Agave Syrup: Good or Bad?

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While it is always best to moderate sweeteners, let’s face it. We want a sweetener to use in baking the occasional treat. Often, I will sweeten my muffins, sweet breads, or cakes with dates or apples (like in this delicious carrot cake). But for a few years now, I have used raw, organic, agave syrup pretty much everywhere else — Kombucha, on top of porridge, in tea, and other baked goods.

The reason we preferred agave syrup over the other sweeteners was its very low glucose profile, which prevents a spike in blood sugar when consumed — making it a low glycemic index food. Agave is very good for that.

In my recent readings on agave syrup, I have discovered that while agave is low in glucose, it is very, very high in fructose. In fact, it contains more fructose than honey or high-fructose corn syrup! Fructose may sound good — think “fruit” — but consuming this concentrated fruit sugar is nothing like eating a fresh fruit. A fresh, whole fruit offers un-concentrated fructose as just part of the sugar profile, along with fiber, water, and other vitamins and minerals.

But What’s So Bad About High Amounts Of Concentrated Fructose?

“It may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.”

For more details on these refer to this post and this post’s comments by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

What Am I Going To Do About This?

That is a good question, since I have a 5 gallon pail of raw, organic agave sitting in the kitchen. :(

  • I will continue to use the agave syrup for my Kombucha, until it runs out. The saving grace here is that the sugars are pretty much metabolized by the scoby and converted into beneficial nutrients. In our case, this happens more so than not, since Jeff prefers sour Kombucha.
  • For occasional baking, I will use Rapadura (evaporated cane juice), which I recently brought into the kitchen after reading what Sally Fallon Morell wrote in Nourishing Traditions.
  • I might also look into getting coconut sugar. But first, I want to be assured of the growing conditions, price and availability.
  • I will, as time allows, make over the recipes on this site, so that none call for agave syrup. I began that yesterday, with the makeover resulting in Lemon Cake.
  • I will bake with sweeteners such as Rapadura only occasionally, rather than frequently.
  • I will encourage my family to snack on fresh fruit.
  • I will use dates and apples as sweeteners where I’m able.

So… feel free to share your thoughts!

This post may contain affiliate links. We only recommend products and services we wholeheartedly endorse. Thank you for supporting Traditional Cooking School by GNOWFGLINS with your purchases. Our family thanks you!

Comments

  1. says

    Shalom Wardee,

    Excellent article. We stopped using agave about a year ago. I use raw honey in my breads and organic sucanat for baking for the family, but for me I only use stevia. I am very interested in your re-makes of recipes using natural sweeteners.

    –IN Messiah Yeshua,
    Vickilynn
    C. 6:8

    • says

      Vickilynn, may I ask why you stopped using agave? Was it for the same reason?

      I forgot to add that I’ll always have raw honey around for our cereals and tea. :D

    • says

      Kelly, thank you for sharing that link!

      I appreciated Debra’s study and thorough research about the forms of processing and varieties of agave plants, and also the historical information. However, I didn’t see where she addressed the long-term effects of fructose. Rather she only seemed to address the blood sugar issue, which, I agree, is definitely a plus with agave.

      There is a difference, however, between the fructose in agave nectar and the fructose in high fructose corn syrup. Suppliers of agave say that the fructose in agave is a slow release, and does not stimulate the insulin secretion that causes blood sugar rise. High fructose corn syrup does make blood sugar rise. — Debra Lynn Dadd

      This quote only addresses the blood sugar spike, not the long-term effects of fructose, such as mineral depletion, etc. I would be curious how she she would respond to the other downsides of fructose.

      This difficult to navigate and difficult to come to a 100% sure conclusion. In any case, I know we all will benefit from lessening our use of sugars!

      I appreciate you sharing your decision regarding agave and thank you for adding to the discussion with the food for thought.

  2. says

    I bought agave to give it a try and because several of my friends prefer it in their tea. If you come to my home and ask for tea you have a huge choice of sweeteners: brown sugar, raw sugar, Splenda, stevia, honey, and agave! But no aspartame and no refined sugar. Anyway!

    I tried agave in my tea and did not prefer it so I’ve been using it in my kombucha. Once it’s out, I think I simply will not purchase it again. I prefered honey in my kombucha anyway. Those who enjoy tea in my home will have plenty of other options.

    Also, I use stevia in pretty much everything I can. Any research out there yet about stevia?

    • says

      Hey, Gilliebean!

      Also, I wouldn’t recommend Splenda because it is a manufactured food. There are many other scientific reasons, but I find the most logical to be the most persuasive. :D

      As regards stevia, the only negative thing I have heard is that it has been used by at least one culture as a birth control method. In order words, it can cause infertility. But like with all things (God being the exception), there is another side to the story — there are people who claim they’ve gotten pregnant while consuming stevia. So I don’t know.

      If you’re going to use stevia, I would recommend the green stevia, which doesn’t undergo any processing to make it white, retaining its initial nutrition and also, I’m told, offering a mild taste.

      P.S. I’d love to come to your house! I’ll take the raw honey in my tea!

  3. says

    It is hard to know what’s really true about agave. I, too, would be interested to hear how Debra Lynn Dadd would respond to the other negative things brought up about fructose. I read the comments on the post you linked to, and by the end of those comments, even they didn’t have a final conclusion about agave.

    I’m thankful for your post and am always looking for new information about this sweetener. Despite the differing opinions about agave in those comment posts, everyone did seem to agree that less sweetener is always best!

  4. says

    I use raw honey and continue to do so. We do live “in the land of milk and honey.”
    I will be taking orders soon (June) if anyone is interested.

  5. gabrielle says

    hi Wardee. thanks for this info! i plan to read more about it. i know that agave is much sweeter than other sugars so you only need to use about 2/3 to achieve the same level of sweetness as white sugar or honey. so i would be curious to see if this information took that into account.

    in other words, it could be up to 33% higher in fructose and it would come out even because you are using 33% less total agave.

    in something like kombucha, you arent using it for sweetness so you arent actually using less. but, in ice cream for instance, 2/3 a cup of agave makes ice cream as sweet or sweeter than 1 full cup of cane sugar (all its forms ive tried which are several!) or honey.

  6. Kelli says

    I currently reading Eat Fat Lose Fat by Sally Fallon Morell and Mary Enig. In the Kombucha recipe they say “white sugar, rather than honey or Rapadura, and black tea, rather than flavored teas, give the highest amounts of beneficial organic acids. Non-organic tea is high in fluoride, a known thyroid depressant, so always use organic tea.”

    So, after I am out of agave, I think I will make my kombucha with organic cane sugar.

    Can I just complain for a minute, though? First, coconut is bad for us, then it is good. Soy is the new superfood, not we shouldn’t touch it. Coffee helps here, doesn’t help there. Don’t eat carbs, it is alright to eat sprouted carbs. Agave is a healthy sweetener, now it causes a fatty liver! I know a certain amount of eating is using common sense, but I also have 2 big jugs of agave to go through. I was kind of comparing agave to honey. It comes from a cactus, so I thought of it as natural. But I guess if it goes through processing, it is no longer a whole food.

    • says

      Kelli — I hear you!

      There are two ways to process the agave. One is through enzymes and one through hydrolosis (water). I don’t know which you bought. Some agave could be considered highly refined; but I don’t think yours is, considering you purchased it from Glorybee. I also trust the agave from Hummingbird Wholesale, in terms of that. I think of it as a natural sweetener, too, at least how we’ve been purchasing it, unrefined. (Although people have differing opinions on that, too.)

      I hope you’re not discouraged. This is such a journey and we can’t get down — I’m speaking to myself here, too — we have to keep plugging away.

      In the end, I am glad that we have a God to whom we can pray for blessings on our health. None of our food decisions our vital. I want to make the best choices out of honor for Him, to recognize the foods He made for our nourishment. But we can’t know everything and we have to do our best. This is what Gabrielle said, too, and I agree!

  7. gabrielle says

    i wanted to rephrase a little… i shouldnt be comparing the fructose amounts of agave to those of cane sugars because cane sugar is sucrose rather than fructose… but the comparison still works for honey.

    however, many studies also show that high amounts of sucrose cause all kinds of health problems. so now fructose does too; big surprise.

    you would need some lengthy studies to see the real differences between the ill effects of sucrose vs the ill effects of fructose (and account for amounts being adjusted to achieve the same sweetness) before you had anything at all conclusive, i think.

    i hear you, kelli! it is always something. but the best approach, in my opinion, is what works for your family. for me, i check my blood sugar regularly and find that agave sweetened foods do not spike it AT ALL. in fact, it spikes much more from whole grain breads (even sprouted, organic, fresh ground, all homemade, etc) and brown rice, lentils, etc, than equal amounts (per gram of carb) of agave.

    this is one of my main concerns, so this is why i use agave.

    rapadura, sucanat, and other cane sugars are still highly concentrated sugar that has been refined to a certain extent (some more, some less) and all refined foods, especially sugars ought to be used in moderation.

    here is another controversy… truly raw honey (opaque, thick, pale and expensive) has a lot of health benefits but there is a lot of evidence that once honey is heated it not only loses its healthy properties (kills enzymes, etc) but it actually becomes quite toxic. if this is true then baking with honey could be worse than using refined cane or beet sugars!

    • says

      rapadura, sucanat, and other cane sugars are still highly concentrated sugar that has been refined to a certain extent (some more, some less) and all refined foods, especially sugars ought to be used in moderation.

      This is a key point, Gabrielle. For those are very moderate with sweeteners, no matter which ones, not much harm can result – generally speaking, of course this wouldn’t apply for a diabetic.

      i check my blood sugar regularly and find that agave sweetened foods do not spike it AT ALL.

      While we’ve not tested Jeff’s blood sugar, we noticed that he does fine with agave on his cereal, but crashes (blood sugar spike) with honey. So, I concur with you on this benefit of agave.

      It is the back-door long term damage that it possible from high concentrations of fructose that worries me more than the above pleases me. What I mean is, that the cons outweigh, for me, right now. However, I am not ultimately that worried because I know we don’t overdo any sweetener.

      The conclusion I’m reaching about all this is that fructose is the most dangerous of all the sugars. Ironically, honey has alot of fructose, but lighter-colored honeys have less, isn’t that right? But agave just has so much more of it anyway! Not to say that sucrose and glucose are heavenly options. As you pointed out yourself, sucrose is pretty bad, too. And we know what glucose can do for the diabetic. ;)

      What intrigues me about coconut sugar is that it is made similarly to maple syrup, it has low glucose and low fructose — a great balance all around. To be used sparingly, like other sweeteners.

      If you’re interested, maybe those of us locally could look into buying some together and saving on shipping costs. I haven’t begun to look into it, but I am planning to do so.

      That was a good point you made before about how agave is more concentrated; we use less of it. I do not know if the research takes that into account. If you just look at the percentages of types of sugar in each sweetener, agave tips the charts, no matter what the amount is. But you’re right, we do use less of it. I can’t use 2/3 cup in my ice cream or I get sick from the sweetness. I keep reducing the amount and now I’m down to around 1/4 cup! :)

      in something like kombucha, you arent using it for sweetness so you arent actually using less.

      I didn’t understand this. My understanding is that the sweetener is there to feed the scoby. If the scoby eats it, how is it that I’m not consuming less sweetener when I drink the beverage?

      Thanks for participating in the discussion; I enjoy mulling things over with you and everyone!

  8. gabrielle says

    let me rephrase that last portion about the kombucha…

    normally, recipes use less agave than they do other sugars because it takes less to make the same sweetness.

    but with kombucha, you arent mixing it up to get a certain sweetness of taste. so most people i know who use it in kombucha use the same amount as they would use of other sugar. i always used 1 cup of agave for 1 gallon of sugar and that is the same amount i used if i used sugar.

    so i just meant that with kombucha, you arent mixing and then immediately tasting for sweetness which you would then probably adjust to use less agave. you are actually giving the sugar for the microbes to eat, not you.

    so when you consume the final product, it is something different that is now chemically changed from what you began with. i dont think there are any studies that compare the actual sugar content of the final kombucha product using different sugars.

    i just meant “you arent using less” when you initially add the agave. i mean, you reduce the amount for ice cream, but are you reducing it in the kombucha? probably not.

    as for the ‘back door long-term damage’ from fructose you mention, i just wonder how conclusively it has been proved that the effects are worse than the long known, adverse, long-term effects of cane sugars/sucrose? i dont believe that agave has been widely used for long enough to make those studies very accurate at this point, and again this is compared to what?

    i will definitely be reading more about this on my own!

    • says

      Gabrielle,

      Okay, now I understand your point about the Kombucha and you’re right. I use the same amount of agave as I would white sugar. I should have gotten that before!

      I will be looking more into the fructose long-term results, too. I am going to join the Weston A. Price foundation and hopefully will get the last issue of Wise Traditions where they are supposed to discuss this more scientifically.

  9. says

    Your post is very timely for me. My hubby is pre-diabetic. We all watch our sugar intake but especially him. I have been considering agave syrup as of yesterday. I couldn’t find it at the grocery store, so didn’t purchase any today. After reading what you posted and the links within, I don’t think I’ll be looking for it.
    Thank you.

    • says

      Marg — you’re welcome! Although I do hope I’m not leading you astray. :D

      Gabrielle — I found this today:

      http://www.living-foods.com/articles/agave.html

      Now the first part of it really upset me because he is describing highly processed agave syrup, which I don’t believe is true across the board. Certainly, I don’t believe Hummingbird Wholesale would allow such agave to darken their doors. ;)

      But if you scroll down, you’ll see a list of what fructose does in the body, under point #4. There are footnotes for all the references.

  10. jason says

    We’ve found that when baking or preparing food with honey, you can always use 1/4 of the amount of sugar called for. ALWAYS. And you don’t have to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe, as you would if you used the same amount.

    Since banning white & brown sugar from the house, we found that we bake less. (Partially due to spending enough time in the kitchen, already, making our other food.) We have some brown rice syrup that’s over two years old and it’s been a few years since we’ve used turbinado sugar.

    We just eat so much other yummy food: a high amount of raw veggies & greens & fruits, beans, grains, homemade salad dressings, cumin, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice… All of these foods have wonderful flavors and you can’t fully taste or appreciate them until you stop overloading your taste buds with sugar (including honey, agave, etc.).

    Now, sometimes this backfires. We are probably more likely to cheat or overindulge at social events because we don’t usually have cookies in the house. But, that’s really an issue of developing the right mindset (remembering why we’re doing this).

    I really don’t mean to sound holier than thou, but I have found I much prefer a sliced whole banana (not local, sorry Wardee) and some raisins in my oatmeal, over adding honey. And, I’ll take my tea unsweetened, please.

    • says

      Jason — guess I’ll forgive you for eating that banana. ;)

      No, really, thanks for sharing how you limit the sweets by banning them and how you’re enjoying the flavors of the yummy food that’s taken its place. This is so true! Sometimes, a sweet will totally overwhelm me now because my tastes have changed (though I still battle a sweet tooth, in all honesty).

      Sorry, gotta sweeten my tea. I don’t think I can ever stop THAT. :)

      -Wardee

  11. Kelli says

    I wish I could take my tea unsweetend! I am using stevia there.

    I was in Sherm’s and Fred Meyer yesterday, looking for coconut sugar, and didn’t find any. I realized after I left I should have checked the ethnic foods isle, I am just so used to checking the natural section and they have coconut oil there. But if I find any locally, I’ll share where. But if we can go in on a bulk order, I’d like to try it.

    I think that is so interesting, Gab, that your blood sugar doesn’t spike after agave, but it does after grains, rice, and lentils. Does this mean we should eat low-carb? I am kind of serious (always pondering what is healthiest) and kind of kidding, cause I know that was so off topic.

    I am enjoying reading about this.

    • says

      Kelli — if you do find the coconut sugar, please let me know!!!! I haven’t been to Roseburg since doing all this research and won’t be there for awhile.

  12. jason says

    On the other hand, we just have small kids currently. Our take on baked treats may certainly change as they grow older.

  13. says

    @Rose — thanks for sharing that article. It is a good run down. I ran across it the other day and from it, learned about Sucanat being dehydrated cane juice also. I’m still confused if Rapadura or Sucanat are the same things or different or if there are varying types of each… Anyone?

  14. Kelli says

    Read today’s post on kellythekitchencop.com, or the weston price foundation site, they seem to be the same thing. I wonder if the difference is the name brand.

  15. says

    Thank you for the information about agave. I’ve been reading more and more literature about how refined it is and about the fructose it contains.

    I’ve experimented with using fruits as the sweetener in my baked goods but that requires the proper amount and the overall taste that I want.

    I’ll try to share some of my successful experiments.

    I’m going to look for coconut sugar and try it in my recipes.

  16. says

    I am so glad you posted on this. I was just thinking of researching this as an alternative for sugar in my diet, when WAH-LAH! there this post was in my Reader. Thanks for saving me some leg work! :)

    • says

      Kelly – I am still interested. Thank you! I enjoyed reading that article. It was good to read the different methods of extracting agave and it makes me want to find out which method is used for the agave I (used to) buy. I have a feeling it is the same method as the Madhava company. thanks!

  17. Kurt says

    I first read this post several months back after I noticed Rapadura had disappeared from the shelves at my local Whole Foods and I was trying to determine whether Sucanat was comparable even though NT said it was not. I’ve since discovered other sources for Rapadura, but in the meantime I’ve been using coconut/palm sugar instead when I use sugar (which is rarely–usually only in some baking). I’m sure I will eventually try Sucanat, though.

    Today, I was looking around in the produce section of a large local grocery and I noticed a little area of specialty items in bags for ethnic (Hispanic) customers. One of them was labeled as being “piloncillo.” It contained cones of hard sugar which it described as being unrefined and high in molasses content. The cones needed to be grated to produce granules. The whole thing sounded a lot like Rapadura to me. I’m wondering if looking for this product might provide a more economical alternative. (I do not recall the price, but I’m sure it was much less than I paid for a bag of Rapadura at Whole Foods.)

    Here, for instance, is one link describing Piloncillo:
    http://www.slashfood.com/2006/09/10/what-is-piloncillo/
    Here’s another article about it:
    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/food/4161215.html
    The Wikipedia entry lists it as panela and says that piloncillo and rapadura are both alternate names:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panela

    • says

      Kurt — I think you’re on to something, and ironically someone who knows Hispanic food told me the other day that piloncillo IS the same as rapadura. Thanks for sharing! I’m going to check out some prices myself. :)

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