Paleo Plan

Is Agave Paleo?

This post was written by Neely Quinn. 

Agave PlantThe 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):

SWEETENERS

      • 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?

Honey flavored agave

 

Just eat the damn honey instead. That’s really what I think about it.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Urban Cave Girl

    Thank you!!! I have so little sweet in my diet and have just come across a coconut based ice cream sweetened with agave nectar. I use it very occasionally and am trying to adhere to paleo diet.

    Thanks.

  2. Ophiolog

    Dispelling the many myths about agave syrup and fructose propagated on the Web by the likes of the Weston A Price Foundation and those citing their falsehoods could easily be a full time job. If the agave syrup industry has stopped responding, it’s probably because they’re fed up. With your post, you have added to the mythology with further misconceptions, although I applaud your effort to provide a more balanced perspective. I suppose one of the best solutions would be for someone to set the facts straight on the Wikipedia page and hope for the best. However, given the current level of fructose fanaticism and agave syrup antagonism, I doubt it would allay the problem entirely.

    If agave syrup is not a “natural” sweetener, then neither is maple syrup. Both products are made from the sap of a plant by heating, filtration, and evaporation. So-called “raw” agave syrup is simply made by using a lower temperature in conformance with raw foods and heating for a longer time than regular agave syrup.

    According to an extensive survey of 19 agave syrups, the highest content of fructose by wet weight was 70.08% and the lowest content was 54%. Their glucose contents by wet weight were in the range of 3.6% to 11.4%. The higher fructose content than HFCS doesn’t mean that agave syrup is worse for you because it contains far less glucose. With more glucose, your body has to produce more insulin to process it than fructose.

    The contents of fructose and glucose in high-fructose corn syrup are not dependent on the manufacture but how it’s made. HFCS-55 is the type used beverages. It contains 55% fructose and 41% glucose. You can also find HFCS-42 (42% fructose and 53% glucose) and HFCS-90, which contains 90% fructose and is more rarely used and contains 90% fructose and 10% glucose. (For details and references, see the Wikipedia page on High fructose corn syrup).

    Honey is not composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Only regular sugar (a disaccharide otherwise known a sucrose) has such a composition. The fructose contents in honey are highly varied and range from 28% to 45%.

    The following statement in your post is wrong: “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.”

    Having spoken with a number of agave syrup manufacturers and others who know the process, it does not involve or require the addition of enzymes, let alone GMO enzymes. The use of enzymes has been proposed and used experimentally at university labs to make an agave syrup, but enzymes are cost-prohibitive and GMO enzymes would not allow organic certification. Just try to find an agave syrup not certified organic. Caustic acids are not used, either.

    What can and has been be manually siphoned out of the top of the stems or ‘heads’ of agave and boiled to produce a syrup is known as “agua de miel” (‘honey water’), which is the sap of the plant. That labor-intensive traditional method was used by the Aztecs and continues to be the method employed on a small, local scale in Mexico using large species of Agave (eg, Agave salmiana), but not blue agave (Agave tequilana). The modern method is to crush the harvested heads of either A. salmiana or A. tequilana to obtain the sap or ‘honey water’ and heat that to evaporate the water and produce the syrup using controlled temperatures and filtration. Unless it’s filtered, the traditional syrup and modern syrup is very dark and strongly flavored. For that reason, it will alter the flavor and color of foods and beverages to such a degree that many if not most would object to its use as a sweetener. The difference is akin to black strap molasses and honey.

    If Dr. Robert Lustig and Dr. Richard Johnson still “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”, they must be referring to high amounts.

    The fructose-obesity hypothesis of 2004 has since been shown to be without merit and based on erroneous data. On that subject alone, see the following for a start:

    White JS. Challenging the fructose hypothesis: new perspectives on fructose consumption and metabolism. Adv Nutr. 2013;4:246-56.

    Rippe JM, Angelopoulos TJ. Sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and fructose, their metabolism and potential health effects: what do we really know? Adv Nutr. 2013;4:236-45.

    Song WO, Wang Y, Chung CE, Song B, Lee W, Chun OK. Is obesity development associated with dietary sugar intake in the U.S.? Nutrition. 2012;28:1137-41.

    Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, et al. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2007;47:561-82.

    Sun SZ, Empie MW. Lack of findings for the association between obesity risk and usual sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in adults–a primary analysis of databases of CSFII-1989-1991, CSFII-1994-1998, NHANES III, and combined NHANES 1999-2002. Food Chem Toxicol. 2007;45:1523-36.

    Swinburn B, Sacks G, Ravussin E. Increase food energy supply is more than sufficient to explain the US epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90:1453-56.

    As for high blood pressure, a systematic review of 15 human clinical trials on fructose showed that daily dosages of 53 to 182 grams per day for 7 days and longer failed to adversely affect blood pressure in adults aged 21 to 71 (see: Ha V, et al. Effects of fructose on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled feedings trials. Hypertension. 2012;59:787-95).

    If fructose contributes to diabetes, one would think that it also increases insulin resistance. But from daily doses of up to 120 g/day, which is far higher than the mean level of fructose consumption in the U.S. of 49 g/day, no increase in insulin resistance is found (see: Cozma AI, et al. Effect of fructose on glycemic control in diabetes: a meta-analysis of controlled feeding trials. Diabetes Care. 2012;35:1611-20). The meta-analysis also found that when fructose was consumed in exchange for carbohydrates of the same caloric value (glucose and fructose are equal in caloric value), diabetics showed improved glycemic control.

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