Why Agave

The Social Norm of “Sweet”

When you eat something sweet today, no matter if you’re in Bangalore, India, Paris, France, or Dallas, Texas, its typically going to be sweetened with white, processed sugar.  If it’s made industrially, it may even include high fructose corn syrup, or other cheap processed alternatives. When you purchase a dessert, whether it’s from a gourmet bakery or from a gas station, its still going to include sugar or high fructose corn syrup the majority of the time.  It’s almost impossible to escape it.  Sugar consumption has become the social norm of sweets.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, for one thing, sugar is addictive.  It’s one of the most normalized addictions in the world.  If sugar were to be scrutinized today as a new product by the FDA, it would have to be classified as a drug.  White sugar starts off innocently delivering a delicious, sweet flavor.  But for many people, once you start it is difficult to get through your day without wanting a sugary beverage, cereal, dessert, or piece of candy.  It begins to drive you and you find yourself not able to control the cravings for sugar.  Luckily, everyone around you is just as addicted as you are, so it looks perfectly normal.  But for some people, addiction to sugar will eventually create unpleasant symptoms, which will drive them to look for ways to stop the addictive habit.  These symptoms can include mood swings, depression, anxiety, inability to concentrate, low energy, and weight gain, as well as pathologies such as Candida, hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia, and diabetes.  Excessive sugar consumption can exasperate health conditions that may seem unrelated, yet improve upon the removal of white sugar from the diet.  For this reason, alternatives have been sought out.

Individuals concerned with the use of sugar in their diet have turned to alternatives such as artificial and natural sweeteners, which each have their pros and cons. A new sweetener has become available in the market that derives from the agave plant, called agave nectar.  Agave nectar does not have the same addictive qualities, and therefore works well for people wanting to transition away from a sugary diet to a more balanced and healthy one.

Why Agave Nectar?

Agave nectar is a natural, low-glycemic sweetener that has a very gentle effect on the blood sugar.  Of all the natural sweeteners to choose from, it is the easiest to translate into your favorite foods.

Agave nectar, also referred to as agave syrup, is a liquid sweetener made from either the juice extracted from the center cavity or the pressed core of the agave plant, depending on the variety used.

There are actually two varieties of agave currently used to produce agave nectar sold in the US.

  • Agave tequiliana, used for “blue agave nectar” and tequila.  It is made from the core of the plant.  Typically, this variety has been used in the production of tequila.
  • Agave salmiana is a less common variety that involves collecting aguamiel, a juice found in the center cavity.  If it weren’t turned into agave nectar, it would naturally ferment into the traditional, mildly alcoholic drink called pulque.

How is Agave Nectar Made?

It is a very similar process by which bees make honey. Honey bees form plant nectar into honey by a process of regurgitating the plant nectar repeatedly in the hive to introduce natural enzymes.  These natural enzymes separate the complex sugars in the nectar into the monosaccharides fructose and glucose. This mixture is high in natural yeasts and water content, so like the aguamiel found in agave, it would rapidly ferment without evaporation. Bees then furiously flap their wings to create a strong draft in the hive that evaporates the water and concentrates the mixture to honey.

There are currently two methods of making agave nectar from the juice of the plant.

  • Vacuum evaporation of water and non-GMO natural enzymes with low heat
  • Thermal hydrolysis with higher heat

Both achieve the same goal, which is to separate the naturally occurring inulin (complex sugar molecules which are not sweet) into the monosaccharides (single molecules which are sweet) fructose and glucose.

Blue Agave Nectar:

Blue Agave nectar is produced from mature, flowering Agave tequiliana plants that are about 8-10 years old.  The core, called the piña, is cut in pieces and heated (hydrolyzed) to convert the naturally occurring inulin, also known as fructans (a group of fructose molecules), into a sweet juice called aguamiel. Tequila is made by fermenting and distilling the aguamiel. To make blue agave nectar, the aguamiel is cooked at approximately 165°F and despite the claims that chemicals are used, it is actually filtered with an organic compound called “dicalite” (a brand name for diatomaceaous earth) which is approved under the USDA National Organic Program.

Agave Salmiana Nectar:

Agave salmiana is a wild species of agave traditionally used by The Hnahnu people of Mexico. Agave salmiana grows in desert regions of central Mexico at high elevation.  Mature plants reach their prime at around 8 years, when their shoots begin to flower.

The juice is collected by hand from a cavity in the center of live plants unlike the blue agave, which comes from the harvested core.  The raw Agave salmiana juice, or aguamiel, has been consumed for centuries as a sweet drink.  Agave nectar is made from the aguamiel of agave salmiana plants by straining the juice before it ferments, gently heating at approximately 118 – 120 °F, and removing water through vacuum evaporation. As with blue agave, natural enzymes are added to convert the fructans into fructose and glucose.

What are the Benefits of Agave Nectar?

BENEFIT #1 Organic agave nectar is a safe, natural sweetener that is free of chemicals and additives.

There are no chemicals or additives in a quality, organic agave nectar.

Agave contains trace nutrients including calcium, iron, and vitamins B and C.  Sweeteners, however, are not usually eaten because of their trace nutrients – that is better sought out in a vegetable or whole grain.  We eat sweeteners because they taste sweet!  Compared to other sweeteners, agave is a great alternative to sugar, chemical and artificial sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup (as is maple syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, and natural stevia) when used in moderation in a well balanced diet.

BENEFIT #2:  Agave nectar is low glycemic and gentle on the body’s blood sugar.

This is perhaps one of the most important qualities of this unique sweetener. The glycemic index of a food is the measure of its effect on the blood sugar level in the body.  Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion are classified with a high GI, while foods that break down more slowly and release glucose at a more gradual rate are classified as low GI.

The glycemic index of agave nectar ranges amongst the different brands.  Madhava agave nectar has a GI index of 32, confirmed with an independent lab analysis. Wholesome sweeteners has a GI index of approximately 39.  Comparatively, honey has a GI of 58, and a banana has a GI of 51.  (see chart below)

Comparison of Fructose, Calories, and GI Index of Foods in Context

Food Item Fructose Content

(in grams)

Calories Glycemic Index
1 large banana 7 121 51
1 large apple 14 116 44
1 cup of grapes 12 104 49
1 cup grape juice 19 152 n/a
1 large pear 14 133 42
5 dried figs 10 105 61
Small 1.5 oz box of raisins 13 129 66
5 dates 38 332 62
1 Tablespoon honey 9 64 58
1 Tablespoon Madhava agave nectar 12 60 31
1 cup chamomile tea sweetened with 1 teaspoon honey 3 23 n/a
1 cup chamomile tea sweetened with 1 teaspoon Madhava organic amber agave nectar 4 22 n/a
½ cup vanilla pudding sweetened with honey

(25% more honey needed to achieve the same sweetness in the recipe)

9 197 n/a
½ cup vanilla pudding sweetened with Madhava organic amber agave nectar 10 178 n/a
1 can coca-cola sweetened with high fructose corn syrup 33 136 63

BENEFIT #3:  Agave nectar is non-addictive, helps reduce cravings for sugar, and may help with obesity

Agave does not stimulate digestive insulin secretion, drastically raise blood sugar levels, or create a sugar “rush.”  This is a very important consideration for individuals with sugar addiction who are trying to eliminate white sugar from their diet.

While there are no studies of agave nectar consumption in individuals with sugar addiction, I have noticed in my private practice that clients suffering from sugar addiction were able to use agave nectar successfully to wean off the white sugar, and they did not develop the same addictive eating habits towards foods sweetened with agave nectar.

The fact that agave nectar has a low glycemic index may contribute to its non-addictive qualities.  A medical hypotheses put out from Thornley et all said, “ GI may be the key mediator of the addictive potential of food.” They went on to conclude “Just as slow release forms of nicotine help smokers recover from addiction, low GI foods may reduce cravings in obese or overweight populations.”

BENEFIT #4:  Agave nectar is easy to substitute into recipes and foods

Part of the reason that agave has become so popular in the past few years is because it solves a big problem for a lot of people so well. Health conscious consumers have been trying to substitute white sugar with alternative sweeteners such as honey, brown rice syrup, and stevia with limited success in creating a truly satisfying result.

Agave nectar dissolves instantly in beverages, translates perfectly in baked goods and desserts.  Kids won’t protest healthy desserts made with agave nectar, which provides a great solution for parents wanting to help their kids consume less white, processed sugar.  Adults that won’t settle for a compromise in satisfaction because its’ “good for you” find that agave nectar creates the same satisfaction as sugar, but without the side effects.  As a health practitioner, this is an important consideration because I want my clients to actually implement the dietary changes without using “willpower.” Using sweeteners such as agave nectar in combination with a healthy diet creates a formula for success.

What are the Benefits of Agave Nectar Compared to Other Sweeteners?

Sweetener Comparison Agave Raw Honey Stevia Maple Syrup
Dissolves easily in cold liquid Yes No Yes Yes
Works well for baking Yes No (makes a metallic taste) No Yes
Cost Per Ounce  (approximate) 26 cents 30 cents 44 cents 56 cents
Glycemic Index 31 58 0 54
Pleasant Taste Yes Yes Not Really Yes
Neutral taste in recipes like sugar Yes No No No

Is Agave Nectar the Same as High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are NOT the same. Although agave nectar, fresh and dried fruits, honey, fruit juices, and HFCS do indeed all contain fructose, that is the only similarity they share. Agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are NOT produced in the same way, do NOT have the same chemical composition, and are NOT the same product.

Agave nectar is made from inulin, also known as fructosans (not starch), which is a compound of fructose molecules that can be converted into fructose and glucose by the use of either natural, non-GMO enzymes or heat.  It’s a very simple process.  Production is small scale, in many cases employing small farms and indigenous people.  No chemical refining is necessary.  Most of the companies manufacturing agave nectar have social and environmental policies and support organic agriculture.

High fructose corn syrup has to undergo intense processing to convert cornstarch into glucose, and then glucose into fructose.  It does involve the use of enzymes, chemicals, and potentially mercury-contaminated hydrochloric acid and/or caustic soda. In addition, it is a sweetener manufactured by huge companies such as Tate and Lyle, and it uses genetically engineered enzymes and corn in its production.

The bottom line is that there is no starch in the agave plant.

It’s true that the cornstarch used to make HFCS does not contain fructose and needs to be created from the glucose.  But the agave plant contains fructans, not starch, which a group of naturally occurring fructose than only needs a gentle nudge of heat or some natural enzymes to turn it from juice into syrup.

The chemical processing necessary to convert the highly complex starch molecules in corn into glucose and fructose is distinctly different from the natural enzymatic action used to produce sweeteners such as agave nectar, honey, and brown rice syrup.  Natural enzymatic hydrolysis in human digestion and the formation of natural sweeteners is necessary to split the complex starches and inulin into a usable form.  However the process by which HFCS and agave are made, as well as the molecular structure of corn and agave, are distinctly different.

For a complete article on a rebuttal against the claims that agave nectar is the same as high fructose corn syrup, click here.