the “controversy” series #1: agave nectar

Hiking up in the hills of Sedona last weekend, we came across many agave plants—finally, something in this damn desert I recognized, since their nectar has recently emerged as a wholesome sweetener, a healthy alternative to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and granulated sugars. And it, too, has recently become a part of my diet, a much better substitute for sweetener in drinks and recipes… or so I thought.

An agave plant in full bloom on the climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, Sedona, Arizona.

I expressed my fascination with the plant to our trail guide (a certified nautropath!), but she didn’t share my enthusiasm, muttering something about how it was just as bad, or worse yet than any of the other liquidy sugars out there. Uh-oh.

Though I didn’t get a chance to pick her brain, I did want to check it out when I got home (admittedly, mum and I have been DUMPING the stuff into homemade iced tea to replenish electrolytes and stay buzzed.. er, awake for afternoon lectures at yoga teacher training). I’d envisioned myself maybe doing a posting on the controversy of the stuff (and continuing to sip it!), but unfortunately what I’ve found proves otherwise.

It appears there’s no argument.. this shit ain’t better for you, in fact, it’s worse! So who told everyone this stuff was healthy in the first place??

Well, for one, lots of bakeries have begun to substitute this “healthy alternative” to sweeten up little morsels of deliciousness. Further, nice-r coffee and tea shops are starting to include it next to the brown sugar and honey. But worst of all, a lot of the health-food recipes I’ve come across fully support and encourage the use of this nectar—and with reason—it is stereotypical vegan alternative to honey. So it’s understandable for me to think I’ve found my savior of sweetners. But now, all of this information makes me wonder—is it really better than just plain ol’, natural sugar?

While I can’t claim to have done any of the scientific research myself, a little internet perusing leads me to believe it just ain’t. Foodrenegade seems to make the best argument against it (though if you do a little searching yourself you’ll find some pretty similar answer):

Agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules.Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave.

The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.

Agave nectar is not traditional, is highly refined, and actually has more concentrated fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. It is not a “natural” sweetener. Thus far, the evidence definitely points toward the conclusion: Agave Nectar = Bad.

There it goes down the rabbit-food hole, another health nut’s dream of finding some guilt-free substance that we can load on our toast and pancakes without shame or limitation. Sigh—isn’t that the point anyway? Moderation? Taking sugars down a notch or two in general? Maybe I won’t throw out the nectar just yet… I’ll just have to avoid drizzlling (is that a word?) that sweet, sweet nectar like it came from the gods.

The best alternative, then? Stay tuned….

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