Is Agave really a healthy sweetener?


Avoid agave?

Recently a friend commented on the inclusion of agave in the recipe from my post Best oatmeal recipe ever, for dinner. She advised me to reconsider the promotion of this popular sweetener due to scientific evidence that conflicts with marketing claims that agave is a healthy sweetener. After a quick search I realized she appears to be correct. Agave is actually comprised of more fructose than the highly targeted high fructose corn syrup. Advocates often tout agave as ranking low on the glycemic index, and therefore eating it allows you to avoid the characteristic blood sugar spike and crash. The problem is that the low glycemic ranking is due to the fact that your body doesn’t know how to properly metabolize highly concentrated fructose. In other words, you get the benefits of sweet taste, and you can avoid the energy spike and crash, but only because you are eating a food that your body doesn’t know how to deal with. Since your body does not metabolize concentrated fructose efficiently researchers think it can lead to a list of serious health problems. See this post by Gary Taubes in the New York Times for details.

Who to trust?

With all the conflicting health and diet information available to us today, it is easy to understand how some bad choices could be made. Everyday we are either: given advice from the federal government, reading a new study from the university, hearing of a new product from our friends, or seeing an advertisement from a corporation. Many of these sources often conflict, so the question becomes, who to believe??? Since each of these sources is sometimes right and sometimes wrong it can be confusing for sure. Here is a brief summary of the agave phenomenon:

  1. High Fructose Corn Syrup and cane sugar came under attack after years of being added to the food supply.
  2. Marketers recognizing a rising public reluctance to buy HFCS and cane sugar advertised agave as a healthy alternative sweetener.
  3. Natural food stores began carrying agave and customers enthusiastically bought the product often advertised as “raw” and “organic”.
  4. Researchers recognized the link between concentrated fructose and multiple serious diseases.
  5. Upon learning of the high fructose content of agave, negative customer reactions begin.

One of the reasons I study Ayurveda is because it has been practiced for thousands of years. Now compare the ancient knowledge of Ayurveda to a new supplement, weight loss drug, or scientific report that has existed for only a few years. If there are negative health effects then hopefully modern science will eventually come to the rescue by revealing the truth, but do you really want to use a product for 10 years before science comes to that conclusion? By using Ayurveda as my guide I hope to avoid the hype of breaking news stories and stick to time tested techniques that are safe and effective.


Despite this small misstep I think the remainder of my article was rock solid. Let’s not forget that the primary purpose of the article was to recommend avoiding sweets entirely during the morning, and to only eat them in the evening if desired. In my defense, I did mention that sweeteners were optional in the oatmeal recipe, and I also listed maple syrup as an alternative ingredient. I haven’t heard anything terrible yet about maple syrup, so this is what I enjoy on occasion. What about honey you say. Honey is often used in America as a sugar alternative in many recipes and food products, but in Ayurveda the ancient texts clearly state that it is best to avoid heating honey, for health reasons. Instead Ayurveda frequently uses honey for medicinal purposes, but always in a raw form. Agave’s success was born out of a desire to find a healthy sweetener alternative. I believe this way of thinking is where the problem originates. Instead of searching for alternatives we should be trying to minimize our sugar intake from ALL sweeteners. I’m not trying to sound like the sugar Grinch, but we clearly eat too much sweeteners in our modern diet, for a historical perspective see my earlier post Our Paleolithic ancestors rarely ate sugar, should we do the same?

Honesty counts

I posted this update because it represents the ever changing body of knowledge that is food and health science. Even after years of studying and experimenting with food and lifestyle I am still learning. On that note, if you ever see me make a statement that you think is incorrect then I encourage you to please inform me. Until we meet again…