How Safe is Agave Nectar for a Super-Sensitive Celiac?

Agave Succulant
Do you believe agave nectar is a healthy sugar alternative?
How healthy is agave for those super sensitive to gluten?

In today's highly enlightened era of nutritional knowledge, there are few who would argue that sugar is healthy for the body. Although nutritional experts often disagree on many aspects of dietary advice, sugar's effect on the body isn't one of them.

As sugar has moved out of favor with those who desired a more natural type of diet, sugar alternatives have moved in to take up the slack.

Over the decades, all sorts of sweeteners have come and go. Some of these sweeteners haven't even tried to hide the fact that they are artificial, while others have claimed to be natural products in hopes that the public won't notice that they are not.

One of these alternative products is agave nectar, or agave syrup, as it's sometimes called. This sweetener has been marketed to diabetics, pre-diabetics, dieters, and even the health-food crowd as a natural alternative to sugar, but how safe is agave nectar for a super-sensitive celiac?

When it comes to avoiding gluten residues in food, blood sugar spikes are not really relevant, although the effect of agave on the body will certainly have an effect on your overall health.

A reader recently asked me about finding safe brands of agave nectar, so I decided to look into:
  • the marketing claims
  • how agave nectar is processed
  • and how the body treats liquid fructose
I also checked out the potential problems for a super-sensitive celiac.

Since I have a low-carb background, and am well versed in how a major section of the bodybuilding community feels about fructose, I was already aware of some of the dangers and myths surrounding fructose, but I didn't really know about the potential for gluten contamination.

I did react to Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave Nectar the one time I tried it, but I didn't know if the inflammatory reaction was due to gluten contamination or a fatty liver.

Because I don't react to pure cane sugar, and agave nectar is quite expensive, I never checked it out as thoroughly as I did now.

The agave plant is not a cactus. It's a succulent that is used to make tequila in Mexico.

Agave nectar was first introduced to the U.S. at the Anaheim, California, Natural Products Expo West in 1995 by The Colibree Company, Inc. The Expo West and Expo East are the two largest natural foods expositions held annually on both coasts.

Having identified the marketable aspects of agave syrup and putting together a solid marketing plan, The Colibree Company took the idea from the Miel de Agave of Mexico, gave it a new shiny name (Agave Nectar), and took out a U.S. patent on the syrup-making process in 1998.

Their gimmick?

Agave is sold as a natural, low-glycemic, and often raw product. Grown in nutrient-rich soil conditions, it's said to be 100 percent organic and even kosher. It is true that agave syrup is higher in nutrients than table sugar, but this succulent syrup isn't what most people believe it is.

Agave Nectar is not Miel de Agave. The sap is not gently simmered and stirred for several hours to reduce it down to a dark, thick syrup. And it isn't the nectar of the gods. It's a refined fructose syrup created from the yucca plant that is grown in Mexico.

Of interest to super-sensitive celiacs:

There are only two manufacturers of agave syrup:
  • IIDEA, a tequila company
  • Nekutli SA de CV 
From these two manufacturers, the bulk product is sold to numerous brands who package the product for sale and distribution.

At the original manufacturing level, there is probably not much chance for gluten contamination, but once the bulk product is shipped to other companies, the potential risk begins to rise depending on what other products those companies manufacture in the same plant.

IIDEA's most popular brand is Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave Nectar. This is the brand I tried and reacted to.

Nekutli's most popular brand is Madhava Agave Nectar 100% Natural Sweetener.

The sugar and nutrient profiles of each agave syrup is different because the two manufacturing companies use a different variety of agave plant and the syrups are manufactured in different ways.

The largest difference between the two syrups is that the IIDEA's syrup comes with a much higher fructose content. IIDEA agave syrup is 80 to 85 percent fructose, while the Nekutili syrup is lower -- about 70 percent. The lower fructose content means that the Nekutili syrup is higher in glucose.

Of note here is that the IIDEA variety also contains some sucrose and mannitol, so there is not a lot of difference between the two end products when it comes to glucose.

How IIDEA Produces Agave Nectar

Agave Nectar Plant
Agave Nectar is a processed sweetener that is mostly frucose
and affects the body the same way that HFCS does.

The story often told about Agave syrup's humble beginnings is that IIDEA, a tequila manufacturer, approached the University of Guadalajara to help them figure out something to do with the extra plants from a bumper agave crop that year.

Tequila is produced by fermenting the sugars into an alcoholic beverage. In Mexico, Tequila is still the most common commercial venture for the agave plant, but the university came up with a way to turn the plants into a syrup.

These blue agave plants, however, had been selectively bred over the centuries to produce large plants with higher inulin yields because those types of plants were best for tequila production. The agave syrup that resulted was super high in fructose.

IIDEA shreds the heart of an 8-year old agave plant, turns the shreds into a pulp, and then exposes the pulp to a high-steam treatment, making it easier to extract the juice. Once the juice is extracted, it may or may not be filtered before the juice is heated to break down the carbohydrates into simple sugars.

This process is very similar to the way that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made, so the resulting syrup really isn't a nectar. It's just a variation of high-fructose corn syrup that's made from yucca instead of corn.

Although, IIDEA does produce a raw form of agave syrup, the raw variety is carefully monitored for temperature to make sure it doesn't exceed 118 degrees.

How Nekutili Manufacturers Agave Nectar

Agave Plant
To make agave, the flower is removed from the plant.
Agave is derived from the fluid that the plant uses
to try and heal itself of the wound.

Nekutili uses the salmiana plant. When 7 to 8 years old, the core flower called a quiote is removed, leaving a hole in the center of the plant. The honey, or nectar, is what the plant uses to try and heal itself of the wound.

An average plant will produce from 6 to 8 quarts of sap per day. This healing sap continues to drain for up to several years because the farmer suctions the nectar out of the plant as it's being produced. The plant just keeps trying to heal itself.

The nectar that's collected is put into an evaporator to condense it. If the product is going to be marketed to the raw community, the temperature is controlled to stay below 115 degrees. At lower temperatures, the process takes longer than if the company just applies heat to sell it to those looking for a natural agave nectar, rather than a raw one.

For raw nectar, enzymes must be applied to break down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. Otherwise, heat can do the trick. The agave is then filtered, to make the resulting syrup lighter in color and more appetizing.

The End Result

Agave nectar doesn't exist in nature.

It is a man-made sweetener that undergoes several processing steps to turn it into a palatable product. After heating the syrup and/or applying enzymes, the inulin turns into fructose.

Once both companies get done with their processing method, the resulting syrup is mostly liquid fructose.

Unlike traditional miel de agave, made by heating the syrup for countless hours until the water evaporates, commercial agave syrup is processed to be lighter in color and taste better. The real thing is super dark, super strong, and comes with a very strong flavor.

Why People Use Agave Syrup

What attracted the whole foods and diabetic community to agave was its low glycemic index, which comes in at about 20. However, the glycemic index was debunked several years ago.

Turns out insulin secretion does not parallel a rise in blood glucose like the medical and dieting communities believed that it did.

Even so, marketing campaigns still use this low-glycemic characteristic to advertise the product as being beneficial. This makes agave salable to diabetics, prediabetics, and low carbers who don't know that the glycemic index was debunked, as well as those looking for alternative sweeteners to table sugar.

What is Inulin?

Inulin is a natural structure that contains long chains of fructose. In its original form, inulin cannot be digested, so it passes through the body without being absorbed. For that reason, it is often referred to as a fiber, rather than a sugar.

Once these tough chains are broken down by heat and/or enzyme action, the trapped fructose becomes available for the body to use and the inulin is no longer benign. It's now a highly concentrated form of fructose.

How the Body Handles Fructose

Cupcakes with tons of sprinkles on top
Sugar used to make frosting is half glucose and half fructose.
Fructose is converted into glycogen or triglycerides
and then stored until needed.

Table sugar, powdered sugar, and brown sugar are made from cane sugar or beet sugar. These sugars are 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose.

When you eat sugar, half of the calories (the glucose part) can be used immediately by the body, or it can be converted into glycogen and stored, if not needed. The other half of sugar's calories (the fructose part) has to be broken down by the liver into glycogen or triglycerides before it can be used by the body.

Since agave nectar is almost all fructose, with just a little bit of glucose or sucrose, most of it must be processed by the liver before it can be made available to the body's cells.

This is why it scored so low on the glycemic index. There is no immediate glucose or insulin rise when you first eat something with fructose. The glucose and insulin rise occur several hours later, after the liver has converted the fructose into something more usable.

In general, fructose is converted into glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates, so the body can use it later to help keep your blood glucose level steady. When glycogen stores are low, this almost always happens.

If your glycogen storage is full, the liver must either:
  1. Convert the fructose into glycogen, and then convert the glycogen into glucose for use by the body; or 
  2. Convert it into triglycerides and store it as body fat.
Those triglycerides can either be stored in your adipose tissue, just below the skin, or they can be stored in your liver and around your organs, which is called viseral fat. What the liver decides to do depends on how full your fat cells already are and how overburdened it is.

Viseral fat, especially liver fat, is easier for the liver to store and access than traditional adipose tissue.

Concentrated Fructose Makes You Vulnerable to Fatty Liver

Critics of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) defend their position by pointing out how fructose is responsible for obesity. This high-fructose characteristic is magnified in agave syrup because agave contains more fructose than HFCS does.

All forms of liquid fructose elevate blood triglycerides, since that's how the liver transports them.

The caution here is merely to be careful that you don't consume more concentrated fructose than your body can use. High triglyceride levels will interfere with the way the body handles hormones and can make you hungrier than usual.

If you're only using agave to sweeten a cup of herbal tea or drizzle on a slice of gluten-free cornbread, fructose won't have an adverse effect, even in a concentrated form.

But if you're using it to make cookies, cakes, and brownies on a regular basis, because you think it's healthier than common table sugar, you might have a problem -- especially, if you already have a fatty liver and are eating plenty of carbs.

Fructose in Fruit is Not Dangerous

Pile of assorted fruits

I don't want you walking away from this article believing that fruit is bad.

Fresh fruit contains enzymes, fiber, fruit pectin, and assorted vitamins and minerals that help the liver to easily break down its fructose content into a usable form. The amount of fructose in fresh fruit is very small compared to the amount of fructose in table sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar.

Refined fructose lacks the important nutrients to help the liver use it appropriately because they are destroyed by heat or enzyme reaction.

Finding a Safe Brand of Agave Syrup

I don't use agave syrup, so I don't have specific brand names that are safe.

Like any other product, safety for a super sensitive celiac depends on how the product is processed, packaged, and distributed. While the manufacturing process appears to be safe for agave syrup, where each brand is bottled might not be.

Make sure you ask the brand representative about other products they manufacture in the same facility, and also ask if any other products are manufactured on the same line. This type of information on the label is voluntary.

Just because the label doesn't say that the agave was manufactured on shared equipment doesn't mean it wasn't. You have to ask the company.

While many manufacturers do have extensive allergy controls and cleaning procedures they implement in between different products, the absence of gluten is only as safe as the workers involved.

Do you trust the worker to carry out the company's allergy controls? 

That's the real question here.

Also, keep in mind that gluten reactions are accumulative. The amount of the product you eat at one time matters as much as what else you eat along with it. If you're putting agave on gluten-free bread made from contaminated grains, you're going to have a problem.

Environmental gluten residues you pick up while eating the agave-drizzled gluten-free bread adds to the gluten load for the meal, as well.

This is why pinning down reactions to an individual product can be almost impossible at times. There are just too many variables, especially when you start to return processed foods back into your diet.

While one product might not cause you to react, on any given day, the combination of two or three might. In addition, what you don't react to today, you might react to tomorrow, due to a higher gluten load from other forms of contamination, which makes the problem even more complex.

For a super sensitive celiac, there are no easy answers.

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What You Need to Know to Choose a Safe Brand of Honey

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How Much Gluten is in a Single Breadcrumb?

Can You Get Glutened Going to the Grocery Store?