Agave: Nectar of the Gods or Satan’s Syrup?

In the quest for great cocktails, the craft cocktail movement has strived to produce libations of higher and higher quality, using the finest ingredients and researching historical accuracy.  Having survived college, and sometimes high school, drinking rites, many of us have asked, “There’s got to be something better than this crap, right?!”  In the quest to eliminate synthetic sweet and sour mixes, to ban Rose’s sweetened lime juice from our bar, to turn our backs on flavored syrups that hint at real sugar and fruit in the same way as an extra dry martini hints at vermouth, we voyage the world looking for exotic and natural ingredients.  Sometimes the simplest ingredients are the best choice, like the pillar of the bar the simple syrup, other times we delve more exotic and tap into foreign ingredients from far off lands and their unique flavors.

Take, for example, Agave Nectar.  It has an interesting flavor that resembles a funky honey, is sweeter than sugar, can be found at every health food store, is said to not spike blood sugar levels like sugar does and is a great accompaniment in Mezcal or Tequila based cocktails.  Personally, I have found it to be a great syrup to use with very bitter, earthy, funky and smokey flavors found in many cocktail ingredients like Mezcal, Cynar and even some funky rums like Smith & Cross.  It rounds out the funk and yet still embraces it with its own unique flavors.  I’ve created numerous cocktails using the stuff.  I know people who use it exclusively for their tea, in their baking and even on their pancakes.  It has been touted as healthy, natural and a good sugar replacement for diabetics.

Then I was on the phone with my father, an ex-hippie and obsessive health food nut, who started talking about how the stuff is pure crap and how I shouldn’t give it to my 10 year old son unless I want him to be a diabetic by the time he’s a teenager.  Wait… WHAT!?!

Having a background in Physics and having worked with scientists, I know far too well that a “scientific study” is not always objective and usually supports the views of whoever is paying for the study to be done.  After all, funding is limited and scientists can’t put food on their tables with theories alone.  Good reports could look only at certain aspects, and bad reports could be funded by the sugar industry wanting to defame a competitor.  It happens all the time.  So, I decided to look into this thing we call Agave Nectar and see what it is and people are saying.  This is by no means a scientific study, it is very biased with my own personal beliefs, but I will state the facts and point out my various opinions.  Ultimately I want you to look into the matter more.  Whether you believe agave nectar is good or bad, it’s worth looking into, especially if you’ve made it a major part of your diet.  I’ve been shocked by what I found.  If you thought of it like honey or maple syrup, please do look into it more.

So, let’s start with the facts:

  • Agave “Nectar” is a marketing term.  There is no nectar from the agave plant from which agave nectar is derived.  We tend to think of a flower and the sugary nectar that humming birds feed on. Agave nectar is derived from the core of the agave plant, the pina (what’s left when the leaves are removed), from breaking down the carbohydrates called inulin which is a polysaccharide.  Through a chemical process called hydrolysis the complex sugars are broken down into simpler sugars, fructose and glucose, usually involving the use of acids or enzymes. Despite the marketing on websites, the “juice” is not just simply boiled, like you do to concentrate maple syrup. Although they say its a simple process, the process is much closer akin to the production of high fructose corn syrup, getting a liquid sugar from the starch found in corn.
  • “100% Pure”, “Natural” or “Organic” are relatively meaningless terms to further make you feel good, but do not relate to production methods or contents. For the reasons noted above, you would expect such terms in conjunction to honey, maple syrup or cane juice, where the process of production simply involves removing water to concentrate the natural sugars or just using the raw substance as is.  This is not the case.  Not even remotely. The FDA states that agave nectar is supposed to be labeled as “hydrolyzed inulin syrup.” Yet, no agave manufacturers comply with the FDA’s labeling requirement. It is also common for agave nec… excuse me… hydrolyzed inulin syrup to be mixed with high fructose corn syrup. It is also common that the ingredients label doesn’t mention it but simply says “agave nectar.” Some brands do promote the fact they don’t do this as part of the “100% Pure” label, but the FDA doesn’t regulate any further than what all agave nectar companies are already ignoring.  Since “100% Pure Agave Nectar” is a HIGHLY processed product to begin with, adding HFCS can be claimed to be part of the processing method and thereby is still “100% Pure Agave Nectar.”  Makes it convenient that there is no “nectar” to begin with so any end product of your process is technically “agave nectar.”
  • Agave nectar consists of a combination of fructose and glucose, the product of the enzyme hydrolysis.  Table sugar is about 50/50 fructose and glucose. High fructose corn syrup ranges in a ratio of about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.  Honey has about 75% fructose, 25% glucose.  Agave nectar varies from brand to brand, but has been generally noted to be about 95% fructose.  There are companies that promote lower levels of fructose anywhere between 50-95%.  Generally, however, agave nectar has a higher concentration of fructose than HFCS and honey and is common in the 95% range.
  • Agave nectar is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar.  As part of the healthy aspects of agave nectar, it is said that because it is sweeter, you can use less, thereby consuming less calories.
  • Agave nectar has a glycemic index of about 30.  The other part of the healthy aspect is that it has less of an affect on your blood sugar spiking.  The glycemic index is based on the designation of a base of 100 for glucose or white bread (if white bread is used glucose has an index of about 140), all things are rated relative to that in how it affects your blood sugar.  Higher than 100 you have immediate relative effects, lower than 100 you have less effects.  Standard sugar has an index in the 60s.  It is promoted as good for diabetics because of this.  However, this index does not study the affects after two hours and does not look into insulin response or resistance.  Fructose decreases the sensitivity of insulin receptors that allow glucose to leave the bloodstream and enter cells to create energy. The body then must produce more insulin to process the same amount of glucose. This is known as insulin resistance.  Studies suggest long term effects of high levels of fructose to aid in the development of diabetes.  The reason fructose doesn’t affect your blood sugar as much is because your body can’t process it like it can glucose.  Glucose can be processed by all cells, easily entering the blood system through the intestine… spiking blood sugar.  Fructose, on the other hand, must be processed through the liver.  This takes longer to break down, thus not effecting your blood sugar as directly, but over a longer period of time.  Do a Google search on “fructose and obesity” and you’ll find quite a lot of studies discussing how the liver processing fructose leads to some nasty long term side effects in the health of the human body.
So let’s now make some subjective conclusions (though to be fair my facts above contained some subjective comments as well) based on what we now know:
  • WTF are you kidding me?!  I had no idea agave “hydrolyzed inulin syrup” nectar was that unnatural and highly processed.  In all my attempts to make quality and uniquely crafted cocktails, I would have done better to add straight high fructose corn syrup instead of simple syrup.
  • Do you use 40-60% less volume when consuming it?  You should, otherwise you aren’t taking advantage of one of the “healthy” aspects… lower calories from smaller portions.  In cocktails I measure in teaspoons and fractions of ounces, and rarely ensure I’m using less than normal.  I might use a little less because it is sweet, but not cutting down by half, especially with the small portions like a teaspoon in an Old Fashioned.  Especially because I rely on the extra sweetness with funky flavors.  Something it remember.
  • In looking at different articles I found a Wall Street Journal reference to a nasty study where people went to the hospital during testing.  The agave in question, the dark amber, contained large amounts of maple syrup.  Gee… kind of defeats the purpose of using agave for diabetics… or even calling it agave.  Since it’s not regulated by the FDA, be very careful with how much faith you place on the label and marketing.  Better yet, just don’t trust it.
  • A pack of Red Vines is 100% fat free.  Sweet!  They’re “heathly!”  Be careful of what aspect of “healthy” something is.  Just because its low in one thing doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  The fact that fructose can’t be normally processed by your body and must be processed through your liver tells me its treated as a complex entity or poison in your system that needs to be filtered.  Granted, so is alcohol, but do we really need our liver doing more work? Sugars processed by the liver are the most likely to be stored as body fat… part of that whole HFCS and obesity in Americans argument.  Interestingly, though, honey has more fructose than HFCS.  Looking from a fructose point of view, its worse that HFCS.  However, raw honey isn’t just pure fructose and glucose.  There’s a bunch of other stuff in there (minerals, vitamins, protein) that affects your body in good ways during the processing.

You can find ways to say anything is good or bad… so ultimately you need to decide how good is good and how bad is bad.  Personally, my philosophy is if its found in nature, our bodies have had more time evolving to process it.  The more refined and processed the more foreign it is to our body.  Our bodies will evolve to process it… awesome thing about evolution… but they haven’t had time to do so yet.  

If you are familiar with the history of the cocktail, you’ll know that after prohibition flavor in booze started to go away.  There wasn’t as much aged product on the market so pushing blended whiskeys or even vodka started to be big business.  The American palate changed and the bland was offset with the sugary.  By the 70s and 80s, the Dark Ages of cocktails, cocktails were sugary chemical crap concoctions.  Thank God the craft has been swinging back to more natural and higher quality ingredients, but we still need to be wary of the economics of a consumer based industry.  You can buy HFCS with flavors added that says its honey or pancake syrup.  Tonic water, flavored syrups, all sorts of cocktail ingredients sneak in HFCS rather than simply using cane syrup or even sugar.  If you are crafting fine cocktails, you of course would go for the real and pure ingredients.  Much to my shock, agave nectar looks to be pretty much the same as a packet of “pancake syrup” (you have read the ingredients list on one of those, right? *shutter*) you might find in your breakfast combo.

I’d recommend looking more into it yourself if you use agave nectar.  Here’s a great article on the ills of agave nectar from Food Renegade. Here’s also a great article from New York Times on sugar just being generally bad.  Technically, our bodies get far too much of it already.

TikiGeeki’s 100% Pure Mock Agave Nectar

A “healthy” alternative:
  • 1 part 100% real raw honey
  • 1 part 100% real maple syrup
  • 1 part 100% filtered fresh water
  • Dash of Angostura (or your favorite) bitters to taste 
Cocktails have some nasty health issues too.  Let’s be honest.  But if you are going to make cocktails, do your part to make cocktails with good ingredients!

4 thoughts on “Agave: Nectar of the Gods or Satan’s Syrup?

  1. Joby – I like your report here, but want to clarify a few of your points which are worth noting. Since you’re doing your research from the internet, there are a couple of misunderstandings that continue to sway people into thinking agave is really bad for you. So you can make up your own mind, here’s a little feedback on your bulleted points you are calling “Facts”: 1. Agave “Nectar” is indeed a marketing term. It is commonly referred to as Agave Syrup as well. 2. While “Natural” doesn’t mean much, “Organic” does require rigorous certification from accredited, USDA approved agencies – so look for “Organic”. But, no, the FDA has not required agave nectar manufacturers to label the product as “hydrolised inulin syrup”. You know why? Because none of the manufacturers are using that old process of adding enzymes or chemicals. That was one of the first processes developed in the early 90′s but is not used for Blue Agave. No chemicals are used, only heat and filtration. I know because I’ve been involved in the processing for many years. All agave nectar brands and their labels that you see in the stores have been approved via the USDA before being brought into the store (as in Whole Foods – they do serious research on brands first, and require documentation to support “Organic” claims). Hopefully you can put that point to rest, because it simply isn’t true in the slightest. 4. Agave Syrup (Nectar) glycemic index rating ranges depending upon the brand and the quality of the syrup. They range from the mid-30s to around 17. There are no agave nectars with 95% fructose. They range from 80 – 90%, or they simply are not pure agave nectar by the industry standards. Each brand is different, with different taste profiles and colors, similar to the variation of tequilas. You have your low end tequilas, like Cuervo Gold, and premium brands like Corzo etc. So if you go back through your argument and take out these commonly misquoted “facts”, you can have an honest evaluation. The only real consideration is in over-consumption of calories. If you just consumer moderate amounts of agave, it is a perfectly delicious, organic sweetener and works amazingly in the shaker. But if you’re really worried about getting healthy, you’d need to say goodbye to alcohol, but what fun would that be? Cheers!

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  3. Thanks so much for sharing The btteir Truth about Sugar. I have passed this along to many of my friends. Now I know why I am so hungry after eating a lot of sugar!Love your newsletter!

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