The Dirty Secret about 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 skinny on natural sugar alternatives is that they are a big, fat business opportunity and therefore worth a closer look. You know that our species is genetically programmed to eat sweets until we pretty much explode. Savvy consumers are constantly trying to avoid not only the dizzying amount of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in our food supply, but also spooky artificial sweeteners, most of which were discovered by accident by people wearing safety goggles and lab coats. This leaves us to appease our sweet tooth with natural sweeteners, a few of which are having a “moment.” But are they—like Ponzi schemes, unnaturally muscular athletes, and Tequila-born love affairs—just too good to be true?
In spite of manufacturers’ claims, 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. 34
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. 35
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.
(One agave manufacturer claims that his product is made with “natural” enzymes.) That’s right, the refined fructose in agave nectar is much more concentrated than the fructose in HFCS. For comparison, the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas is 55 percent refined fructose. (A natural agave product does exist in Mexico, a molasses type of syrup from concentrated plant nectar, but availability is limited and it is expensive to produce.)
According to Bianchi, agave “nectar” and HFCS “are indeed made the same way, using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes. They are also using caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches.” The result is a high level of highly refined fructose in the remaining syrup, along with some remaining inulin.
In a confidential FDA letter, Dr. Martin Stutsman of the Food and Drug Administration’s Offce of Labeling Enforcement, explains the FDA’s food labeling laws related to agave nectar: “Corn syrup treated with enzymes to enhance the fructose levels is to be labeled ‘High Fructose Corn Syrup.’” According to Mr. Stutsman, agave requires the label “hydrolyzed inulin syrup.”37
Corn Syrup.’” According to Mr. Stutsman, agave requires the label “hydrolyzed inulin syrup.”37 Even though, like corn, agave is a starch and fber food processed with enzymes, it does not require the label “High Fructose Agave Syrup.” Agave “nectar” is a misnomer; at the very least, it should be labeled “agave syrup.”
Agave syrup comes in two colors: clear or light, and amber. What is this difference? Mr. Bianchi explains: “Due to poor quality control in the agave processing plants in Mexico, sometimes the fructose gets burned after being heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, thus creating a darker, or amber color.” However, the labels create the impression of an artisan product—like light or amber beer.
THE SAPONIN PROBLEM
Yucca species are known to contain large quantities of saponins. The industry describes saponins in agave syrup as beneficial: “Agave’s rich density of saponins increases hydration as the soapy, surfactant nature of saponins change the wetting angle of water it contacts. This eases and accelerates cellular water uptake, especially when used with a high-quality salt.”38
However, the truth is that the saponins found in many varieties of agave plants are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting,39 Agave should be avoided during pregnancy or breastfeeding because they might cause or contribute to miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus.40 At the very least, agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause a miscarriage.
JUST SAY NO TO AGAVE
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. New sweeteners like agave syrup were introduced into the market to make a profit, not to make consumers healthy. Clever marketing has led mane consumers to believe that the high level of fructose in agave syrup makes it a safe and a natural sweetener. Agave syrup labels do not conform to FDA labeling requirements, thus deepening the false illusion of an unprocessed product. As we have demonstrated here, if a sweetener contains manufactured fructose, it is neither safe, nor natural, especially at levels up to 70 percent.
Agave syrup is a manmade sweetener which has been through a complicated chemical refining process of enzymatic digestion that converts the starch and fiber into the unbound, manmade chemical fructose. While high fructose agave syrup won’t spike your blood glucose levels, the fructose in it may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pres-sure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
If you want something sweet, eat a piece of fruit, not a candy bar labeled as a “health food.”
If you want to create something sweet, use sweeteners that are known to be safer. For uncooked dishes, unheated raw honey or dates work well. For cooked dishes or sweet drinks, a good organic maple syrup, or even freshly juiced apple
juice or orange juice can provide delicious and relatively safe sweetness; dehydrated cane sugar juice or maple sugar may be used in moderation in cookies and desserts that contain nutritious ingredients and good fats such as butter, egg yolks and nuts.
However, to be healthy, we cannot eat sugar all day, no matter how natural the form. One should limit total sweetener consumption to less han fve percent of daily calories. For a diet of 2500 calories per day, that’s less than three tablespoons of honey, maple syrup or dehydrated cane sugar juice, or several pieces of fruit. And many people do best by avoiding sweeteners completely.
The lack of standards in the health food world comes as depressing news; but let this news encourage you to consume more pure and unrefined foods and sweetener sources. Good health depends on wise food choices, and wise food choices depend on constant vigilance.
More on the Agave Industry
In the year 2000, with warrants in hand, federal agents from the Office of Criminal Investigations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came banging on the door of North America’s largest agave nectar distributor, Western Commerce Corporation in California. In an extremely rare case of the FDA protecting consumer interests (rather than supporting big business, while shutting down legitimate and health consciousness competition), they discovered that Western Commerce Corporation was adulterating their agave syrup with high fructose corn syrup (to lower the cost even more and increase profit margins). While the federal agents confiscated material in the warehouse, the owners of Western Commerce Corporation were nowhere to be found. Those who ran the company fled the country with millions of dollars in assets to avoid criminal prosecution.
This adulterated agave syrup (refined fructose) was also labeled as certified organic to fool consumers into thinking they were getting a pure product. This shows you how unverified organic labels are used in the USA. Today, high fructose agave syrup is made primarily by two companies: Nekutli, and IIDEA. A third agave marketer, by the name of Volcanic, has a suspicious claim on their website. “If your agave comes from one of the other two companies in Mexico, something has been added.” They are referring to Nekutli and IIDEA. Their claim is based upon an analysis, which they say shows that Volcanic’s agave nectar has a lower level of refined fructose.
When Western Commerce Corporation was shut down, the large retail establishments in the food industry stayed away from agave syrups. They knew better than to risk lawsuits and consumer fraud. “They understood that agave was criminally mislabeled per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulation labeling laws, with an untried sweetener, new to the market, that contained saponins, and was not clearly approved as safe for use,” explains Mr. Bianchi. For many years following this bust, the supermarket and health food store industry avoided using agave.
But recently, some sellers in the agave syrup field, once quiet, have begun sneaking back into the food and beverage chains. And retail food giants like Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Trader Joe’s and Kroger, who should know better, and who should know the food labeling laws and requirements, still have no hesitation in selling the toxic, unapproved and mislabeled refined fructose agave syrup, as well as products containing it.
Source: Russ Bianchi and the Weston Price Foundation