A new Kid on the block: agave nectar

By Louisa Enright | Oct 09, 2010

In 2008, Rami Nagel decided to investigate agave nectar, a new kid on the sweetener block. He discovered that agave nectar first appeared in 1995 at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California. Sellers were advertising agave nectar as being an organic, all natural raw food with a low glycemic index; as being kosher; as being grown in nutrient-rich soils; as being fair-traded; and as being sustainably harvested.

However, it is now clear that despite advertising hype and mislabeling issues, all commercial agave nectar sold in this country is highly refined fructose syrup like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It is also clear that commercial agave nectar is particularly dangerous for diabetics. Finally, it is also clear that agave nectar contains high levels of saponin, a toxic steroid derivative which can cause miscarriages, and should have warning labels to that effect.

Agave is not a cactus, but a succulent in the lily family. Agave syrup is made from either the large, starchy root, which is shaped like a pineapple, or from the sap that appears when its bloom appears and is removed. Both processes happen when the plant is about eight years old. Both processes use industrialized practices, though the Nekutli company, whose brand is Madhava Agave Nectar 100 percent Natural Sweetener, claims otherwise. Nagel notes that Nekutli vacuum evaporates raw nectar and uses enzymes to hydrolize it, all of which removes the natural salts and amino acids and creates a high fructose syrup.

Nagel discovered that some traditional people in Mexico do make an agave sweetener, called aquamiel, by boiling down nectar collected from the agave plant, much as we boil down maple syrup. Nagel writes that this mineral rich syrup is thick and has a "characteristic smell and strong flavor." Aquamiel, however, ferments into sour and smelly fermented pulque within 36 to 48 hours. And, traditionally-made pulque is difficult to find, even in Mexico, as locations of the rare sources are closely guarded secrets and as pulque does not transport well.

The commercial development of agave nectar, Nagel learned, may have begun as a way to use waste products from tequila production, which also uses the agave plant. In any case, refining agave nectar produces high levels of fructose: up to 84 percent. This man-made fructose, as is true for HFCS, is "unbound" because it is no longer part of a plant's other components, like its fiber and nutrients. And, this man-made fructose has a different chemical structure than natural fructose. Research is showing that as our bodies do not know how to manage this unbound fructose; they are turning it into fat, particularly fat that settles unhealthily around the abdomen. In your body, explain Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel in a spring 2009 article for "Wise Traditions," agave nectar "may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity."

Morell and Nagel interviewed Russ Bianchi, Managing Director and CEO of Adept Solutions, Inc., which they say is a "globally recognized food and beverage development company." Bianchi says agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are made the same way, by "'using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes.'" The process also uses "'caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches.'"

Morell and Nagel also heard from Dr. Martin Stutsman of the FDA's Office of Labeling Enforcement, who explained that while corn syrup which is treated with enzymes that enhance fructose levels has to be labeled HFCS, the FDA does not require the label "High Fructose Agave Syrup." Dr. Stutsman did note that agave should be labeled as "hydrolyzed inulin syrup." So, Morell and Nagel conclude that labeling what is clearly a syrup a "nectar" is a misnomer the FDA is ignoring. They also conclude that the difference between starches in corn and agave, when each is processed the same way, means that "agave syrup labels do not conform to FDA labeling requirements" and that the result is a "deepening" of the "false illusion of an unprocessed product." They further conclude that "if a sweetener contains manufactured fructose, it is neither safe, nor natural," especially at such high fructose levels.

In October 2009, the Glycemic Research Institute (GRI), halted all agave trials, delisted agave, and banned agave products for use in foods and beverages-which means, according to the GRI web site, that "manufacturers who produce and use Agave and Agave Nectar in products are now warned that they can be held legally liable for negative health incidents related to ingestion of Agave." Laura Johannes reported in the Wall Street Journal that those actions were taken because diabetics in the test who had ingested agave nectar had life-threatening reactions and had to be hospitalized. GRI researchers believe that the "refined fructose in Agave Nectar is much more concentrated than the fructose found in High Fructose Corn Syrup."

GRI had performed three earlier trials, but none had included diabetics. The second trial used agave from Western Commerce Corporation in California and researchers discovered that the agave syrup was adulterated with high fructose corn syrup to increase profits. When the FDA came calling, company officials had left the country with millions of dollars in assets. In the fourth trial that was halted, Johannes reported that GRI used agave nectar from Volcanic Nectar, and it included a "significant amount of maple syrup."

According to Morell and Nagel, yucca species, which is in the agave genus, contain "large quantities of saponins," which are "toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting." The saponins in agave should be avoided "during pregnancy or breastfeeding because they might cause or contribute to miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus." At the "very least," conclude Morell and Nagel, agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause miscarriage."

Morell and Nagel also warn that "since the FDA makes no effort to enforce food-labeling laws, consumers cannot be certain that what they are eating is what the label says it is."

It's a good warning to heed. Read labels, question advertising claims, google strange ingredients, and share learning. Remember, too, that labels change, so keep checking them. And, avoid using products with lots of ingredients with chemical names. Instead, use local, organic, nutrient-dense, whole foods and do your own cooking.

For me, Agave Nectar is too risky.

For something sweet, I eat and cook a lot of local, organic fruit. Honey Crisp apples are here this week. I grow and gather and freeze organic, local berries for the winter. I try to squeeze some raw cider into my small freezer. Raw, unheated honey (the label should say unheated) from as local as possible is my sweetener of choice, followed by organic maple syrup. I choose label-specified unheated honey from away if I cannot get local unheated honey. I use sugar very sparingly for celebratory baked products.









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