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The Truth about Agave Syrup:
Not as Healthy as You May Think

by John Kohler

A relatively recent trend in raw food preparation is the use of agave syrup (also called agave nectar) as sweetener is called for in raw recipes.  I am often asked about my views on this sweetener.

When I first switched to a raw food diet in 1995, agave syrup was unknown and was NOT USED IN RAW FOODS!  I first learned about agave syrup back in 1999 or 2000 at a trade show for the health food industry, which I attend regularly to keep up with the latest in the health and nutrition field.  I asked several questions, got some samples, and inquired on how the company processed the agave syrup.  At that time, I learned that it was processed at roughly 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit11, so I certainly didn’t consider it a raw food by any means.  Just like agave, some people consider maple syrup a raw food, but all maple syrup is heat-treated and is therefore not raw at all. 

Unfortunately, there are no “raw labeling laws.”  Anyone, anywhere, at any time can put “RAW” on their label and to them it can be supposedly raw since it is made from a “raw” material or simply not roasted. Just because it says “RAW” doesn’t necessarily mean that it was processed at a temperature under 118 degrees and still has all its enzymes, nutrients, and “life force” intact.  For example, when you notice the difference between raw carob powder and roasted carob powder in the store, it is my understanding that the “raw” carob powder has been heated to about 250 degrees, whereas the “roasted” carob powder has been heated to about 450 degrees.  The additional heat applied to the “roasted” carob powder causes the carob to “carmelize,” thus making it darker in appearance and different in taste as compared to the “raw” carob powder.  Some stores sell “truly raw” carob powder, it has a more chalkier texture than supposedly “raw” carob powder.  Jaffe Bros in Valley Center, California is a source of the “truly raw” carob powder.  There are several raw food snack bars that say “RAW” but have ingredients such as cooked cocoa powder (that can’t be raw) and cashew nuts (most of which are not truly raw).

An except on how Agave is processed

...Agave plants are crushed, and the sap collected into tanks. The sap is then heated to about 140F for about 36 hours not only to concentrate the liquid into a syrup, but to develop the sweetness. The main carbohydrates in the agave sap are complex forms of fructose called fructosans, one of which is inulin, a straight-chain fructose polymer about ten eight to 10 fructose sugar units long. In this state, the sap is not very sweet.

When the agave sap is heated, the complex fructosans are hydrolyzed, or broken into their constituent fructose units. The fructose-rich solution is then filtered to obtain the desired products that range from dark syrup with a characteristic vanilla aroma, to a light amber liquid with more neutral characteristics. Excerpt from: FoodProcessing.com  

So agave needs to be hydrolyzed so that the complex fructosans are "broken down" into fructose units or it won't be sweet!!  Great now im eating hydrolyzed raw agave syrup!

Let’s suppose for arguments sake, and to give agave the benefit of the doubt, that even with “new” technology companies are somehow able to process agave syrup below 118 degrees so it could be considered actually “raw”.  We still need to ask the question, is it good for us?   Some foods, even if they truthfully are raw, may not actually be HEALTHY.  Based on what I have learned about agave syrup, I believe it to be one of these foods.

My answer to the question, “Is agave nectar good for us?” would be “NO” based on my research.  Here is a sample of my findings:

  1. Agave Syrup is not a “whole” food. It is a fractionated and processed food.  Manufacturers take the liquid portion of the agave plant and “boil” it down, thus concentrating the sugar to make it sweet.  This is similar to how maple “sap” that comes directly from a tree is heated and concentrated to make maple “syrup.”  Agave Syrup is missing many of the nutrients that the original plant had to begin with.
  1. Agave Syrup was originally used to make tequila.  When Agave Syrup ferments, it literally turns into tequila.  The enzymatic activity therefore MUST be stopped so that the syrup will not turn into tequila in your cupboard.  Raw or not, if there is no enzymatic activity, it is certainly not a “live” food.  As Raw Foodists, we want the enzymes intact. 
  1. According to my research, there are three major producers of agave syrup.  Some of these companies also have other divisions that make Tequila.  For the most part, agave syrup is produced in the Guadalajara region in Mexico.  There are those within the industry who I have spoken to at various trade shows who say that some of the agave syrup is “watered down” with corn syrup in Mexico before it is exported to the USA.  Why is this done? Most likely because Agave Syrup is expensive, and corn syrup is cheap.
  1. Agave Syrup is advertised as “low glycemic” and marketed towards diabetics.  It is true, that agave itself is low glycemic.  We have to consider why agave syrup is “low glycemic.”  It is due to the unusually high concentration of fructose (90%) compared to the small amount of glucose (10%).  Nowhere in nature does this ratio of fructose to glucose occur naturally.  One of the next closest foods that contain almost this concentration of glucose to fructose is high fructose corn syrup used in making soda(HFCS 55), which only contains 55% fructose.  Even though fructose is low on the glycemic index, there are numerous problems associated with the consumption of fructose in such high concentrations as found in concentrated sweeteners:

A.    Fructose appears to interfere with copper metabolism.   This causes collagen and elastin being unable to form.  Collagen and elastin are connective tissue which essentially hold the body together.1   A deficiency in copper can also lead to bone fragility, anemia, defects of the arteries and bone, infertility, high cholesterol levels, heart attacks and ironically enough an inability to control blood sugar levels.2

B.    Research suggests that fructose actually promotes disease more readily than glucose.  This is because glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body, and fructose must be metabolized by the liver. 3  Tests on animals show that the livers of animals fed large amounts of fructose develop fatty deposits and cirrohosis of the liver.  This is similar to the livers of alcoholics.

C.    “Pure” isolated fructose contains no enzymes, vitamins or minerals and may rob the body of these nutrients in order to assimilate itself for physiological use.4

D.    Fructose may contribute to diabetic conditions.  It reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors.  Insulin receptors are the way glucose enters a cell to be metabolized.  As a result, the body needs to make more insulin to handle the same amount of glucose.5

E.    Consumption of fructose has been shown to cause a significant increase in uric acid.  An increase in uric acid can be an indicator of heart diease.6

F.     Fructose consumption has been shown to increase blood lactic acid, especially for people with conditions such as diabetes.  Extreme elevations may cause metabolic acidosis.7

G.    Consumption of fructose leads to mineral losses, especially excretions of iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc compared to subjects fed sucrose.8

H.    Fructose may cause accelerated aging through oxidative damage.  Scientists found that rats given fructose had more cross-linking changes in the collagen of their skin than other groups fed glucose.  These changes are thought to be markers for aging.9

I.        Fructose can make you fat!  It is metabolized by the liver and converts to fat more easily than any other sugar.  Fructose also raises serum triglycerides (blood fats) significantly.10

  1. Agave Syrup and other concentrated sweeteners are addictive, so you end up trading a cooked addiction (eating candy bars or cookies)  for a “raw” addiction which is not much better.  Eating concentrated sweeteners makes it harder to enjoy the sweet foods we should be eating – whole fresh fruit since they don’t seem as sweet by comparison.   
  2. Long-time raw foodist and Medical Doctor, Dr. Gabriel Cousens, M.D. says that agave nectar raises blood sugar just like any other sugar.  Dr. Cousens wrote a book, "There Is a Cure for Diabetes".

Whole fruits generally contain a much smaller amount of fructose compared to sucrose and glucose.  In addition, fruits contain vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and other nutrients.  Our bodies are designed to digest a complete “package” of nutrition that appears in whole, fresh, ripe fruits.  Could nature be wrong?  For example, it’s always better to eat fruits whole or blend them rather than juice them.  When you juice fruits you remove the fiber which helps to slow down the absorption of the sugars. Concentrated sweeteners also contain no fiber and have much greater concentrations of simple sugars than are found in fresh fruit or even juices.

Now that you have a better understanding about Agave Syrup, hopefully the companies selling “raw” agave won’t dupe you.  They are out to make a buck, which in this case is unfortunately at the expense of your health.  If you are making a “raw” recipe and it does require a concentrated sweetener, I have some recommendations for some better options to use instead of agave:  (Listed in order of preference.)

1.     Use ripe fresh fruits.  Ripe fruits contain nutrients, fiber and water, a complete package, as nature intended.  I find that ripe and organic fruits are usually sweetest.

2.     Use fresh whole stevia leaves.  Stevia is an herb that actually tastes sweet but contains no sugar.  This herb can be very hard to find fresh, so I personally grow my own.  If fresh leaves are not available, get the whole dried leaves or the whole leaf powder.  Avoid the white stevia powder and the stevia liquid drops as they have been highly processed.

3.     Use dried fruits.  If you need a “syrup” consistency, just soak the dried fruits in some water and blend them up with the same soak water.  Dates, figs, and prunes are some of the sweetest dried fruits that tend to work well in recipes.  Try wet Barhi dates blended with a little water for an amazing maple syrup substitute.   Please note: Since there are no raw labeling standards, some dried fruit may be dried at higher than 118 degrees, and thus, not really raw.  If you want to ensure you are eating really raw dried fruit, it is best do dehydrate it yourself.

4.     Raw Honey is a concentrated sweetener, and although not recommended, in my opinion it is better than agave syrup because it is a whole food and occurs naturally in nature.  Of course, honey is not vegan and that may be a concern for some.   I recommend purchasing local honey from a beekeeper.  

Other “concentrated sweeteners” that are often seen in raw food recipes include:

1)     Maple Syrup which is not raw and heat processed. If it is not organic, it may also contain formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.

2)     Sucanat or evaporated cane juice is pure dried sugar cane juice.  Unfortunetly this is processed at a temperature above 118 degrees and therefore can’t be considered raw.

3)     Yacon Syrup is a syrup from the root of the yacon plant in South America.  It is once again, a concentrated sweetener processed at a temperature of up to 140 degrees farenheight.

The moral of this article: Eat whole fresh fruits and vegetables, they are always best.  Always question processed and concentrated foods that are not found in nature, even if “raw”.

References:

1.      Fields, M, Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine, 1984, 175:530-537.

2.      Klevay, Leslie, Acting Director of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, N.D.

3.      American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2002 Vol. 76, No. 5, 911-922.

4.      Appleton, Nancy Ph.D., Fructose is No Answer For a Sweetener, http://www.mercola.com/2002/jan/5/fructose.htm.

5.      H. Hallfrisch, et al.,The Effects of Fructose on Blood Lipid Levels, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 37: 5, 1983, 740-748.

6.      J. MacDonald, Anne Keyser, and Deborah Pacy, Some Effects, in Man, of Varying the Load of Glucose, Sucrose, Fructose, or Sorbitol on Various Metabolites in Blood, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 31 (August 1978)): 1305-1311.

7.      Hallfrisch, Judith, Metabolic Effects of Dietary Fructose, FASEB Journal 4 (June 1990): 2652-2660.

8.      A. E. Bergstra, A. G. Lemmens, and A. C. Beynens, Dietary Fructose vs. Glucose Stimulates Nephrocalcinogenesis in Female Rats, Journal of Nutrition 123, no. 7 (July 1993): 1320-1327.

9.      Roger B. Mc Donald, Influence of Dietary Sucrose on Biological Aging, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 62 (suppl), (1995): 284s-293s.

10.  H. Hallfrisch, et al.,The Effects of Fructose on Blood Lipid Levels, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 37: 5, 1983, 740-748.

11. Method of producing fructose syrup from agave plants.

About the author, John Kohler has been on the living and raw foods diet for nearly a decade; he turned to living foods for healing from a life threatening-illness (spinal meningitis) and has enjoyed dynamic health ever since. One of Johns goals is to educate the world about the power of living and raw foods. He is the founder and webmaster of the largest living and raw food website on the internet, www.living-foods.com, and www.rawfoodsupport.com.  John is also the number one expert on raw foods appliances and gadgets in the world. He is widely sought out and regularly speaks and instructs at many raw food festivals and events. His area of expertise include recipe demos with 5-7 ingredients or less, young coconut recipes, traveling while raw, raw food appliances, successful transition to the raw foods diet,  and the importance of a fresh organic whole foods diet. He believes that by using fresh, organic, and whole ingredients, that simple, healthy, and delicious recipes can be made with few ingredients and without the use of salt, oil, spices, refined sweeteners or chemical additives.   He is known for his pragmatic approach to raw foods and has coached and helped thousands of people to incorporate more fresh raw fruits and vegetables into their diet. John is also available to individual raw food coaching.

 

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