaning less of it has to be used than other sugars to yield similar “sweetness” levels.  It’s versatile – can be used in beverages, for cooking, baking, and canning, and is also suitable for those on gluten-free diets.

Once more, moderation must be exercised.  Even agave nectar’s most ardent supporters acknowledge exercising a dietary option of no added sugar is the best course of action, health-wise.  But if you’re going to use sugar (or want to make certain ice-creams in your blender), discretionary use of agave nectar offers a natural and delicious alternative with nutritional benefits not found in other forms.

For more detailed coverage of the nutritional science behind agave nectar, as well as differing opinions on it, I recommend the following sources, which were consulted for this article:

Why Agave Nectar Is Not Worse Than High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Caution: Contains Agave Nectar (More to the story)

Agave Nectar:  Good or Bad?

Why I Use Agave Nectar:  An Examination of Agave Facts and Fiction

 

14 Comments
Questions? Comments? Let’s talk about it here!
  1. Similar to Jennifer, above, we use raw, organic honey and/or 100% maple syrup for sweeteners, and I have tended to avoid agave syrup. Thanks for your thoughts on honey, above – do you have any thoughts on maple syrup? I know it’s pricey, but for ingredients used in low quantities, I’m always in favor of paying more if you’re buying denser nutritional value & reducing the ill-effects of alternative ingredients.

  2. Hi Blender Dude,
    Would you be willing to share your recipe for vanilla ice-cream using Agave. I am having a lot of difficulty finding one that is a custard base.
    Thanks a lot!

    • bd

      Auncott, I do not have what I would consider a good vanilla ice cream recipe, with or without agave. The reason for this is the ingredient list is so minimal. When I first started demonstrating these blenders, I would make a version that called for 1/2 a box of Jello vanilla flavored pudding mix. I also added 1/2 of a banana and some vanilla extract. While the end result was fairly tasty, due to all the artificial ingredients in the pudding mix I quickly scrapped that particular demonstration, as it was counter-intuitive to the rationale most people were using in considering such a purchase in the first place.

  3. Something occurred to me while I was reading your article and your feedback about using less Agave than regular table sugar. For some reason, it didn’t really occur to me to really look into the benefit of that. But, as I was saying, most experts seem to be concerned over the fructose content of Agave. And because most Agave brands contain more fructose than even HFCS, some experts have made claims of it being even worse. But then I started to think about what you and others have said about using less Agave than sugar.

    So assuming that the Agave someone was using contained 80% fructose, and a recipe called for say, 3 grams of table sugar (which is approximately 50% fructose), then that means because of Agave being sweeter than sugar, the recipe may only need 1.5 grams of Agave. And if the Agave is 80% fructose that means out of that 1.5 grams of Agave, 1.2 grams of it will be fructose. Compare this to the 3 grams of sugar; approximately 1.5 grams will be fructose since table sugar is about 50% fructose. So even if the Agave was a high fructose containing Agave of 80% fructose, if only half as much is used as table sugar, then it still turns out to be less fructose than regular sugar.

    But then let’s say for every 1 gram of sugar, 2/3 of a gram is used of Agave. So going back to the example, if 3 grams of sugar is used and 2 grams of Agave is used, then 1.6 grams is fructose. So that would be very close to the 1.5 grams of fructose if 3 grams of sugar is used.
    This might make it appear that if 2/3 of Agave is used, then it is no more beneficial than just using sugar. That is, until other factors are considered:

    -Agave is low on the glycemic index. And all things being equal, I’d rather take a product that is low on the GI over one that isn’t.

    -Agave is 900 calories per cup while sugar is 800 calories per cup. So even if someone was using 2/3 of a cup of Agave to substitute for 1 cup of sugar, that’s still around 600 calories which is 200 calories less than the sugar.

    -If the Agave is from a reputable brand, then it is USDA Organic and possibly raw, where table sugar is basically garbage.

    So I must agree, Agave does have its place as a sugar substitute, so long as one realizes that because it is sweeter than sugar, less of it needs to be used. The problem will only really appear if someone is trying to use 1 cup of Agave for every 1 cup of sugar.

    Also, that less Agave needs to be used is something I have not heard the experts address. But as far as I’m concerned, this sort of closes the chapter on Agave for me. It does have its place as a valid sugar substitute.

    Also note that my calculations were assuming the Agave was 80% fructose, which I think is very generous, sort of a “worse case” scenario. And the Agave still comes out on top.

    But, anyway, thanks BD for thinking outside of the box and not just following along with what the experts have been saying. Your article is why I decided to look into the issue. If not for it, I would have just taken it for granted that the “experts” were correct on the issue and not look into it further.

    • Blenderdude

      Joe, thanks for this feedback. I should have just let you write the article for me 🙂 . Realizing that agave has its place as a suitable sweetener is half the battle. The other half is finding a reputable, organic, minimally-processed one. There is a lot of garbage on the market, still, from the days of the initial agave “boom.” I encourage everyone to be as thoughtful in their buying decisions as you, and to use sweeteners in moderation regardless of which one is ultimately chosen.

  4. I’m starting to look into this issue myself. From what I understand, and is apparentely the case for all sweeteners, the main issue with agave is the fructose content. Fructose being the sugar found in fruits, and when it bonds with glucose (a different form of sugar), it forms sucrose, i.e. table sugar.

    Apparentely fructose is the big nasty in the health world. High fructose corn syrup is approximately 55% fructose. Agave varies greatly depending on the manufacturer. From what I’ve heard, some brands of agave can be as high as 90% fructose.

    I contacted Xagave as they advertize themselves as a low-fructose agave. They told me their product fluctuates between 70-80% fructose.

    According to wikipedia, honey is typically 38% fructose.

    I’m not trying to make any type of claim. But just to say that it appears that it’s the fructose content that seems to have experts worried. Also it’s not that fructose is poisonous or anything. It’s that it needs to be limited; and perhaps that’s the real lesson, moderation. Excessive sugar of any form isn’t good.

    • Blenderdude

      Joe, I’ve never seen Xagave advertised as low-fructose. They do, like other agave manufacturers, claim to be a low-glycemic sweetener. Xagave’s high fructose-to-glucose ratio of it’s total sugar makeup is what supposedly minimizes its effect on blood sugar levels. This also results in it being sweeter than similar sized servings of comparable sweeteners. When I examine advertised percentages as they pertain to sugars, I try to be careful to distinguish (and not confuse) ratios of total sugars in a product with the percentage of total sugars relative to its total composition.

      This percentage of total sugars ration can affect how much sweetener is required for any given purpose. Everyone should do his or her own due diligence and moderate sugar intake accordingly. If I need to use a sweetener, though, I would prefer to use one that is all-natural with a high fructose-to-glucose ratio, which in turn requires me to use less of it to achieve the same sweetness levels as another sweetener with fructose to sucrose levels which more closely resemble one another, and may have been artificially created in the process.

      • BD, I totally hear you about picking a quality sweetener. For the record, I do use agave myself.

        Regarding the low-fructose claim, I guess Xagave doesn’t overtly make that claim. But if you do a Google search for “xagave” the very first link to their website says, “Organic Agave Nectar–Xagave Premium Low Fructose Sweetener”. Also on their page called, “Dispelling Agave Myths” the page says, ”
        Organic Agave Nectar – Xagave Premium Low Fructose Sweetener » Dispelling Agave Myths”.

        But like you said, there is a lot to take into consideration, such as the fact that agave is very sweet so it takes less of it to sweeten something. That in itself, would automatically make it not as bad as something that you’d have to use equal amounts of.

        It’s definitely worth digging into.

        • Blenderdude

          Joe, you are correct about the tag line. That is an interesting marketing strategy for sure.

    • Odd, the label one can read on their website shows Xagave product at 47% Fructose. Not sure when you posted your comment as unfortunately this site does not add the post dates to them.

  5. Hi Blender Dude! I finally settled on a Vitamix, and it will be delivered today! I’m going grocery shopping tonight 🙂 I’m enjoying all of your articles, videos, recipes, reviews….there’s not a part of your website I haven’t visited. I’m trying to understand why agave nectar is such a popular substitute for honey. We use local, raw, organic honey for the obvious health benefits. What flavor or nutrition benefit comes from using agave instead? I’m assuming it just adds a more pleasant flavor (from what you’ve written), but I’m not sure. Thanks for your time!

    • Blenderdude

      Jennifer, congrats on your Vitamix! Agave is popular for a couple of reasons. First, it has a mild flavor that is virtually indistinguishable from table sugar when mixed in with other ingredients. It is also sweeter than table sugar so less is needed on relative scale. Another reason it is/was popular is when it first “hit the scene” it was marketed as a sugar replacement. Some even considered it “health food.” As we know now, it is, in a nutshell, just another form of sugar, although one with some advantages over some more traditional sweeteners.

      Raw, local honey is a great alternative to table sugar. The major benefit to agave is the inulin it contains, but, as you know, honey has it’s advantages, too. Stick with it if you enjoy the flavor.

  6. BD,

    Thanks for the post. There is a certainly a LOT of conflicting information flying around the net about Agave. Are all raw/organic agave syrups created equal? If it has the USDA organic label, should I assume that it is nutritionally superior to table sugar? How do consumers distinguish good agave products from bad.

    Thanks

    • Blenderdude

      Ed, definitely not – all agave nectars are not created equal. All agave nectars are processed to some degree – they have to be in order for the finished product to get into the bottle. And although the USDA “Organic” label is not a sure sign that the product has been processed ideally, it is not a bad place to start. Personally, I wouldn’t purchase any agave that wasn’t marked “Organic.” As I mention in the article, the process from plant to bottle is really what makes the difference, and there is unfortunately no real way of knowing how each individual company goes about it short of contacting the company or doing your own due dilligence.

      What I can tell you is that if you find a quality agave nectar produced by a reputable company, it is pretty much a given that the product will be nutritionally superior to table sugar. In addition to the “Organic” label, I also gravitate toward the lighter-colored syrups.

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