It seems that the word “raw” is connected to the idea of “unprocessed” in the raw food community but by strict definition it only means “uncooked”. Specifically, the temperature has not been raised above 104 degrees F. at any time during it’s journey from plant to plate. The truth about “raw” agave is that while it is not cooked it is highly processed.
When I first heard of Agave Nectar it brought to mind images of bees collecting pollen from cacti in the dessert, which was probably the result of the word “nectar” having been cleverly added to the title. Then the word “raw” on the label, brought to mind the image of squeezing cactus leaves in a wine press. Actually I was way off. There are no bees, pollen, flowers or, for that matter cactus leaves, involved in the making of Raw Agave Nectar.
My marketing-hype-radar was finally alerted. How did I manage to think that this stuff was being tapped from the plant like maple syrup or being collected from bee hives like honey? This started me thinking about “sweets” in general. There are many sweeteners that come from foods that are actually sweet themselves, for instance, dates, sugar cane and fruit. But sweetness from a cactus, or corn just doesn’t seem natural. Which means it’s probably not natural.
So here’s how it’s done. First the cactus leaves near the base of the plant are cut and thrown away to reveal the top of the root. It is this root that is harvested for making agave nectar. The cactus root is not sweet, but like corn, is a starch. Sugar, glucose and fructose are simple carbohydrates with only one or two carbohydrate molecules chemically bound together, while starches are long chains of carbohydrates. So to make a single molecule of carbohydrate from a long chain of carbohydrates you must do something to break up the chemical bonds.
In the case of corn it is an enzymatic process that results in a syrupy substance that contains very high amounts (~55%) of fructose, hence the name “high fructose corn syrup”. And, guess what? This is the kind of process that is used to convert agave root starch to a simple carbohydrate. And guess what the resulting carbohydrate is? That’s right, it’s fructose. Except that agave nectar contains ~70% fructose, making it “a very high fructose syrup”.
Concentrated high fructose has been reported to negatively effect the functioning of the liver and to promote obesity. Fructose is a major culprit in the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. It may also increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Agave nectar has a low glycemic index (doesn’t put a lot of glucose into the blood stream), which proponents report as a postitive factor. This is because fructose doesn’t convert readily into glucose, however, the body doesn’t metabolize high levels of fructose well at all.
Because agave is harder to grow and harvest than corn it is more expensive to produce and requires a higher price. One way to sell it at this high price is to market it to the people who are willing to pay more because they care about the quality of their food. They tend to look for words like organic, raw, non-GMO, and unprocessed on their food labels. They tend to be more aware as consumers. But maybe even more rigor is needed. It seems that food manufacturers are becoming ever more sophisticated in their labeling and marketing tactics.
At the end of this article are a couple of websites to help you become better informed about agave. Remember to always keep your marketing-hype-radar turned on whenever buying new products. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I tend to avoid new wonder products and remember that some of the things people have been eating since the dawn of time, like honey, fruit and unprocessed sugar cane (sucanat), are probably a safer way to go. It’s not complicated, like chemistry, just good old common sense.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be a substitute for personal, professional, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.