Agave syrup is advertised as a "100% natural sweetener." Yet it is actually a highly refined form of fructose and is even more concentrated than the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas. Refined fructose is not a 'natural' sugar, and countless studies implicate it as a sweetener that will contribute to disease. Therefore, agave syrup is not a health promoting product, but rather a misleading marketed form of a highly processed and refined sweetener.

The principal constituent of the agave is starch, such as what is found in corn or rice. The process in which the agave starch is converted into refined fructose and then sold as the sweetener agave syrup is through an enzymatic and chemical conversion that refines, clarifies, heats, chemically alters, and filters the non-sweet starch into a highly refined sweetener, fructose. (1) Fructose is commonly thought of as ‘fruit sugar’ and therefore ‘natural’. Unfortunately fructose is not what is found in fruit. Levulose is the true naturally occurring sweetener in fruit. There are some chemical similarities between fructose (man made) and levulose (made by nature), and so the synthetically refined sugar fructose was labeled in a way to make one believe it comes from fruit. Levulose is not fructose even though people will claim it is. If fructose were natural, one would be able to squeeze corn and get fructose corn syrup. However, one can go to a beehive and get honey that can be eaten without processing. One cannot go into an agave field, and get the product sold on retail shelves, as agave syrup.

Agave syrup, as a final product, is mostly chemically refined fructose. The raw agave syrup is about 70% fructose while the cooked agave syrup can be up to 92% fructose. The refined fructose in agave syrup is much more concentrated than the fructose in high fructose corn syrup. For comparison, the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas is 55% refined fructose. Agave syrup should be labeled ‘high fructose agave syrup’ just as corn syrup is high fructose corn syrup.
Fructose is marketed to be healthy for diabetics because of it’s low glycemic index and glycemic load compared to table sugar (sucrose) but do not be mistaken. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn't recognize refined fructose. Fructose has been shown to cause high triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, and accelerated uric acid formation. (2,3) Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars.

Due to the deception from many companies who sell agave syrup (refined fructose), you have been led to believe that it is a safe and a natural sweetener. The retail refined agave syrup label does not explain that it goes through a complicated chemical refining process of enzymatic digestion, which converts the starch into the man-made chemical fructose that has a direct link to serious the degenerative disease conditions so prevalent in our culture. While high fructose agave syrup won't spike your blood sugar levels, the fructose in it will cause: mineral depletion, increase in triglycerides, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

If you want to buy something sweet, get a piece of fruit. If you want to create something sweet, use sweeteners that are known to be safer. For uncooked dishes, unheated raw honey or dates work well. For cooked dishes or sweet drinks, a good organic maple syrup, or even freshly juiced fruits can provide delicious and relatively safe sweetness. Stevia is also a good alternative but depending on the brand, can leave a bitter aftertaste. In general, to be healthy, we cannot eat sugar all day, no matter how natural the form of sugar is, or is claimed to be. One should limit total sweetener consumption to less than 10% of daily calories. Or one sweet side dish per day.

While it may be depressing news to hear about the lack of standards in the health food world, let this news help encourage you to seek access to more pure and unrefined foods and sweetener sources, so that you can be healthier.

(2) Teff KL, Grudziak J, et al. “Endocrine and metabolic effects of consuming fructose- and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals in obese men and women: influence of insulin resistance on plasma triglyceride responses”. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2009 May;94(5):1562-9.
(3) Peres-Pozo SE, Schold J, et al. “Excessive fructose intake induces the features of metabolic syndrome in healthy adult men: role of uric acid in the hypertensive response” Int J Obes (Lond). 2009 Dec 22.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Alicia Armitstead is a licensed chiropractor in New York City. In her clinic, Healing Arts Chiropractor, she is dedicated to designing personal health improvement programs. Dr. Armitstead holds degrees from University of Bridgeport and the University of Bridgeport Chiropractic College in Connecticut. She is certified in Advanced Clinical Training of Nutrition Response TestingSM. Dr. Armitstead is continuing her education by working on her Masters in Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.