THE BLOG
07/31/2014 09:32 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2014

Burying the Agave-as-Healthy-Sweetener Myth

Among the numerous refuse-to-die nutrition urban legends, agave reigns supreme.

"Just the name 'agave' conjures up images of romantic tropical excursions and mysterious shamanic medicine," writes Dr. Joseph Mercola. "These are the mental images many agave 'nectar' sellers want you to hold. [W]hat they're selling you is a bottle of high-fructose syrup, so highly processed and refined that it bears NO resemblance to the plant of its namesake."

We should have buried the agave myth ages ago, but intelligent people still buy the hype. One 2013 HuffPost blog entitled "Agave Recipes For Healthy Baking" argues that with "agave recipes, you can eat your sweets without the sugar (and also keep your blood sugar levels from spiking)."

Its author should know better when even once pro-agave experts have recanted their position.

"Over the past few months, I've become increasingly concerned about a sweetener that I've recommended on my show in the past," wrote Dr. Mehmet Oz earlier this year. "After careful consideration of the available research, today I'm asking you to eliminate agave from your kitchen and your diet."

Likewise, Dr. Andrew Weil recently reversed his agave position.

While I'm glad to see these and other mainstream experts modify their opinion, Dr. Jonny Bowden wrote a scathing critique calling agave "a triumph of marketing over science" in The Huffington Post back in early 2010. Why are these experts just now catching up to Bowden and others who long ago asserted agave unhealthy?

"Most agave 'nectar' or agave 'syrup' is nothing more than a laboratory-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value, and offering you metabolic misfortune in its place," writes Mercola.

The few studies that focus specifically on agave don't make this sweetener look good. One with 12 rats found compared with sucrose (a glucose/ fructose combo), agave nectar contributed to weight gain. Another found even moderate amounts of fructose-containing liquids (including agave) create unfavorable changes in your plasma lipid profile and one marker of liver health. Another lumped agave with refined sugar and corn syrup for minimal antioxidant activity.

Heavy processing doesn't help, but what really gets agave into trouble is its high fructose content. According to Bowden, agave can contain up to 90 percent fructose, the most metabolically damaging sugar. That's why Mercola calls fructose "far worse than high-fructose corn syrup," which contains about 55 percent fructose.

While fructose doesn't raise blood sugar, what it does becomes far more metabolically damaging. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dr. Robert Lustig notes among its problems, fructose contributes "to rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome." Excessive fructose also becomes a key player in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Even though it doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin, fructose contributes to insulin resistance. Studies show fructose raises triglycerides and doesn't signal your satiety hormone leptin or suppress your hunger hormone ghrelin.

Fructose also makes you fat. One study found fructose converts to fat twice as much as other sweeteners. According to Lustig, about 30 percent of fructose will convert to fat.

It doesn't take much fructose to create these and other problems. "Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day," writes Mercola, noting one tablespoon of agave could provide that amount and most people consume about 70 grams of fructose every day.

Considering that even small amounts can create fat gain and numerous health issues, why choose agave when far healthier sweeteners exist?

If you ever fell for agave hype, what helped you "see the light"? What's your current go-to sweetener? Share your thoughts below.