Agave: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

What is Agave Nectar?

Agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) is a plant that thrives in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. They are large, spiky plants that resemble cactus or yuccas in both form and habitat, but they are actually succulents similar to Aloe Vera. The nectar made from the plant is known in Mexico as aguamiel, or "honey water."
Agave plant
Image from Wikipedia

How is it made?

This probably depends on where you're getting your agave nectar from, but according to one site, this is the gist of it;
When the agave has grown for seven to ten year, the leaves of the plant are cut off, revealing the core of the plant (called the "pina"). When harvested, the pina resembles a giant pineapple and can weigh fifty to one-hundred and fifty pounds.

To make the agave nectar, sap is extracted from the pina, filtered, and heated at a low temperature, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Lighter and darker varieties of agave nectar are made from the same plants.
According to one popular agave nectar manufacturer, “Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed in the 1990s.”
This makes me think about all the other "newly created sweeteners," such as splenda, aspartame and maltodextrin. We know how poorly those ingredients treat the body...
Manufactures of agave nectar want you to believe that they make agave either in some new and amazing way that is safe for diabetics, or they want you to believe that they do it the same way ancient Aztecs did. Neither is the case.
In a recent article now posted on the Weston A. Price foundation’s website, Ramiel Nagel and Sally Fallon Morell write:
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.

The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into High Fructose Corn Syrup. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup. The syrup has anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.

Is it really raw?

Because of the low temperatures used in processing many varieties (under 118°F) raw foods enthusiasts generally regard agave nectar as a raw food. Under 118 degrees is about as high as anything can be considered raw, and that's a pretty large leap from the 105 degree rule that many raw foodists stick to.
Think about your body temperature. If you have a fever of 104 degrees, that's a high fever. While one-hundred-degree weather is common for many people, 118 degrees is hot dessert weather.
Not all enzymes are destroyed at the same temperature. Some hardy enzymes will live up to 118 degrees F, but many are killed after exposure to 106 degrees F for several minutes. This means that foods heated to 118 degrees F do not have all their enzymes intact and are in fact mostly or wholly cooked.
Besides all that, agave "nectar" is created by a chemical process which means that it doesn't matter whether it has been heated to high temperatures or not. It's been refined, which means it is a ruined food source.
In short, it is no more raw than high fructose corn syrup. In fact, I refer to agave as High Fructose Agave Syrup, because that is what it is.
Bottled agave syrup from the store is a long way from eating the pina-sap directly off the agave plant. The pina-sap is nature made, the agave nectar is man-altered frankin-food.
More and more food gurus are learning the truth about agave. I first heard agave being denounced by Markus Rothkranz.

Is Agave Nectar healthy?

If you just read the above, you probably already have your answer.
There is a lot of conflicting information about agave.
John Kohler pointed out that agave is not a low glycemic index food, and that it has been taken off the list by the official folks who create the low glycemic index. Diabetics have been shown to react negatively to agave.
I say that the glycemic index is irrelivant.
The relevant factor is: How refined is agave? How close is it to being a chemical and not a food source?
Studies (as well as heaps of anecdotal evidence) show that regularly consuming agave is not an improvement from consuming any other sweetener on a regular basis.
If you're really healthy, you may not be noticing the negative effects because your body is dealing with the agave effectively, but it may not stay that way forever.
You don't have to take it from me. According to Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD:
"The bottom line is that refined agave sweeteners are not inherently healthier than sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other sweetener. Nutritionally and functionally, agave syrup is similar to high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (Karo) syrup."
And here is what Dr. Mercola has to say about agave:
"Agave" literally means "noble." It’s generally recognized as a superstar of the herbal remedy world, claiming to offer relief for indigestion, bowel irregularity, and skin wounds. Ferment it, and you have Mexico’s favorite adult beverage -- tequila.

Agave "nectar" sellers use agave’s royal pedigree to cover the truth that what 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.

Such a high fructose content isn't typical of all agave products. "Depending on how the syrup is processed, it may or may not contain more fructose," says Roger Clemens, a professor at USC and spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, whose research has focused on functional foods, food processing and nutrition.

Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup -- in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.

If you knew the truth about what’s really in it, you’d be dumping it down the drain -- and that would certainly be bad for sales.

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.

Is Agave Nectar natural?

According to one article I read, Agave is so far from being natural that "it has more concentrated fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup."
As we've already determined, the process of refining the sap of the agave plant puts the sap through a chemical process.
Anyhow, define natural. Everything came from a stone, a bit of dirt or from a plant at some point. Plastic was made from "natural" things, and yet we don't think of plastic as being "natural" in and of itself.

Has anyone reacted badly to agave nectar?

Absolutely!
I've tried raw dishes at potlucks with small amounts of agave. Afterward I was incredibly unwell; I was sweating profusely, I had a stomachache, a headache, and I became incredibly tired. On another occasion I wasn't able to sleep most of the night and had ugly leg cramps. I felt heavy-headed, sluggish and had a lot of difficulty waking up.
I've had similar reactions to a sugar made from a coconut sap, from white stevia and from yaccon syrup. But somehow I don't react poorly to massive amounts of fresh fruit. It's very obvious that the difference is man's intervention. The refinement process that strips away the fiber, minerals, vitamins and enzymes is critical in how sweet foods affect us.
I won't touch agave in any amount, no matter how small.
My husband who has severe reactions to agave as well. He became nauseous and sick after having small amounts of agave-sweetened juice, and felt tired and sore after eating an agave-sweetened raw dessert.
My husband and I are not alone. I've had dozens of people tell me in person that they can't touch agave syrup without having a bad reaction. I've had dozens of people tell me online about their difficulty with sweeteners. The bottom line is that agave syrup is not a health food.

A Side Note

By having refined sugars (white sugar, agave syrup, molasses, etc) in your diet, your tastebuds stay within a "sweet" scale. The less sweet you eat, the more sweet everything else tastes by comparison, and the less bitter.
Even if agave were the best sweetener you could use that was created by man, there is no reason not to use something less refined, such as dried fruit.
In any recipe that calls for agave you can use soaked dates blended with their soak water to create a date syrup.
In some recipes that call for agave you can use any dried fruit, such as raisins.
In a few recipes that call for agave you can use fresh fruit such as pineapple or banana.

Keep Researching

If you're not convinced, then keep researching.
For me, personal experimentation combined with common sense is plenty of reason not to use agave syrup.
If you care about your body, then why bother using something that is concentrated sugar with little/no nutritional benefit when you could eat a sweet fruit that offers many benefits?

Marketing

Beware of marketing. It is constantly trying to play on your addictions and fears. When you see an advertisement, stop and ask yourself, "How is this advertisement playing off of common fears and/or addictions?"
You don't need to sweeten foods for them to taste good. When I changed my diet and got the sugar out of it, I was amazed that romaine lettuce started to taste genuinely sweet, along with tomatoes, blackberries and carrots. Foods stopped being bland and started having flavor.
~ Raederle