This post was written by Neely Quinn.
The agave plant is Paleo; my tequila and mezcal habit would certainly be hampered if it wasn’t.
And agave nectar comes from the same agave plant that gives us tequila. So because it comes from a plant, and said plant is not a grain or a bean, shouldn’t you be able to consume it when you’re on a Paleo diet?
You’ve probably heard somewhere along the line that you should be substituting your sweeteners with agave, due to its low glycemic index, its high content of inulin (a fiber), and its high content of fructose. As we know, fructose – one of the simple sugars found in many foods – doesn’t spike your blood sugar like glucose does. However, that doesn’t mean that in excess it’s good for you. In fact, there are certain people, like Dr. Robert Lustig and Dr. Richard Johnson, who believe very strongly that fructose is a poisonous toxin to your liver and it’s contributing to diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. To round things out, here’s a more common sense rebuttal to that theory written by Chris Kresser.
A little nutrition 101: fructose and glucose are both found in varying ratios in most things that are sweet. Here’s a handful of foods and their fructose percentages and fructose amounts. (all numbers are estimates from USDA unless stated otherwise):
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) - 55% to 90% fructose, depending on the manufacturer, and 8-13g of fructose per tablespoon. (There are 3 tbs of HFCS in a 12-oz can of Coke, so 24-39g fructose.)
- Honey (not raw) - 50% fructose/50% glucose, and 9g of fructose per tablespoon.
- Table sugar/white refined sugar - around 50%/50%, and 6g of fructose per tablespoon.
- Agave – 73% fructose and 27% glucose (some sources claim higher or lower), and 12g of fructose per tablespoon.
FRUIT and VEG
- Banana - 26% of its carbohydrate content is fructose, and a 7″ banana contains 7g of fructose.
- Apple - 50% of the carb content is fructose, and a 2.5″ apple contains 7g of fructose.
- Mango - 55% of a the carb content is fructose, and an entire mango contains 27.5g of fructose.
- Raspberries - 20% of the carb content is fructose, and a cup of them contain 3g of fructose.
- Sweet Potatoes - 10% of the carb count is fructose and a 2″x5″ sweet potato contains 2g of fructose.
What can we glean from this? Yes, agave does contain more fructose than some other sweeteners, but if you’re a dried mango junkie like I used to be, agave isn’t your problem.
According to this guy, in the 1800′s and early 1900′s, before we were obese and diabetic, people were consuming about 15g of fructose a day, mostly from fruits and veggies. Nowadays, Americans are getting around 55g per day – make that 73g for adolescents. That’s gross, but moving along…
My humble personal opinion is that it’s not the fructose itself that’s making us fat and sick. We’re just eating too many carbs and too many calories in general. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out; no scapegoating of fructose necessary. We’ve had fructose in our diets since before we were human…
Along the sugary, gluttonous way, and depending on your genetic make-up, you may damage your body so badly that you can no longer tolerate sugar. That’s what’s called being “metabolically deranged” and why some people, like Jimmy Moore, can only be healthy when they eat virtually no carbohydrates whatsoever.
So what’s the problem with agave for metabolically normally functioning people?
The problem with agave, which is debatably not even a problem, is that it’s not a natural sweetener. You can pull something resembling agave out of the center of an agave plant, then boil it for a couple of hours and get something sweet called agua de miel, much like Northerners have done with maple sap for thousands of years. But the super sweet (1.5 times sweeter than sugar) agave nectar you buy in the store is heated, enzymatically changed with GMO enzymes (much like HFCS), and heated and homogenized again.
Madhava says they use no GMOs in their products, and that they’re raw (meaning heated only to a certain temp during processing), but they don’t give details, and I couldn’t reach them when I called them to get more info. The truth is I actually don’t have much of a problem with the enzymes as long as they’re not poisonous or GMO; bees use enzymes to change nectar into raw honey, after all. And I’m not a raw foodist, so I don’t really care if my food is heated or not.
So… is agave Paleo?
My advice to you is to make your own rational decision about this. Do I eat it? Sometimes, if I really want ice cream and the only coconut milk ice cream in the store contains agave nectar instead of honey. Agave makes me sort of dizzy, so I don’t like it. If you really want a good admonishment of agave, check out this piece over at the Weston A. Price Foundation. I like those guys, but they are ruthless and a bit biased sometimes. Here’s another rant by the Food Renegade. I can’t find any retort from agave companies, but I’d love to see one.
If you do eat agave, please don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s “good” for you. It’s sugar, like any other sugar, and it’s got a lot of carbs in a small package. If you’re not active and you need to lose weight, or if you’re metabolically deranged, diabetic, have liver disease, there’s no reason you should be eating it. Even if you’re a Paleo athlete and you need more carbs in your diet, this isn’t really the kind of carbs that will most efficiently fuel you: You want something with more glucose in it that your body can use for energy quickly.
Agave may have GMOs and pesticides in it if it’s not labeled organic, and it’s probably been heated and chemically altered in some way. Agave has fewer nutrients and more fructose than raw honey, too.
I’ve always thought it was funny that there’s honey-flavored agave. Seriously?
Just eat the damn honey instead. That’s really what I think about it.