Is agave a superfood or a poison?

Dear GreenSmoothieGirl: Dr. Mercola says agave is going to kill me! Is he right?

Answer: I have been inundated with emails about this. In every class I teach, someone brings it up.

First of all, Dr. Mercola didn’t exactly say that, although he allowed it on his web site. Mercola is a brand, a big company, employing lots of people, including staff writers who write stuff for the site and newsletters. The osteopath named Joe Mercola doesn’t do the research and writing. So when I say “Mercola” in this article, I mean “it” (the company/brand/staff), not “he” (the founder of the company).

What I write is all me, by the way–I have no staff writers.

Controversy, right or wrong, unfortunately, adds to Mercola’s 7-figure mailing list and profits. Mercola (and the doctor himself) may or may not be aware that it is wrong about agave. Comparing it to high-fructose corn syrup, or to tequila, is a tenuous, false, almost ridiculous exaggeration. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the organic chemistry differences.

It’s similar to the comment a pediatrician made to me 15 years ago, when I questioned his suggestion to feed my toddler Sprite for quick energy. I said, “Why not an apple?” And he said, “Whatever. Simple sugars are simple sugars. There’s no difference. They all end up as glucose.”

A similar reductionistic argument you’ve heard before is, “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” Really? Then why did the vegetarian group in Campbell’s massive China study eat 200 calories MORE than the heavy meat eaters, and they were lean while the meat eaters were overweight? (Exercise was a variable the researchers controlled for, so that doesn’t explain the difference.)

Apparently you CAN eat more calories when those calories are plant foods. Please comment here if you know well, from experience, that the impact on your body of eating an apple is entirely different than drinking a can of Sprite!

Apples have simple sugars, sure, but they also have tannins that remove insulin from the bloodstream and convert the sugars into energy. Apples have pectin and other fiber to decrease cholesterol and slow absorption of sugars on the bloodstream. Sprite has none of that, just a chemical version of fructose and lots more man-made chemicals. I could make this whole post about the egregious comparison the pediatrician made, but let’s move on to the similar agave controversy.

Mercola’s staff writer acts as if fructose is poison. Yes, fructose is the sugar in high-fructose corn syrup, too. One point Mercola and I agree on is the fact that the highly refined sweetener HFCS is deadly. But fructose is the sugar in fruit, too! Is it possible that fructose can be either good or bad?

Here’s a key point Mercola overlooks. Agave’s sugar is a long-chain polymer of fructose, which is not absorbed by the body and therefore passes through you. Thus there’s a much-reduced impact on your blood sugar of consuming agave (versus HFCS, cane sugars, and honey). It’s not hard to document that agave’s glycemic index is one-third that of sugar or honey.

I personally know a nutritionist who has stopped diabetes in a group of her patients with no changes other than switching from sugar to agave.

So is agave on par with excellent whole foods like apples, spinach, lentils, and barley? No way! An apple has fiber and many other elements that work synergistically to support your health.

But as sweeteners go, if you’re going to use them–and please use all concentrated sweeteners sparingly–raw, organic agave is a very good option. And another of my favorite sweeteners, stevia, contains a compound called steviasides, which shut down insulin production in the pancreas–an even better (calorie-free) option, especially for diabetics.

So, the answer to the question, is agave a superfood or a poison, the answer is, “Neither one.” Don’t fear it. Don’t overuse it either.

38 thoughts on “Is agave a superfood or a poison?

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  1. One of the main points in all the articles I’ve read is that most agave nectar/syrup is NOT made with the natural juices of the plant. They say that there’s a complicated chemical process including using the core of the plant, making starches, converting them to syrup, etc. The articles do say ‘most’ agave nectar is made this way, but they don’t say which brands are the ones who make it from the sap/nectar (like maple syrup). It’s frustrating that they don’t say which companies are which.

    1. It is very frustrating. For myself I can tell by simply trying agave, because I react so negatively to HFCS. However, the best you can do is get a reputable brand that has gone to the trouble of certification (organic–there is no raw certification).

      I am starting to sense that there’s a bit of an actual fear campaign on the agave front, much like there has been about many other foods (palm oils, soy, whey protein powder, just to name a few–some more legit than others). Often these things are political to make way for a competitor product, with a handful of well known “experts” buying into the marketing campaigns of a specific product(s) and spreading the word virally.

  2. my understanding is that Dr. Mercola is a medical doctor, a DO (perhaps I am wrong) – the referrals that he is a ‘chiropractor’ seems to be trying to make some kind of point? he is a doctor, I believe an osteopath?

  3. Regarding the comment by Katie, this is exactly the problem. You read an article that is full of misinformation, and now you believe it. Here’s a couple of facts about agave that should help you realize these articles are pushing fear instead of truth. First, agave nectar is made from the juice of the “heart” of the plant. There is no other juice from the “root”. It’s like a giant pineapple. Second, there is no starch inside an agave plant. Just inulin, which is a carbohydrate. So anytime you read something that mentions that agave nectar is a converted starch, you should be suspicious. Lastly, I have seen the production of agave nectar first hand, and can tell you that this is minimally processed – almost identical to maple syrup. The negative articles are referring to nasty chemical processing is from patent that someone filed for making agave nectar, but I can tell you that I’ve never seen or heard of any agave producer using this method. They use either heat or natural enzymes (like bees making honey). Dr. Mercola makes millions selling his products and membership to his web site. This “controversy” is getting him a lot more attention…

  4. Sorry to vent, but this has been driving me crazy, too. The attack articles keep saying the agave nectar is nothing more than slick marketing. But the truth is that agave nectar is made by small farmers, and is not promoted as some cure-all sweetener. There is no agave industry lobbyists (maybe there should be?). It is marketed as an organic alternative, low glycemic sweetener that, because it is sweeter than sugar, you can use less. This saves you from excess calories, which helps you in cutting down sugar intake. Less calories, and tastes great – now it sounds like a beer slogan!

  5. I am highly sensitive to blood sugar change…and any other sweetener- honey, sugar, corn syrup, fructose powder, maple syrup…all are just too sweet and heavy a load for my body. (although out of all those, I prefer the maple syrup) I haven’t had any problems with the agave nectars I have tried. I feel great using them to sweeten my foods. I think there probably are people trying to turn a quick buck by lacing them with HFCS, but not the ones I consume. Thanks for posting about this Robyn, I feel like Mercola has confused a lot of people with this recent article he posted. Maybe he just relies on controversy in some ways to steer his sales profits…it is hard to tell sometimes.

  6. To start with, anytime you would like to combat information you don’t feel is accurate – ensure your own information is accurate.

    You can look up Dr. Mercola’s credentials yourself, he is a medical doctor (D.O.) and not a chiropractor.

  7. I spoke with the owners of Volcanic Nectar; they plan to do private research to compare many brands of agave. The agave industry is fairly fraught with problems, including cutting pure agave with corn syrup, using harsh chemicals and filters during the processing, and so forth.

    I’ve read multiple double-blind studies regarding agave. Investigators have found in some studies that in fact the agave they used in their research was no better that sugar or corn syrup in results obtained, and did not stack up in benefits to mid-to-higher-end sweeteners. Perhaps other brands of agave will produce different results, if they are investigated. Katie hit upon an important point. The source of the agave makes a big difference and their are multiple false claims in the industry currently. I doubt even 10% produce it so that it isn’t a highly refined sugar.

    I’ve also read studies that show the glycemic index for agave nectar ranges from as low as 17 to as high as 85 with a plus or minus 6 points on the high end. I am interested to learn the results of the private study that will be conducted by a lab for Volcanic Nectar. The same lab and procedures will be used to test various brands of agave nectar. Volcanic Nectar acknowledges that agave today is simply another refined sugar.

    When used as a condiment or as an addition to this or that, agave is pleasant and relatively unharmful, and as your article indicated, is not healthful if overused. I appreciate your dedicated efforts Green Smoothie Girl! I’m back on my feet and would like to visit sometime.

    Best,

    Jim Simmons

    1. I’d love to catch up with you Jim, or have you make an appearance at one of my classes. Glad you’re up–I heard you were struggling. Hang in there! Thanks for your valuable comments.

      Mexican agave is certainly problematic (because of so little regulation and no certification, and it is a third-world country after all).

      Confusing subject!

  8. I’ve read various articles claiming that high-fructose foods in general and agave nectar in particular are metabolized in the liver, which can impair liver function in the long run.

    Besides, it’s a processed food. I’ll have a date or a bowl of watermelon next time I have a sweet tooth.

  9. Hi James, I was wondering how you can make a claim such as “I doubt even 10% produce it so that it isn’t a highly refined sugar.” How can you just shotgun down companies that you couldn’t reasonably know directly their specific quality control process or testing procedures? So you mention some “double-blind studies” (please share these since we all just want the truth) and spoken to Volcanic Nectar, but you may not be aware that Volcanic Nectar self-servingly creates much of the anti-agave claims themselves. Look on their website and they create the illusion that other agave companies can’t be trusted – blasting the whole industry, like you have here – but amazingly, only theirs is the good stuff. What a bunch of bull-oney. If you want to share your sources, please do.

    ~RFG

  10. Why are you picking on Mercola? There is a lot of information out there from various sources indicating that agave is bad, not just Dr. Mercola. What is coming to light is that most products out there are not raw as claimed. Most products are cooked at 140F for at least 36 hours. Some claim that hight fructose corn syrup is being added back into agave syrups and nectars. My own experience is this, I had no blood sugar problems or insulin resistance before I switched to agave. I developed both using agave. Once I cut it out, the problems disappeared. Until I find an agave that is certified organic and raw with laboratory data that proves the product is is chemical free with a low fructose percentage, I am staying away from the stuff.

    1. Not picking on him, just saying that I’ve gotten tons of email because his readership is huge–and I think the comparisons he makes are tenuous at best. So I am addressing his recent newsletter here.

      Sounds like you got the bad stuff. This is difficult because of so many sourcing problems. Yes, lots of sources are saying that, but you can get the sense that a dozen experts are saying something because all of them are repeating the same link made by just one person/study/company.

  11. Hi Susan. To make a substantiated argument, where are you getting this information? You claim “What is coming to light is that most products out there are not raw as claimed. Most products are cooked at 140F for at least 36 hours.” Where are you getting this??? If you can back that up, I am very interested. I personally know of 3 companies in Mexico that produce agave nectar, as well as tequila, and have seen first hand due to my profession in tequila spirits. I know these producers, and I can tell you that they are honest, hardworking people who are not cutting agave nectar with anything (think about this – the agave plant is very inexpensive for these growers. Why would they add something else like you and others have claimed?) I believe this may have been a problem in 2000 when there was an agave shortage, but since then, agave nectar has become a business that the farmers and producers take very seriously. Please don’t condemn it or make false claims unless you can give us some backup. I don’t mean to be harsh, but your story that you had no blood sugar problems or insulin resistence until you started using agave? I have never seen any science to support that agave nectar has caused any individual to develop insulin resistence. Sounds like a talking point from the misleading articles to me… too fishy!

  12. I appreciate your comments on sweeteners and agave nectar in particular. It always bothers me when people say thing like sugar is sugar and refuse to acknowledge any difference resulting from the source. I posted a bit on this issue awhile ago http://herbivoremeals.wordpress.com/2010/02/06/my-take-on-why-natural-sweeteners-are-better-for-you/ .

    I also appreciate the existence of Stevia 🙂 , I’ve been thinking I need to go back to using that more often. And in fact just enjoyed it the other day in a delicious Cherry-Chocolate smoothie. Not green – but oh so good.

  13. Robyn,

    You are incorrect on a few of the items in your post. I did write that article after interviewing some of the top researchers in the world on this topic. This was not done by my staff. Some articles are written by them but I edit EVERY single word and do extensive rewrites.

    Your are also mistaken on your perception of agave Well there are clearly some products out there that don’t highly process the product, the vast majority do and have greater than 80% of the fructose as non-conjugated free floating fructose. HFCS only has 55%. Do the math yourself. It is NOT in the form of the long chain polymer that you suggest it is.

    This is a free country and you can choose to ignore my warnings. I would encourage you to listen to your own body. If you believe the agave you are taking is safe and not harming you then measure your uric acid level. If it is below 5.0 then you are fine and you can continue consuming it.

    If it is above 5.0 then something you are consuming is causing metabolic harm to your body and you might want to consider stopping all agave, beer and honey products and retesting after two weeks and see what happens to your level.

    Dr Mercola

  14. Hi,

    I’m interested to find out if Dr Mercola did indeed write this article–as he stresses in his comment here–because this article appeared word for word on another site two weeks before it was on Dr. Mercola’s web site.

    Here’s the link: http://onlinehealthnews.org/2010/03/beware-of-the-agave-nectar-health-food-fraud/

    Also, the chemicals listed in “Mercola’s” article are used in the HFCS industry, not in the blue agave industry. I challange “Mercola” to go down to Mexico to see for himself.

  15. Right on, Tammy! I am confident that Dr. Mercola has never seen first-hand the production of agave syrup. If he had, he would have to admit that his article is the real fraud. Agave syrup is not made in the way he claims by most of the producers (I have been to most). And I don’t know of any producer who does make it with the way Mercola describes. I believe that Dr. Mercola’s marketing strategy is to play on people’s fears, then provide them with his solution (his products and his subscription-based newsletter that he sells). Agave is not a super food, a cure-all, or a free-food – it is a sweetener, and when used in my balanced diet, is fantastic to me. Tastes great, easy to use, and I don’t get the sugar crashes either. Dr. Mercola says to cut out agave, beer and honey if your uric acid levels are high… who’s going to run out and get their uric acid levels tested? My body reacts well with agave.

  16. All I know is that agave gives me and my husband heartburn every time I use it in a recipe. And since nothing else gives us hearburn, we surely have stopped using it. We don’t trust it to be a healthy ingredient.

  17. I doubt if Agave is long chain polymers- if it were, it would be no sweeter than regular starches. It is also highly processed- not that something is good for you just because it’s natural. Remember, Socrates died from natural hemlock. But when there is doubt and lack of reliable information, I prefer to either error on the side of caution or use natural products. In the case of sweeteners. I have for the most part trained my taste buds not to need them (or salt either), however there is one exception; with antioxidant rich Cocao, because it’s so bitter, it needs something to sweeten it, so I use a little stevia, alcohol sugars such as xylilol, or lo han.

  18. Hi Robyn,

    I was just at the Longevity Conference in Costa Mesa with Dr. Mercola and David Wolf. They both spoke about Agave. They were even at time on stage together talking about Agave (it is a huge topic right now). They were both clear that:

    1) Agave is not appropriate for people who have

    blood sugar issues because it is not really a

    low glycemic product

    2) Much Agave currently available is an off-product

    from the manufacture of Tequila (by the mafia)

    in Mexico and other similar countries

    3) Clear Agaves (basically those from Ultimate and

    some others) are possibly okay for some people

    in small quantities

    By the way, David Wolfe does not sell or specifically sponsor any products. He has not been associated with David Wolfe’s Sunfoods for over a year. They should no longer be associating his name with their products. They are probably just running out some old labels.

    Thanks for your work Robyn. You are doing a great job for yourself, your family and all of us.

    The better it gets the better it gets,

    Robina

    (BTW, my husband and I have been living foods people since the 70’s with Ann Wigmore. We remain flexible and in love with life. This is an amazing life style that produces long term wonderful results in terms of health and consciousness. We both use a little Agave here and there.)

  19. Hi Robyn,

    I was just at the Longevity Conference in Costa Mesa with Dr. Mercola and David Wolf. They both spoke about Agave. They spoke separately and were even on stage together talking about Agave (it is a huge topic right now). They were both clear that:

    1) Agave is not appropriate for people who have

    blood sugar issues because it is not really a

    low glycemic product

    2) Some (but not all) Agave currently available is

    is not pure

    3) Some Agave (basically that from Ultimate and

    some others) is okay for some people

    By the way, David Wolfe does not sell or specifically sponsor any products. He has not been associated with David Wolfe’s Sunfoods for over a year. They should no longer be associating his name with their products. They are probably just running out some old labels.

    Thanks for your work Robyn. You are doing a great job for yourself, your family and all of us.

    The better it gets the better it gets,

    Robina

    (BTW, my husband and I have been living foods people since the 70’s with Ann Wigmore. We remain flexible and in love with life. This is an amazing life style that produces long term wonderful results in terms of health and consciousness.)

  20. Fructose is a chronic poison to the liver if consumed in a regular fashion.It has and still is marketed with pseudo science.Buyer beware in all things.Be well.

  21. Re: Robina’s post: Dr. Mercola and Dr. Wolfe are not the authorities on agave nectar. They have their opinion, and their claims are growing their media relevance and sells more products, more seminar seats, etc. On your 3 points you mentioned, consider this:

    1. Agave nectar is low glycemic. Many brands have been tested by the Glycemic Index Testing lab from Toronto. To be certified low glycemic, the agave nectar was given to human subjects. Please show me a study to support Mercola’s claims.

    2. Please show me one of these agave nectar companies who are not using pure agave nectar. If this is so common, how come no one has any proof? If that is the case, these brands should be brought to light so we can avoid them. Otherwise, it is just a regurgitated rumor.

    3. You say (Mercola says) some agave is okay for some people. How can this be, if, according to Mercola, fructose is terrible and agave isn’t natural? I believe the truth is that most agave nectar brands are of high quality, pure agave nectar. I have researched these companies and their web sites, and have tried several brands. Many of these are good companies that promote quality and truth about agave nectar. No agave company promotes liberal use on everything or promotes it as a health food.

    If you don’t want to use agave, then that’s fine. But what these doctors are doing, in my opinion, is creating the controversy. It is a big topic, as you stated, because they are making it as such. They are feeding the controversy using misinformation and half-truths with a calculated smear campaign that is now being spread using social media, disguised bloggers and negative online p.r. Mercola sells whey protein powder, tanning beds, and subscriptions to his newsletter – he uses his opinions to create the problem, then sells his stuff as the solution.

  22. Thanks Robina! Let me tell you my first hand experience with agave nectar. Not what someone else told me or I read somewhere. I read about it on greensmootiegirl.com. I gave some very expensive and certified organic agave nectar to my brother who has diabetes. He has a strange type. His pancreas quite working therefore he is very sensitive to his blood sugar.

    He tried the agave nectar and immediately called me and asked “are you trying to kill me with this stuff”? I felt very bad. What could be wrong? Greensmootiegirl said it would not impact his blood sugar. I felt like an idiot. Chemically it is different right? Then why did his blood sugar go through the roof like he had just drank a soda pop?

    Do your research people. Find out for yourself what agave nectar is. How is it made? How much fructose is in it? It does not impact a normal persons blood sugar because their bodies can keep all sugar under control.

    I can drink a coke. Take a blood glucose level 30 minutes later and I am below 100. If my brother does the same he goes to 400!!!

    So I am asking. If agave nectar is chemically different and it doesn’t impact blood sugar. Why does it do this to my diabetic brother?

    The effects of it are the same as sugar. The imact of fructose on your body is proven. Where is the debate?

    1. Hey Tracy. Let me clarify. I never said agave nectar doesn’t impact your blood sugar. I said it impacts it less than HFCS, sugar, or honey.

      STEVIA doesn’t impact your blood sugar.

      Also, some sources of agave are highly processed and have dubious manufacturing standards, as we’ve been discussing in this debate and referring to in the various researchers’ articles.

  23. Ridiculous! I love agave. My daughter has diabetes 1 and she switched from sugar to agave. This has helped her diabetes so much.

  24. Let me clarify what I am saying. Agave syrup impacts your blood sugar the same if not worse than high fructose corn syrup or regular sugar. This is from my own personal experience with a blood glucose monitor.

    Test it on a very sensitive test subject and report your findings. I found this out about 2 years ago. I am surprised to find that the rest of the world is finding it out so much later.

    I am sad for my brother. But I am glad that he challenged the use of the agave nectar. Like a few others have posted on here. My test results show there must be a higher percentage of fructose and it absorbs just as fast as regular sugar.

    Buy a blood glucose monitor. They are only 20 dollars at costco. Do your own tests. I didn’t have to buy one because my poor brother has several of them.

    I feel this is an important subject because there might be some people who think that agave syrup is safer. It is not, in fact from my testing. It is worse.

    1. I work with a nutritionist who measures glucose with diabetic patients who have changed from other sugars to agave and has had dramatic results with her patients getting off insulin. The brand she has them on is Xagave. Test only good brands, on yourself.

  25. I was poisoned by agave. For two months I had intestinal pain & cramps. Now, I am about 90% better just waiting to get back to 100 %. I know it was Agave because that was the only thing I changed in my diet. I used it everyday for 3 months in my coffee 2 to 3 times a day.

    I think it fed the bad bacteria in my intestines and gave me an infection. I had to take a bunch of antibiotics for it to clear up.

    I hate Agave and will never use it again.

    Roman

  26. Hi Robyn!

    You stated: “And another of my favorite sweeteners, stevia, contains a compound called steviasides, which shut down insulin production in the pancreas–an even better (calorie-free) option, especially for diabetics.”

    As a diabetic, I’m curious as to how the shutdown of insulin production is a good thing.

    I personally use raw agave. I use a lot less of it than I would per serving with honey. It doesn’t send my blood sugar numbers out of control like honey does. Stevia is moot for me, since I cannot stand the bitterness.

    Thanks for your blog.

    -Andy.

  27. I have had blood sugar issues( Hypoglycemia) in the past and have tried several brands of agave with terrible results from everyone. And I listen to my body very well about foods I intake. I do pretty well now with a local raw honey or sorghum syrup sparingly. I also use Stevia with no problems. I believe everyone’s body is different and where one may do well with agave others may not. Thank you for all comments post here.

  28. Just wondering..since steviasides shut down insulin in the pancreas..do you think using both organic agave and stevia together might work? I like my coffee and teas sweet and don’t like just stevia

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