Agave syrup: a wolf in sheep’s clothes

Is agave syrup healthy?

Also called “agave nectar” to make it sound like a more valuable product, agave syrup is yet another example of several attempts by food producers to make a sugar look “healthy” just because it has a lower GI.

But what is agave? The agave plant grows natively in the southern US and Latin America. In Mexico, in particular, it has been used for centuries to make tequila by fermenting the sugars contained in the agave plant into alcohol.

When processed into a syrup, the manufacturers break fructans[1] into fructose by exposing the sugary fluid to heat and/or enzymes. Consequently, agave syrup is basically nothing more than high-fructose corn syrup[2] masquerading as a healthy food. It comes as no surprise, then, that agave nectar has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener, with the only exception being pure liquid fructose, of course!

The major carbohydrate and polyol in agave syrups are, respectively, fructose and inositol which, on average, have concentrations of 84.29% (fructose) and 0.38% (inositol). As a comparison, HFCS contains between 42% and 55% fructose[3]. Not bad, right?

In the agave plant, most of the sweet taste is due to a particular kind of fructan called inulin[4], which has some health benefits, thanks to its prebiotic properties and because it is classified as dietary fiber. Unfortunately, there is very little inulin left in the syrup, which is sweet only due to the high fructose content.

Finally, in case you had any doubt concerning fructose being healthier as compared to other sugars, let me remind you that too much sugar in the diet can lead to weight gain, causing you to become overweight or obese, which can increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Consuming too many sugary drinks and foods can also cause tooth decay[5]. Despite the fact that fructose can indeed elevate blood glucose slower than glucose and sucrose in the short-term, it contributes to insulin resistance when consumed in high amounts[6].

I must confess that I am a bit disappointed myself (although not surprised). Agave syrup does taste incredibly good, and it would have been great if it was a healthy product as well. Unfortunately, it is not.

 

[1] A fructan is a polymer made of fructose molecules bound together.

[2] High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a liquid sweetener alternative to sucrose (table sugar) used in many foods and beverages. Early developmental work was carried out in the 1950s and 1960s, with shipments of the first commercial HFCS product to the food industry occurring in the late 1960s. Phenomenal growth over the ensuing 35 or more years made HFCS one of the most successful food ingredients in modern history.

[3] White J. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 88: 1716S-1721S. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/88/6/1716S.full

[4] Inulins are a group of naturally occurring polysaccharides produced by many types of plants, industrially most often extracted from chicory. The inulins belong to a class of dietary fibers known as fructans and are often added to probiotics to favour bacteria growth in the bowel.

[5] British Dietetic Association. WHO Final Sugars Guidelines for Adults and Children. https://www.bda.uk.com/news/view?id=52.

[6] Nature. Alternative sugars: Agave nectar. https://www.nature.com/articles/sj.bdj.2017.697.

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Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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