I was highly skeptical of agave nectar when it started making waves in recent years as a healthier alternative to sugar.
The appeal of agave nectar seems to be that, though it’s even sweeter than sugar, it has a far lower glycemic index (GI). This appeals to diabetics, who are advised to avoid high-GI foods because those foods can cause a spike in blood sugar that can aggravate their condition. It also appeals to South Beach Dieters, who are also advised to seek low-GI foods, or at least to combine them with high-fat, or high-fiber, foods, so as to mitigate the potential spike in blood sugar (which may contribute not only to diabetes but to weight gain).
The reason agave nectar has a lower GI is that it’s 90% fructose and only 10% glucose. It’s glucose that causes the blood sugar spike, and by reducing the glucose content from sugar’s 50% and high fructose corn syrup’s 45%, agave nectar is far easier on the blood sugar.
At least, in the near term.
But ever since reading Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories I’ve been more concerned about fructose than glucose. Fructose is processed differently in the body and, though it doesn’t cause the same spike in blood sugar that glucose causes, it may do greater long-term damage in terms of promoting insulin resistance and metabolic disorder, albeit from mechanisms we don’t fully understand.
Of course, fructose is present in whole, natural foods like apples and blueberries, but only in small quantities relative to the other nutrients and minerals in those foods. (Fructose apparently makes up only about 7% of an apple.) It’s when fructose is consumed in greater proportions that it can become problematic. And if it’s fructose that’s most problematic, then agave nectar is even worse for us, in the long run, than high-fructose corn syrup.
So, why have I been experimenting with agave nectar recently? Primarily because Dr. Neal Barnard includes it in many of his recipes in his books touting a 100% vegan, oil-free diet. And Dr. Barnard’s patients seem to see excellent results on this diet. Why not give it a shot?
And after giving it a shot, it hasn’t worked too badly. I did lose a few pounds in the weeks following my commencement of Dr. Barnard’s diet. I haven’t kept terribly well to the diet since then because it requires a heck of a lot of cooking, and I’d rather save the time. But it seemed to do OK for me, weight-wise. And yet it includes a fair amount of agave nectar.
But if agave nectar’s damage is long-term, then a couple weeks of experimentation with it is not the right approach. And I’m not sure I want to experiment with it over the long run. Dr. Barnard’s patients may see improvements in weight from following his diet, but they may actually be reducing the amount of sweeteners in their food significantly (from large amounts of sugar to smaller amounts of agave nectar) and so gaining in spite of agave nectar’s itself being harmful. After all, though many of Barnard’s recipes include agave nectar, they don’t exactly swim in it.
Having finally done some extensive reading on agave nectar itself, I’m convinced to start cutting it back out of my diet. I do really like a few of Dr. Barnard’s recipes that are quick, easy and tasty and include agave nectar, and so I may keep some of them on the shelf for future use. But at the same time, I’m going to cut back on agave nectar significantly and start phasing back in my prior, nearly-entirely-whole foods diet, and relying only on Dr. Barnard’s recipes that don’t include agave nectar.