Eating artificial sweeteners is a serious and complex matter. Even some artificial sweeteners labeled as natural can actually be more harmful to the body than eating refined sugar. For example, agave has been touted as a safer natural sweetener, but there exist some strong evidence that agave may do more damage to the body than eating high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar.
Agave is a plant whose name means noble and primarily grows in the rich volcanic soil of Mexico. It has a good representation among herbal remedies for relieving indigestion, but is probably more famous as a Mexican tequila ingredient. The basic health issue over agave as a sugar alternative revolves around how it is manufactured in such a highly processed manner before being sold as the Blue Agave Natural Sweetener.
In general, it is manufactured from a pulp of milled agave plant heads and then liquified to a polyfructose concentrate. A filtration step removes all small particulates for a partially purified polyfructose extract substantially free of suspended solids. This polyfructose extract is treated with charcoal and other resins to a partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract, which is demineralized producing a fructose syrup concentration that can be bought in food markets. High-fructose corn syrup averages 55% fructose, and store bought agave syrup has a much higher fructose content that ranges from 70% to 97%, depending on the brand.
Fructose in itself does not increase insulin levels, but it does radically increase the potential for causing the body’s system to become insulin resistance. The main thing with health is not to have your insulin levels to remain elevated, which is what insulin resistance causes. Fructose is broken down in the liver just like alcohol and produces many of the side effects of chronic alcohol use, right down to the beer belly.
The fructose in fruits and vegetables is natural fructose that comes along with fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The fructose in sweeteners have no nutritional value, which when eaten is nearly exclusively broken down by the liver and is directly converted to dangerous fats. This is one of the reasons why fructose is the leading cause of obesity. Our body metabolizes fructose in a much different way than glucose that is found naturally in fruit, honey, carob, and corn. Glucose is also the form that all sugars are broken down to by our bodies to be utilized for energy.
A few agave sweetener makers keep it natural, but overall big business creates stuff that can stay on store shelves a very long time. ‘Not So Fast Agave’ takes into account the dubious claim of being ‘natural’ and even though Blue Agave has a low-glycemic index, consumers have need of being sugar alert.
Dean L. Jones is a marketing strategist with the Southland Partnership Corporation, a public benefit organization. He has published a series of articles prompted by his discomfort with how food/beverages are marketed to the community.