Category Archives: agave

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part III: The Mint Julep Taste Test and Calorie Comparison

taste tests are an excellent excuse to double-fist your cocktails

Earlier in this series: Why agave nectar isn’t a "natural" sweetener and Why it isn’t healthier than table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup

As promised, this entry addresses two final questions about the difference between agave nectar and sugar: 1) whether it tastes different and perhaps better in some applications and 2) whether it’s a good way to cut calories because it’s sweeter than sugar. The answer to both is yes in theory, but not really in practice.

The Claim: Agave Nectar tastes different/better

Agave nectar definitely tastes different than sugar, which is probably due mostly to the trace minerals that remain after the liquid harvested from the cactus is centrifuged, concentrated, filtered, coagulated, treated with activated charcoal, and then treated with heat or enzymes to hydrolyze the inulin into its constituent fructose molecules. However, the flavor is mild. Clotide of Chocolate & Zucchini used it as a substitute for honey in a recipe for marshmallows specifically because the flavor is less pronounced than honey:

I decided to use agave syrup, a more flavor-neutral sweetener that can be found in natural food stores.

However neutral, as long as it’s different, I’m willing to accept the possibility that it might taste better in some applications. But based on the Derby Day taste test, mint juleps aren’t one of them.

Part of the inspiration for the taste test was an entry on Cooking Issues about a blind taste test of margaritas sweetened with agave nectar or simple syrup, with the following results:

The consensus was that the agave nectar drink was deeper, more complex, had a longer finish, and was more tequila-y (in the sense of blanco tequila), than the simple syrup one. The simple syrup was deemed cleaner and fresher tasting. Three people said they outright preferred the agave nectar until Nils said, “It depends, during the daytime or at the beach I’d prefer the simple syrup, at night at a bar or with food I want the agave.” Everyone could agree to that.

They used a refractometer to make sure the amount of sugar in the two mixtures was the same, which required them to water down both the agave and simple syrups (4:1 water:syrup). Their mixes contained the same amount of tequila, lime juice, and ice, but the simple syrup one contained 22 g more water (about 3/4 oz) based on the refractometer’s measure of how much sweeter agave was. Not perfectly controlled, but I agree that you wouldn’t really expect 3/4 oz water distributed over multiple taster portions to affect the taste much.

“Deeper” was also how the friend who hosts the annual Derby Day party (and makes some of the best fried chicken I have ever had) described the agave-sweetened mint juleps he had had in the past. So my expectation—the hypothesis of this little experiment, I suppose—was that agave nectar is sufficiently different in taste from sugar to noticeably affect and perhaps improve the taste of cocktails.

you can see why this wasn't a double-blind experiment; agave does not look like simple syrup The Contenders: Agave Nectar in the French Press, Simple Syrup in the pitcher

In advance of the party, my friend made a simple syrup that was 1:1 white sugar:water and steeped a bunch of mint leaves in both that and about 12 oz. agave nectar. Neither of us has a refractometer, but the bottle of agave claimed that it should be substituted for sugar using a 3:4 ratio. Since it wasn’t diluted at all, it was substantially more viscous and sweeter than the simple syrup. There was some discussion of diluting the entire pitcher and then measuring out the cocktails very carefully with 3/4 as much diluted agave syrup as simple syrup and marking glasses randomly and having people fill out ballots. But in the end that seemed like too much effort and possibly still not completely controlled, so we decided just to let people mix their own drinks to taste.

I prepared a side-by-side test by pouring about 1/2 oz of simple syrup into one cup and about 1/4 oz of the agave syrup into the other, diluting the agave to about the same level as the simple syrup, topping both with about 3x as much Jim Beam as syrup, and trying to add about the same amount of ice to both cups. This was in no way a controlled experiment. However, once mixed, there was no visually-apparent difference between the two. I knew I had gotten a few more mint leaves in the agave-sweetened one, but to anyone else, it would have been basically impossible to distinguish.

how much more summery and breezy do the sunglasses in the background make them look? they totally look like they belong in kentucky in early may instead of michgan in early may.I took a sip of each and couldn’t tell any difference at all. So I had two other people taste them, without telling them which was which—including the host who had claimed that agave made for a “deeper” drink, and they couldn’t tell any difference or identify which was which either. It was even almost a double-blind because I kept losing track of which one was in which hand and having to peer into the glasses to compare the number of mint leaves.

The syrups themselves definitely tasted different, although the difference is difficult to describe—the flavor of the agave is almost a little caramelly, not as different from white sugar as brown sugar is but comparable to turbinado or “raw” sugar. Also, the sweetness seems thinner or purer than the sweetness of sugar, although that may be entirely the product of my expectations for how fructose might taste different than sucrose. Still, the fact that we could taste the difference in the syrups despite the fact that both were steeped in mint suggests that what masked the taste difference in the cocktails was the bourbon, ice, and/or dilution of the sugars in water.

The results have made me question whether the taste difference in both the Cooking Issues margarita test and my friend’s previous agave-sweetened julep experiences really did have something to do with the amount of water in the cocktail. The Cooking Issues mixes were 445 g (simple syrup) and 423 g (agave) including the ice, 255 g and 233 g without. Perhaps 22 g water—which would have been between 5-10% of the mixture depending on how much the ice melted—really did affect the taste. That certainly might explain why the tequila was more prominent in the agave-sweetened drink, and why it tasted “deeper” and “more complex.”

Although agave is more viscous than simple syrup, it dissolves even in cold drinks much more easily than granulated sugar. That might be better grounds for a defense of its superiority  than the difference in flavor: agave might be a way to make drinks sweet without diluting them as much as you do when you add simple syrup. However, if the issue is dilution, you should be able to get the same effect by making a less dilute simple syrup, if necessary, by cooking it down. Cooking it could also produce caramelization, which might mimic the flavor of agave for applications that might benefit from that; using turbinado sugar might have the same effect. And either of those options might be worth considering if you really think agave tastes better but you’re at all concerned about your liver. However, in general, I think the difference in flavor and concentration of sweetness is not likely to be significant enough to outweigh the potential health risks.

The Claim: Agave Nectar is sweeter so substituting it saves calories

Fructose is sweeter than any other naturally-occurring carbohydrate. According to Wikipedia, pure fructose is about 1.73 times sweeter than sucrose. That may call into question the Cooking Issues refractometer, or their use of it to control for sweetness, because it judged their agave nectar to be 1.77x sweeter than the simple syrup. Agave nectar is supposedly between 56-90% fructose and 8-20% glucose, so it should never be sweeter than fructose. Madhava says its agave has approximately 1.4x the sweetening power of sugar, which seems far more likely. I’m not super familiar with refractometers, but from what I can tell, they measure sugar content and not the type of sugar, so something with a lot of lactose could still get a high reading even though it wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet as something with the same concentration of glucose, sucrose, or fructose. So another possibility for the perceived difference in the Cooking Issues taste test might be that the agave-sweetened margaritas were less sweet and that’s why they tasted more like tequila, deeper, and more complex.

Anyhow, the caloric content of agave nectar varies based on the plant it comes from and the method used to hydrolyze the inulin, but in general, 1 Tablespoon contains 60 calories whereas 1 Tablespoon of sugar contains 45 kcal. That’s largely a difference of density—a tablespoon of agave is 21 g (part of that is moisture, but Madhava claims that 77% is solids, so that’s 16.17 g) and a tablespoon of sugar is only 12.5 g. Most of the suggested substitutions I’ve seen, including the one on the Madhava site and the back of the bottle we used for the mint juleps, call for 3/4 cup agave nectar for 1 cup of sugar or honey. 3/4 cup agave (252 g total; 194 g solids) @ 60 calories/T = 720 calories, which is exactly the same as 1 cup sucrose (200 g) @ 45 calories/T. So if you follow the manufacturer-recommended substitution, there are no caloric savings. 

It’s possible that the 3/4 cup agave = 1 cup sugar is an incorrect substitution. Given that fructose is sweeter than glucose, you should be able to use less agave than sugar (based on the weight of the solids, not just volume) to achieve the same level of “sweetness.” However, the nutritional information of agave-sweetened products vs. their sugar and HFCS-sweetened alternatives also suggests that in practice, people end up using the caloric equivalent rather than the sweetness equivalent. Wholemato Ketchup, which is sweetened with agave, contains 15 calories per 17 g serving, which is 5g less than sugar-sweetened Hunts, but exactly the same as HFCS-sweetened Heinz. From what I remember, Hunts actually tastes sweeter than Heinz, which may account for the difference between the two “normal” brands; having never tasted Wholemato and being somewhat disinclined to buy it, I can’t say whether it’s sweeter than Heinz or not. Nonetheless, no real savings here either.

15 calories per Tablespoon (17 g) 20 calories per Tablespoon (17g)15 calories per Tablespoon (17 g) 

Just to give agave full benefit of the doubt, I decided to calculate how many calories you’d save if you substituted how much you should be able to use to achieve the same amount of sweetness, rather than how much people actually seem to use: if agave is 1.4x sweeter than sugar, you should only need 143 g (in solids) to achieve the same amount of sweetness as 200 g of sucrose. That would require 186 g agave nectar, or 8.9 Tablespoons for every cup of sugar, closer to 1/2 cup for every 1 cup of sugar than 3/4 cup. Those 8.9 Tablespoons would contain 531 kcal, or about 190 fewer calories than the cup of sugar. If a “serving” of whatever you’re making contains 1 Tablespoon of sugar, the agave-sweetened version would contain about 12 fewer calories per serving than the sugar-sweetened equivalent (for 2 T sugar, 24 fewer calories, for 3 T sugar, 36 fewer calories, etc.)

So yes, in theory you can save around 12 calories per serving (or more for very sweet drinks and desserts; 1 T is just the “serving size”) by using agave nectar instead of sucrose or HFCS. But in practice, it’s not clear that that actually happens, and you definitely shouldn’t be misled by the difference in the volume of the recommended substitution. 3/4 cup agave is calorically identical to 1 cup sugar. Also, none of that changes the fact that it’s probably nutritionally worse.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Syrup

Who knew agaves grew in so many different flavors?

In the first post on agave nectar, I focused primarily on why it’s no more “natural” than high-fructose corn syrup, which is a delicious irony given how both sweeteners tend to be portrayed. But that isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid agave nectar. “Natural” is at best an imperfect heuristic for healthiness or environmental friendliness, and has no inherent relationship with deliciousness. But, as I also suggested in the first post, agave nectar is certainly no better health-wise than other sources of sugar, and the fact that it’s much higher in fructose than most sweeteners (70-90% vs. ~50%) gives me reason to believe it may actually be worse for your health than sucrose or HFCS-55.

So Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Ketchup Either. Because That Would Be Gross.GRANOLA-WASHING

Perhaps the most baffling thing is how many people seem to think agave nectar doesn’t count as sugar. For example, the rave review of Wholemato Organic Agave Ketchup in Men’s Health, contrasts it with the “liquid candy” that is HFCS. And then implies that the even-higher-fructose agave-sweetened condiment is healthier than “fatty” butter (it’s like someone at Men’s Health was specifically trying to give me apoplectic fits): 

This ketchup forgoes the high-fructose corn syrup and uses agave nectar, preserving sweetness without clobbering your fries or hot dog with liquid candy…. Slather it on your sweet potatoes as an alternative to a fatty slab o’ butter.

Note: The review is only available on the Wholemato site because the “read more” link is broken, but I’m not inclined to think it’s a fabrication as the other links on their “buzz” page are legit and you can find nearly-identical, equally-apoplexy-inducing claims about Wholemato Ketchup at The Kitch’n, Girlawhirl, i like granola, and Well Fed Man, among others.

There are also people who claim to have given up sugar, but who still eat agave nectar. Some excerpts from the comment thread on Nicole MacDonald’s resolution to give up sugar in 2010:

Jennifer: I went sugar-free at 16 to help my psoriasis & still don’t have it, 8 years later .
I don’t miss it at all. If I want to make a cake or anything I will use agave nectar … you realise there are so many interesting & alive foods out there you can enjoy without compromising your health!! xx

Nicole: I have to admit that in the first few weeks I baked a lot using ingredients like honey, agave and brown rice syrup. Cookies are my favorite to make, and I have a long list of recipes on my blog to the right. I also drank a lot of flavored tea with honey added and that seemed to cure some of my cravings.

Beth: I stopped eating sugar last year and its worked out pretty well. As long as I can have natural sugars which are found in fruits, then I’m totally satisfied.

Not All Things That Occur Naturally In Fruit Should Be Consumed In Quantity. Like Cyanide.

Beth is certainly not alone in thinking that “sugars which are found in fruits” are healthier than other sugars. People are frequently resistant to the idea that fructose might be unhealthy because, as the name so conveniently reminds them, it’s found in fruit. Or, if they’ve been sold on the idea that HFCS is poison and fructose has something to do with that, they sometimes suggest that there must be different kinds of fructose. Take, for example, the comment by Dave on this post by ThursdaysGirl, which expressed some reservations about agave nectar:

[. . .] you say Agave is 70% fructose, ok, so that means that means a teaspoon of Agave (about 4 grams) has about 2.8 grams of fructose… Hmmm, a small tomato has about 2.6 grams of fructose in it, the same as a carrot!… so, by your ridiculous logic, you should run away from tomatoes and carrots as fast and as far as you can! OMG, never eat another tomato! And don’t even get me started on Apples!

Remember, HFCS, regardless of what the lying chemists say, is not a natural source of Fructose. It is a man made molecule. It is illegal to call High Fructose Corn Syrup “All Natural”. I wonder why… Agave can be found both All Natural and Organic!!! Small amounts of Fructose actually help metabolize Glucose better, plus its low glycemic, has natural inulin fiber which is amazingly beneficial [. . . .]

I would trust the Mayo Clinics recommendations as regards to High Fructose Corn Syrup… it is poison. But really, Apples, Carrots, Tomatoes etc all bad for you? Stop it.

It’s actually not illegal to call HFCS “natural.” The FDA has been notoriously unwilling to define “natural” aside from the essentially meaningless distinction between “artificial” and “natural” colors and flavors—which Eric Schlosser talks about extensively in Fast Food Nation (pp. 121-131). As of July 2008, HFCS is “natural” for the purposes of food labeling. You can read all about the ongoing legal debates here. However, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to differentiate “natural” fructose, like the stuff in fruit, from “chemically-produced” fructose, like the stuff in HFCS. The problem is that they can’t seem to agree which side the fructose in agave nectar is on.

As you might expect, the agavevangelists are on the side of “natural.” According to Kalyn’s Kitchen Picks :

It’s been a long time since I discovered a new product that rocked my world in the way agave nectar has done…. The sweet taste in agave nectar comes from natural fructose, the same sweetener found in fruit (not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup which has chemically produced fructose.)

On the other side, there’s Rami Nagel, whose Natural News article been widelycirculated and cited by people on both sides of the agave nectar debate. According to Nagel, agave nectar is composed of bad, man-made “fructose,” which he claims actually has a completely different chemical formula from the sugar in fruit, which he calls “levulose”:

We all know that the chemical formula for water is H2O: two hydrogens and one oxygen. The opposite would be O2H, which is nothing close to water. Likewise, man-made fructose would have to have the chemical formula changed for it to be levulose, so it is not levulose. Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn’t recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. (Similar claims here and here)

However, levulose is just an alternate name for fructose. A search for “levulose” on Wikipedia automatically redirects to their fructose entry. ChemBlink claims they’re synonyms with the exact same molecular formula and structure:

levulose/fructose...not quite as catchy as tomayto/tomahto 

And even the earliest examples from the OED reveal that the terms are completely interchangeable: 

1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. III. 386 Cane sugar is partly left unchanged, partly converted into glucose and lævulose. 1902 Encycl. Brit. XXII. 721/1 Glucose and fructose (lævulose)the two isomeric hexases of the formula C6H12O6 which are formed on hydrolysing cane sugar.

With “levulose” eventually giving way to “fructose” by the the 1970s:

1974 Nature 10 May 194/3 Although it is true that some bacteriologists are extremely conservative in the names they use for carbohydrates, surely nobody now uses ‘levulose’…in preference to ‘fructose’ these days.

A PubMed search for “levulose” also turned up 30,398 articles about (surprise!) fructose. The twenty articles that actually had “levulose” in the title were almost all translations, mostly from German.

So no, there is no difference between “naturally occurring” and “chemically-produced” fructose (and if the fructose in HFCS is the latter, so is the fructose in agave). Nonetheless, Dave and Rami Nagel are both at least partially correct. Fructose/levulose may not contain enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin, but the fruits that contain levulose/fructose certainly do. And there’s no reason to believe that eating a small amount of agave nectar, say a teaspoon, with similar amounts of fiber, protein, and other nutrients as would be found in a tomato or carrot would have a different or worse effect on the body than the vegetables themselves.

Fructose and Your Liver

Just because fructose isn’t necessarily bad for you in the amounts present in most fruits and vegetables, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthier substitution for other sugars. The evidence from studies on humans is still pretty scant. However, in a 2008 study where 23 subjects got 25% of their caloric intake from either fructose-sweetened or glucose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks, the subjects who drank the fructose-sweetened drinks showed signs of decreased insulin sensitivity (a sign of diabetes) and increased fat in their abdominal regions, especially around their heart and liver, which is associated with cardiovascular disease (here’s the study itself or a translation from WebMD).

We’ve known for over 50 years that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose. Once it enters the body, it’s taken up by the liver, so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as glucose. It bypasses the step that insulin regulates, so diabetics can digest fructose about as well as non-diabetics. Which initially sounds good, especially for diabetics; however, more recently, fructose has been shown to have the same effects as alcohol on the liver:

I won't pretend to understand everything that's going on here, except that it illustrates the various processes and feedback mechanisms that cause fatty liver disease. From “Fructose Takes a Toll” in the August 2009 Hepatology (login required)

As a recent article in Physiological Review notes:

Fructose was initially thought to be advisable for patients with diabetes due to its low glycemic index. However, chronically high consumption of fructose in rodents leads to hepatic and extrahepatic insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. The evidence is less compelling in humans, but high fructose intake has indeed been shown to cause dyslipidemia and to impair hepatic insulin sensitivity.

So while probably harmless in small amounts, it’s certainly not a “healthy” sugar or a free pass to eat sweet things without potential/likely health consequences.

I’ll do a follow-up eventually about the claim that you can use less of it because it’s sweeter. There are lots of conflicting claims about how much sweeter it is and how much less of it you use that I’m still trying to sort out. So far, I’m not at all convinced that the small caloric benefit is a reasonable trade-off for the risks of increased fructose consumption. I’ll also address one final defense: at least in some applications and to some palates, agave nectar may taste better. I admit to being a little skeptical, but a friend has promised to arrange a blind taste-test of mint juleps made with agave nectar, simple syrup, and a 50-50 agave nectar/brown rice syrup blend. That won’t happen until the national day of mint julep drinking, which falls on May 1, 2010 this year. So, until then, I’m going to take a little break from reading and writing about agave nectar.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part I: “Natural” my foot

UGH the subtitle. I really want Ms. Catalano to show me exactly where in "nature" she gets her agave nectar. Also, I find the use of "ultimate" to mean "exemplary" or "best" instead of "final" or "last" grating, but that's a petty battle against usage change that "Ultimate Frisbee" has clearly already won. Still, I like to think of it as "Frisbee for the End Days" Just as "wholesome" as any other hydrolyzed, refined sweetener. If you've been snarky about the Corn Refiners' Assn's recent "Sweet Surprise" marketing campaign, but have a bottle that looks like this in your cupboard, I have some delicious all-natural snake oil to sell you, good sir or madam.

This entry was nearly titled “Things That Might Not Kill You In Moderation But Certainly Won’t Make You Any Healthier Vol. I,” or “Hydrolyzed, Refined Sweeteners Masquerading as ‘Natural,’ Whole Foods,” but those seemed a little unwieldy. They do, however, capture the essence of the argument: agave is nutritionally no better than most other refined sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). If anything, it’s probably worse because it contains more fructose than table sugar or HFCS. It’s also no more or less “natural” than HFCS—it’s actually produced in a remarkably similar process that was first used on the fibrous pulp of the agave in the 1990s. While, as its proponents claim, the higher proportion of fructose has enabled people to call it a “low glycemic index sweetener,” sometimes alleged to be safer for diabetics and recommended by weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, recent research suggests that large amounts of fructose aren’t healthy for anyone, diabetic or otherwise.

I mentioned agave nectar in passing in the HFCS post, but there’s enough conflicting information about it to merit its own post(s). A lot of the misinformation comes from agavevangelists, who can sometimes get a little sanctimonious about their avoidance of the demon HFCS and preference for “natural” sweeteners. Even this Vegfamily article that concludes “the physiological effects of all [caloric] sweeteners are similar” nonetheless claims:

Given the choice between sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar, I’ll stick with organically-grown, unbleached cane sugar (evaporated cane juice) and organic raw agave nectar that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical bleaching agents; not genetically engineered; and still retains some nutrients, as well as being vegan. Since HFCS is not available in organic form and is highly processed, I would never use it.

But agave nectar is just as processed as HFCS.

HFCS and Agave Nectar: One of These Things is Not Almost Exactly Like The Other

1910 magazine advertisement from Like most starches, corn starch consists of large glucose polymers—70-80% the branched, non-water soluble amylopectin and 20-30% linear, soluble amylose. Normal or non-HFCS corn syrup, like Karo, is produced by breaking those polymers down into their constituent glucose molecules using acids, enzymes, and/or heat. For the history buffs: the acid hydrolysis of starch was first discovered because of the 1806 British blockade of the French West Indies. Napoleon I offered a cash reward for anyone who could come up with a replacement for cane sugar, and a Russian chemist named Konstantin Kirchhof found he could produce a sweet syrup from potato starch by adding sulfuric acid. The same process was first applied to corn in the mid-1860s, and gained popularity in the U.S. during the sugar shortages of WWI (source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America).

HFCS is produced by converting the glucose into fructose using an enzyme technology developed in Japan in the 1960s (detailed here). The resulting syrup, which contains up to 90% fructose, is then typically mixed with corn-based glucose syrup to produce HFCS-55 (the kind used in soft drinks, which has 55% fructose/45% glucose) or HFCS-45 (the kind used in baked goods, which has 45% fructose/55% glucose). Some people, like Cynthia commenting on Daily Candor, have suggested that the fructose and glucose in HFCS are absorbed into the bloodstream faster because they’re “free" instead of bound the way they are in the disacccharide sucrose, which is broken into glucose and fructose by the enzyme sucrase. Theoretically plausible, but apparently not true:

Sucrose is hydrolysed by brush-border sucrase into glucose and fructose.
The rate of absorption is identical, regardless of whether the sugar is presented to the mucosa as the disaccharide or the component monosaccharides (Gray & Ingelfinger, I 966, cited by H. B. McMichael in “Intestinal absorption of carbohydrates in man”).

I'm going to start refering to packaging like this as granola-washingJust like HFCS, agave nectar is produced by breaking down a plant-based polymer into its constituent sugars. In the case of agave, the relevant molecule is inulin, a fiber composed mostly of fructose units with a terminal glucose. Just like with corn and potato starch, there are different methods of hydrolyzing the sugars in inulin.  Blue Agave Nectar uses a thermic process. Madhava uses an enzyme process, just like HFCS.

Agavevangelists like to claim that agave nectar is a traditional sweetener used by native peoples, which appeals to the popular notion that the foodways of the past were generally healthier (e.g. Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food). Some, like Lynn Stephens of Shake Off the Sugar, merely note that the agave plant itself “has long been cultivated in hilly, semi-arid soils of Mexico.” That’s true, although it’s about as relevant as the long history of corn cultivation. Others claim that agave nectar itself has an ancient history. Flickr user Health Guy says of agave nectar: “It is 1-1/4 times sweeter than sugar, so you need less, and it has been consumed by ancient civilizations for over 5,000 years.”

Wrong. According to the website for Madhava Honey:

Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s. Originally, the blue agave variety was used. This is the same plant used in the manufacture of tequila. During the late 90’s, a shortage of blue agave resulted in huge increases in cost and a sweetener based on this plant became uneconomical. Further research was done and a method using wild agave was developed. Overcoming the language barrier between the Indians able to supply the nectar from the wild agave on their land and the Spanish speaking local manufacturer was the key that finally unlocked a supply of raw material and has led to our bringing this wonderful new product to market.

Still doing some native-washing (wild agave harvested by Indians who don’t speak Spanish—can’t you just feel the virtue?), but here’s what happens to the agave sap after harvesting, as described in the abstract of the 1998 patent issued for the production of fructose syrup from the agave plant:

A pulp of milled agave plant heads are liquified during centrifugation and a polyfructose solution is removed and then concentrated to produce a polyfructose concentrate. Small particulates are removed by centrifugation and/or filtration and colloids are removed using termic coagulation techniques to produce a partially purified polyfructose extract substantially free of suspended solids. The polyfructose extract is treated with activated charcoal and cationic and anionic resins to produce a demineralized, partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract. This partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract is then hydrolyzed with inulin enzymes to produce a hydrolyzed fructose extract. Concentration of the fructose extract yields a fructose syrup. (via Patentstorm)

Probably the healthiest sweetener pictured here and the one most shoppers in the market for a "natural sweetener" would be least likely to purchaseIt’s true that the corn used in HFCS is less likely than agave to be organically-grown, but you can get organic-certified corn syrup from the same manufacturer as the blue agave nectar pictured above and nutritionally, the main difference between that, the HFCS used in most processed foods, and agave nectar is the ratio of glucose: fructose. The regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, HFCS is usually 55/45 glucose/fructose, and agave nectar 56-90% fructose, depending on the plant and the process.

I’ve already talked a little about fructose vs. glucose here and here, but more coming soon in Agave-rant Part II concerning:

1) whether the fructose in agave is somehow better than, or indeed, different in any way from the fructose in HFCS

2) whether the fact that it’s sweeter than sugar makes it a lower-calorie alternative to sugar

3) whether its “low glycemic index” rating makes less likely to produce insulin resistance than table sugar and

4) whether it’s safer for diabetics

All of which people have claimed. I won’t keep you in suspense, especially given how long it may take me to put all of that together. The short answers are:

1) not in any nutritionally meaningful way

2) perhaps very slightly, but a <10 calorie/serving difference likely doesn’t make up for the increased risk of fatty liver syndrome and insulin resistance

3) no, it’s actually more likely to produce insulin resistance and

4) in miniscule amounts, perhaps, but recent trials involving diabetics and agave nectar were halted because of severe side effects.