Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Natural" Doesn't Always Mean "Healthy"

Google "agave syrup" and you will get pages of returns of articles with titles like "All About Agave" and "Agave Nectar" touting the supposed nutritional benefits of this natural sweetener made mostly in Mexico from the agave plant. (Yes, the same agave plant used to produce pulque and tequilla. That's neither good nor bad, just a factoid.) The syrup produced from the agave has been promoted for its low glycemic index and is a common ingredient in bottled teas, energy drinks, nutrition bars and desserts sold in health food stores.

Move beyond the health food stores and food manufacturers looking for a way around the gag reflex produced by artificial sweeteners like Splenda and a very different story is told. Agave syrup is no healthier then refined sugar, and in some respects it may be even worse for us. Refined sugar (sucrose) contains 16 calories per teaspoon. Agave syrup contains 20. Agave syrup may be up to 90% fructose vs 55% for "high fructose" corn syrup. "People say it's a healthful alternative, but it's not really. A sugar is a sugar is a sugar," says Dr. Kantha Shelke, a food chemist specializing in natural foods with the Chicago-based food science think tank Corvus Blue.
Agave syrup is often marketed as being "diabetic friendly". But according to the University of California Berkeley Wellness Newsletter there are no studies to suggest that the sweetener is any safer for diabetics than table sugar. In fact other studies have concluded that large amounts of fructose increase the risk of diabetes and also pose health concerns for the liver and the heart.

We need to popularize a new phrase, "epulor caveo", meaning "diner beware". In nutrition, as in so many other things, we tend to believe what we want to be true. While this may be fine when choosing between, say, an iPhone and a Droid, accepting the latest fad as fact can have damaging health consequences when done in making our food and nutrition choices. Clearly neither the government, food manufacturers nor the "health" industry is going to look too far beyond the money to be made off the latest fad. We all better start figuring out how to do so for ourselves. As Mark Twain famously said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. Its what you know for sure that just ain't so."


  1. Lots of Agave information sites point out that it has a low GI and GL. They then go on to say that this is the reason it is better for you. Is this true? If it is true that they have lower GI and GL, does this make it better than sugar? Thanks for the info.

  2. It is true that fructose has a lower GI than sucrose. A low GI food is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, which reduces blood glucose "spikes" and this is a good thing. (Check the link above to glycemic index for more info.) "Low fat" foods are generally considered "better for you" than their regular fat level relatives too. But if you use that as an excuse to eat larger portions, the extra cals cancel out much of the benefit. Same idea here I think. It would be great if there was a single number to let us know how "good" our nutrition was. But there isn't.