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Is this Popular Natural Sweetener Worse than High Fructose Corn Syrup?

July 03, 2010 | 295,548 views
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By Dr. Mercola

fructose, alternative sweetenerMany people interested in staying healthy have switched to agave as a safer "natural" sweetener. They want to avoid well documented dangerous sweeteners like HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) but are unaware that most agave is actually WORSE than HFCS.

Once I realized this, I wrote a special report on agave to inform the public of this danger. I was somewhat surprised that the report would prompt such a firestorm of debate within the industry.

A number of natural agave manufacturers and health conscious consumers still proclaim agave is a safe, all-natural sweetener that is good for everyone.

Some have even criticized me for having ulterior motives. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although I do offer natural health products for sale on this site, I sell no competing products to agave.

Rather, I recommend other options such as stevia products. You can also use xylitol in small amounts or glucose, which is sold commercially as dextrose, and can easily be purchased on Amazon for $1 per pound. I do not sell any of these products.

My only purpose for sharing this information is to help people understand the truth about health. In case you haven't noticed, we have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn't until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause -- fructose.

Yes, it is all about freedom of choice. It is hard to have freedom if you aren't given the entire story, and up until now that has been the case with agave.

Are Natural Agave Products Any Better?

Some agave manufacturers were quite upset with our article -- to put it mildly.

To be fair, I decided to actually purchase three of the most popular "natural" agave products and have them independently tested, at our expense, at a reputable third party commercial laboratory.

The three products I sent off to the lab were:

  1. NOW Foods Organic Amber Agave Nectar
  2. Madhava Agave Nectar
  3. Wholesome Sweetener Organic Blue Agave

There was no particular reason I chose these three brands, other than they are the products I've seen advertised and heard mentioned most often by agave syrup users.

And the Winner is: None of the Above!

The results support my point that they are ALL quite high in fructose, ranging from 59 to 67 grams of fructose per 100-gram sample.

It is important to note that high fructose corn syrup has 55 percent fructose. As you can see below, every one of these products far exceeded the fructose in high fructose corn syrup by considerable amounts. 

The other variable that needs to be considered is whether or not the fructose is conjugated to glucose or another sugar molecule, as this would moderate the detrimental effects of fructose somewhat.

High fructose corn syrup fructose is 55 percent free floating fructose totally dissociated from glucose. This is also the case in nearly all the lower quality agave products as they are highly processed.  Some of the higher quality agave products may be processed in a way that preserves the fructose bonding and thus somewhat limits its damage.

We did not test for fructose conjugation in our test, but even if it were, the Wholesome Sweetener Organic Blue Agave had 21 percent more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.

Product

% Fructose

% Glucose

NOW Foods Organic Amber Agave Nectar

59.1

12.8

Madhava Agave Nectar

63.8

10.1

Wholesome Sweetener Organic Blue Agave

67.0

5.8

Fructose is Fructose

I have written about the dangers of sugar for quite some time, and of course, variables like exercise and calorie intake play a role in obesity. But more recently, I have gained access to evidence specific to fructose and its primary role in creating obesity -- evidence that is VERY hard to ignore.

I am fully convinced that if we can educate the public about how fructose is different from other sugars metabolically, we can actually reverse and eventually eliminate the obesity epidemic.

The evidence is overwhelming.

I would encourage those of you who remain doubtful that fructose is any worse than any other sugar to look at the work done by Dr. Richard Johnson, chief of the kidney disease and hypertension department at the University of Colorado, and author of The Sugar Fix, one of the best books on the market on the health dangers of fructose—specifically, how fructose causes high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and kidney disease.

One of the surprising facts discussed in my first interview with Dr. Johnson is how detrimental the impact of fructose is on your uric acid level.

For those of you who maintain that "a sugar is a sugar is a sugar," fructose -- and fructose ALONE -- drives up uric acid. The connection between fructose, uric acid, hypertension, insulin resistance/diabetes and kidney disease is so clear that your uric acid level can be used as a marker for toxicity from fructose.

According to Dr. Johnson:

"We've just finished a clinical trial where we gave a low fructose diet to overweight and obese adults from Mexico City. 

"We tried two different low fructose diets, but first, before we go into that, we think that the effects of fructose are independent of its energy intake. So,table sugar (sucrose) -- which contains fructose and glucose -- although there is a caloric component, we think that the effects of fructose are not specifically related to the calories but rather to its mechanism, of which uric acid is a driving part.

"... [Uric acid levels] being too high seems to really increase the risk for diabetes and high blood pressure, kidney disease and obesity. And in fact, there are more and more papers coming out showing that connection."

If you doubt fructose is the leading contributor to obesity, then I urge you to watch an excellent video presentation by Dr. Robert H. Lustig, M.D. of the University of California San Francisco, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, which masterfully illustrates just exactly HOW the liver's breakdown of fructose leads to obesity and chronic disease.

Much of the fructose you eat is literally stored as fat. The carbohydrate fructose is converted into fatty acids (lipogenesis), which is then stored in your body's fat cells as fat.

Back to the Agave Issue

Now, getting back to the agave syrup issue.

Some readers' comments on the original agave article indicated to me that some missed the point of what I was saying about agave use. So let me restate my position more carefully.

It largely boils down to a quantity issue.

You need to keep your daily dose of ALL fructose down to below 25 grams per day. Additionally, you can use your blood uric acid level as a marker of sensitivity to fructose. If your uric acid level is above 4 mg/dl for men and 3.5 mg/dl for women, you are probably better off avoiding fructose in most forms.

I have nothing against the agave plant.

Like many plants, the agave undoubtedly has many different phytochemicals with health-supporting properties. The problem lies in the processing, which, like any food processing, destroys most of these nutrients. Obviously, branded products undergo different amounts and types of processing, under different temperatures, etc.

What you're left with, then, is a high-fructose syrup, similar metabolically to high fructose corn syrup in terms of metabolic impact. Regardless of the organic-ness, regardless of the care taken in processing, regardless of the overall quality -- agave syrup is mostly fructose. Plain and simple.

But even this is not a problem, IF your syrup is free of chemicals, and IF you are using it in very small quantities, and IF you have no issues such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, kidney or heart disease.

Unfortunately, most people cannot satisfy all those IFs.

If you are diabetic or insulin resistant, you'll want to avoid these concentrated sugars altogether, regardless of the product quality. 

If you are among the fortunate few without any of those health problems, congratulations! You're definitely doing something right. Just keep your overall fructose usage below 25 grams per day, agave syrup included. One teaspoon of agave syrup has 4 grams of fructose.

Naturally, agave syrup brands are going to differ quite a bit in quality, as all products do. If you are going to use it, you'll have to judge for yourself what is true quality versus marketing hype.

Agave's Favorable Glycemic Index is Meaningless

The fact that agave has a favorable glycemic index (GI) is often mentioned in its defense. But GI does not tell the entire story.

Agave syrup and other high-fructose sweeteners have metabolic consequences that aren't measured by an immediate insulin spike. This is why I have never advocated using the GI to select your foods.

It is possible to have a low fasting glucose yet have significantly elevated insulin levels.

In fact, some people with particularly robust insulin responses actually have very normal blood glucose levels because their insulin suppresses blood glucose for some time. If this is going on, you are essentially pre-diabetic and should reduce or eliminate fructose altogether. But you would never know it by just spot-checking your blood sugar after consuming a dose of agave syrup!

On the topic of agave, Dr. Johnson made the following recommendation:

"We have not done any specific research with agave or with honey. But I do believe that those two compounds, because they're so high in fructose, probably will engage the same pathways that we see when we give fructose or sugar to animals.

So I would not recommend those as sweeteners to use daily."

Speaking of honey, I am more of a honey fan than agave for the simple reason that the benefits of raw, organic honey have been scientifically established. And the honey I recommend is whole, raw and unprocessed. But I would give you the same caution with honey as with agave syrup -- if you are fructose sensitive, you should be minimizing it or avoiding it altogether since it is also 70 percent fructose.

So, keep your dose below 25 grams of TOTAL fructose from all sources per day, and reduce this amount if you are sensitive to fructose.

How do you know if you are fructose sensitive?

Have your uric acid level checked. Your uric acid level should be about 4.0 mg/dl if you are a man or 3.5 mg/dl if you are a woman. (For more about this, refer to my interview with Dr. Johnson from May 18, 2010.)

Busting Mythbusting Myths

Finally, I must mention a website that was commented on by some of my readers, which contains some misinformation. The site is www.agavemythbuster.com. This is a website done by one of the companies whose product I actually tested and found to contain nearly two thirds fructose.

Unfortunately, myths are being perpetuated -- not busted here such as seeking to confuse people that there is really a clinical difference between fructans and inulin, the form of starch that agave initially stores fructose in. 

Simply speaking inulin is a fructose polymer in which the fructose molecules are interconnected. This is clearly better than free floating fructose that is present in HFCS or many lower quality agaves, but once you swallow the inulin your body will rapidly convert it to fructose, so ultimately, you will still receive a similar amount of fructose. You are not somehow 'magically" protected from the fructose because it is initially complexed as fructose polymer.

They also state that agave nectar does not contribute to liver inflammation, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.  Nothing could be further from the truth and I am really shocked that the FTC doesn't come down on them like a ton of bricks for false advertising.

The evidence is BEYOND clear. There are loads of studies establishing that when you consume fructose in the high levels that are typically consumed by most Americans, your risk for all of these diseases dramatically increases.

Let me be clear about high levels. Fructose is ONLY safe when consumed below 25 grams per day. What agave and HFCS manufacturers FAIL to tell you is that the AVERAGE American is consuming 70 grams per day.

While individuals may be able to tolerate larger doses of a complexed fructose polymer like inulin, ultimately it is broken down to fructose and they will need to metabolically address this sugar, which at doses typically consumed is a metabolic poison.

Most agave producers spout nearly identical garbage that the HFCS industry claims, They would have you believe that there really is no difference between glucose and fructose.

They claim that consuming large amounts of glucose or fructose is equally harmful. They simply have chosen to ignore the mountain of scientific evidence that proves fructose has clearly different metabolic pathways than glucose, and is much closer to alcohol with its chronic toxicity profile.

Some Fructose is OK

Remember fructose is not a poison like aluminum or mercury that needs to be avoided at any dose. It is only a poison when you consume it at doses greater than 25 grams per day OR if you have elevated uric acid levels which appear to be a marker for fructose toxicity.

It is possible to safely consume agave or honey but you would have to be very strategic and careful about it.  First you would have to eliminate ALL other sources of fructose in your diet, (fruits, fruit juices, sodas, most processed foods) and then restrict your dose to less than 40 grams of agave per day, which is less than three tablespoons. Anything more than that would put you over the 25 grams-per-day limit, at which fructose toxicity begins.

What the agave and HFCS industry seem to completely ignore is that we have two epidemics in the US that are directly related to fructose consumption: obesity and diabetes. The largest source of calories in the US is from fructose.

For most Americans, fructose can act like a poison. However, if you are healthy, normal weight, do not have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, then you certainly can enjoy fructose in moderation and it will cause you no harm or damage.

Similar to Tobacco Industry Misinformation

This blatant misrepresentation of scientific truth reminds me of the same nonsense that the tobacco industry spouted. Up until the 90s they were vigorously denying that tobacco was addictive or increased the risk of cancer.

Of course, today nearly everyone realizes that this is utter nonsense.

This is an atrocious misrepresentation and in my opinion, some type of legal action should result.  Hopefully we won't have to follow the tobacco model and wait decades and engage in many class action law suits before we see change.

You can simply vote with your wallet and choose safer sweeteners like stevia or glucose (dextrose).  This will avoid the need of any type of government intervention and will force industry to adjust their practices to meet the educated consumer demand.

[+] Sources and References

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