I have received a few enquiries in the past few months about whether agave syrup is really all that good for you or not as I include it quite a bit in my recipe book and diet guidelines. I have been musing on it for a while and reading around the subject. Despite the fact that the debate rages on, I am ready to give my verdict for now.
Basically, the concern has arisen because of the fact that agave has a high fructose content. Originally, I and many others saw that agave came from a plant, underwent very little processing, was twice as sweet as sugar (and so you needed to use half as much for the same taste) and, importantly, it had a low GL score making it unlikely to give you that sugar hit and affect your insulin levels.
What we didn’t pick up at the time was that agave has a low GL score because it is high fructose and is metabolised by the liver and not in the same way as other sugars like glucose, lactose etc.
Most of the concerns about fructose consumption has become of the increasing use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in processing foods, largely because it is cheaper than sugar for the manufacturers. Some experts now believe that because of the increase in the use of this high fructose syrup, we are gaining fat. This may be partly due to the fact that fructose is metabolised as a fat in the liver and doesn’t switch off the hunger/sugar signals like other sugars do so we eat more of it than we would other sugar-based foods. I can’t help feeling that was known by manufacturers who want us, of course, to eat and buy more of their products, but perhaps I am just getting too cynical!
So, is agave good for us or not? Sure good quality agave is largely unprocessed and often organic. It is definitely NOT the same beast as the chemically-manufactured HFCS in any way shape or form, but it IS high fructose, so we have to think about fructose as the issue rather than agave on its own.
My view, for what it’s worth, and I have said it before is that sugar is sugar is sugar. None of it is any good for you. But, I live in the real world and have a sweet tooth myself, so I know we are going to want something. And let’s not forget that fruit is a significant source of fructose too, except it is slowed down somewheat by the fibre that comes with it. I believe that keeping total intake of fructose below 25g per day (the generally accepted recommended amount) is a good idea. Problem is, we tend to eat a lot more than that.
I think a little agave is OK. One teaspoon of a good quality agave is roughly 4g of fructose apparently. Avoid bad quality ones as I have heard rumours that some manufacturers ‘cut’ theirs with HFCS to make it cheaper, thereby exacerbating the fructose problem. Given the fact that you will get fructose in other sources throughout the day, 1 teaspoon of agave is plenty for a day; I wouldn’t go over that. In fact, it may be a good idea, as with other foods, to vary things round a little and use other sweeteners to (and I am NOT talking aspartame there!!). I tend to use a little agave on my rice porridge and green tea, xylitol powder in baking and FOS powder sometimes.
Resources and Other Interesting Info:
I saw an interesting piece in WDDTY about sugar generally and they ended with a rundown of some of the ‘safest’ sweeteners around. They recommend xylitol (watch out as sometimes this can come from wheat), Lo han kuo (from a Chinese fruit), Stevia, FOS (fructo-oligo-saccharides – fructose based again???) and agave, but check the full story out: The Sweetest Scandal. They also did another sugary piece here: Sickeningly Sweet.
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson has just written a piece about fructose on the Foodsmatter site: Fructose, the Good, Bad and The Mal-absorbed which points out too the little-known problem of fructose intolerance and explains more about the liver metabolisation process.
Dr John Briffa makes a good point about fruit jucies being very high fructose sources too in his blog post: Why Fructose Needs To Be Consumed With Caution
A response from Groovy Foods, a manufacturer of agave syrup who introduced it into the UK. This was on the Fussy Foodie site and I note they don’t take on the subject of fructose at all, which is the real issue.
Hope that helps to clarify the situation. I repeat: no sugar is actually good for you. You are just trying to find the one that gives you the nicest taste with the fewest issues! The search goes on, always. And I will keep you updated as I continue musing…!