The agave question comes up a lot. Many of the answers stem from how agave is processed. Some of the confusion lies in the differing methods by which the agave plant—or plants, as there are different species—is converted into a sweet syrup.
I’d like to focus on another topic, though: How does the body digest agave? No matter where agave comes from—whether it’s raw, blue, amber, or clear—for me, it all boils down to the same concern within the body.
I’ll admit: I was a big fan of agave when it originally hit the market. I was excited that it was a low glycemic sweetener that wouldn’t spike blood glucose like table sugar. But, I was unaware of the cost at which that came.
When the news started to surface about the detriments of consuming agave, I turned a deaf ear. I couldn’t face the music. How could my sweet love be causing me harm? This is something I started to fully digest a couple of years ago, when I first created my “Sweet Tooth, Bitter Truth” class.
Just how was my sweetie sabotaging me?
All foods have a chemical structure, and what happens in our bodies is a bit of chemistry. Sweet foods are made up of monosaccharides in varying compositions, including glucose, fructose, and galactose. Simply put, these molecules are the building blocks for all of our sweets and carbohydrates.
The difference among these three monosaccharides is surprisingly subtle. But, a subtle difference in a chemical structure can make a formidable difference in a chemical reaction.
When glucose is eaten, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. It then makes its way to the liver, where it is stored or broken down to supply energy for the body. That breakdown process requires insulin.
Glucose can move both into and out of the cells. This movement depends on the concentrations of glucose both inside and outside of the liver. We need glucose for energy, and we need insulin production to help us regulate blood sugar.
We want the rate with which our blood sugar rises and falls to be slow and steady, in order to simultaneously support our body’s need for energy and protect us from the detriments of high blood sugar, which include heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and related imbalances.
This is why foods low in glucose have a good reputation.
When fructose is eaten, its slight difference in chemical structure takes it on an alternate digestive journey.
Unlike glucose, fructose is not a direct source of energy for the muscles and the brain. Fructose does not go into the bloodstream and affect our blood sugar. And while this might be seen as a good thing with regard to the regulation of blood sugar, fructose is instead taken up more readily by the liver. There, it prompts the liver cells to produce triglycerides, a type of fat associated with heart disease risk, weight gain, liver inflammation, and diabetes. For this reason, fructose is sometimes referred to as “the sugar that acts like a fat.”
Glucose converts to sugar in the blood. Fructose converts to fat and puts extra stress on the liver—and even on the colon for many of us. Ultimately, both lead to undesirable health issues, including weight gain.
So, what does all of this chemistry and physiology have to do with agave? Digest this:
• Table sugar (sucrose) is composed of a mixture of fructose and glucose in about equal proportions.
• Agave is made up of anywhere from 92 percent fructose and 8 percent glucose to 56 percent fructose and 20 percent glucose. (The vast difference likely has to do with the plant source, as well as the processing of different plants.)
• High fructose corn syrup contains about 42 percent to 55 percent fructose, with the remainder being glucose.
Listen to Your Body
Clearly, agave packs a potent portion of fructose for the body to process.
High levels of fructose in the body—rarely triggered by fruit consumption, as fruits contain water, vitamins, and fiber—can lead to serious health effects, including:
• Digestive disturbances (gas, bloating, and even IBS, due to the fermentation of sugars in the colon)
• Metabolic syndromes (insulin resistance, obesity)
• Liver disease
Your liver is the gatekeeper for your body, managing all of the toxins that your body needs to process. This organ is working hard! Substances high in fructose, like agave, place an excessive amount of stress on the liver. Though some of them might be good for helping to regulate blood sugar because they do not spike it, they’re still no good for your weight, heart, and immune system.
You might be thinking, “Is agave good or bad?” Though its effects on the body are different, I’d say it’s no better than refined sugar. If it’s clear, raw agave from a reliable source that is lower in fructose, then moderation will likely be acceptable to your digestion.
Choose wisely and discriminately. And remember to listen to your body: If you don’t turn a deaf ear and you clean up the inner storm, it will communicate clearly. I know that my body can’t tolerate refined sugar or agave.
With a career born of a personal family health crisis, functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama takes the idea of food as personalized medicine beyond a clinical practice. Her online programs at ReplenishPDX.com and HolisticNutritionLab.com guide her clients in taking ownership over their health.
Agave image courtesy Shutterstock.com