The Great Agave Nectar Debate

When I went vegan years ago, agave nectar was one of the first things on my shopping list. It’s commonly used as a vegan substitute for honey – you can substitute it in recipes that call for honey 1:1. It’s also been touted as a healthy natural sweetener that doesn’t affect blood sugar levels in the same way as conventional sugar.

[social_buttons]Agave nectar has come under some fire lately, and a recent report from The Weston A. Price Foundation basically says that it’s as bad for our bodies as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The report says that:

agave β€œnectar” and HFCS β€œare indeed made the same way, using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes. They are also using caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches.” The result is a high level of highly refined fructose in the remaining syrup, along with some remaining inulin.

They also debunk the claims about its effects on blood sugar levels. They’re saying that fructose content has a point of diminishing returns and that agave nectar goes way beyond that point. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about this. An article from Natural News seems to support those claims about fructose, but then the LA times spoke to Roger Clemens, a professor at USC and spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists about fructose in agave nectar. From what he said, it sounds like the amount of fructose can vary a lot depending on how it’s processed.

The Weston A. Price article goes on to slam agave nectar because of its saponin content, citing that saponin causes all manner of undesirable symptoms, from diarrhea to miscarriage. The report says, “At the very least, agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause a miscarriage.”


Opinions about saponins seem to vary depending on who you ask, too. Saponins are present in other foods, like alfalfa and many varieties of beans, which carry no such warning label.

They also say in the article that agave nectar is not a raw food, which is just flat out untrue. Agave nectar is not always raw, but it can be. While some manufacturers process agave using high heat, you can find raw agave processed with enzymes instead of heat. Many sorts of agave are processed using low heat, below the 118F threshold which is the limit for food to be considered raw.

Before we purge agave nectar from our cabinets, it’s important to consider the source of this information.

A comment on a Re-Nest article about the topic mentioned that the Weston A. Price Foundation is “widely criticized” and even called them “anti-vegan, anti-vegetarian and very pro-dairy.” A little Googling did turn up a few articles to support this comment. The site Disease Proof rails on the Foundation for “advocating a meat, butter, and raw milk-centered diet,” among other things. Veg Source has some not-so-nice things to say about them, too. Heck, their own site talks about their “emphasis on animal foods as essential for health.”

All of that said, agave nectar doesn’t strike me as terribly healthy. At its heart it’s a sugar, and as Dr. Robert Lustig would tell us, sugar is hazardous to our health in pretty much any form. Agave nectar isn’t health food, but I don’t think it’s the poison Weston A. Price Foundation makes it out to be, either.

So, I’m going to be keeping my bottle of agave nectar in the pantry for when I want to make truffles or sweeten my tea and practice moderation. What about you?

Image Credits:
Agave Nectar. Creative Commons photo by elanaspantry
Bee Friendly. Creative Commons photo by arimoore

28 thoughts on “The Great Agave Nectar Debate”

  1. Agreed, moderation is important for everything (says the glutton). ;c) If you are uncomfortable with the mixed messages you can always use brown rice syrup or pure maple syrup in place of honey, right?

  2. Ooh maple syrup! I love that idea! From what I read, it sounds like you can use it 1:1 to sub for honey, too.

    Stevia seems to have a weird aftertaste to me…has anyone else noticed that?

  3. I don’t buy agave nectar mainly because it’s so expensive. But for me, the real problem with agave nectar is that people believe that it’s some sort of miracle sugar – completely unprocessed and better for you than other sugars. I actually had an argument with someone recently who didn’t believe that agave nectar is mainly fructose. Plus, the processing of the nectar isn’t transparent – another problem. Yes, it can be a minimally processed sugar, but it can also be processed to the point where it might as well be HFCS. The average consumer isn’t going to know which is which – and even the savvy consumer might have a hard time finding out how their agave nectar is produced. Anyway, I guess for me the problem with agave nectar is that the perception of the product and the actual facts behind the product don’t necessarily match up.

    Nice article…nice presentation of both sides!

    1. Fortunately, many of the accusations that the Weston-Price article have been proven incorrect. Even they themselves have taken down the original article from the WP site.
      There are now a handful of responses to these anti-agave articles. One of the better ones is here:

      I also found this response to be sound:

      Like most vegans, I’ve tried all of the sweeteners. While I get those that think all concentrated sweeteners are bad for you, I think moderate amounts do me fine. And while Mercola’s and Weston-Price’s article made me do some research, I still find agave to be the easiest sweetener on my body. I don’t get the mental fogginess that sucrose or maple syrup give me. I find agave similar to the way fruit feels.

      My 2 cents.

  4. Thanks for all of the great info, guys! Tara, thank you for sharing your post, too!

    Duane – Exactly, since it’s an animal product. Sort of along the lines of shell or silk products.

    1. OK, I’m confused. I always assumed an insect was not considered an “animal” when it came to veganism, especially since the honey the bees make is a result of pollen/sap gathered from plants and flowers. It seems that would make it vegetative and not “animal-related”.

  5. Considering that Weston A. Price pours tons of money into “research” set to discredit anything that isn’t made of dairy or steak, don’t invest too much belief in any studies they have funded. It’s meat industry propaganda at best, anti-health harmful misinformation at worst.

  6. I just started reading your blog and love it! I must say… I am heavily involved with the Weston A. Price foundation, and I can truly tell you they have nothing but good intentions. They do not take money from the meat or dairy industry at all, and they are 100% pro animal welfare. They do think that animal products are essential for health because they are just relaying back the info that Dr. Weston Price wrote about in his book “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” Whether or not people agree with them, they think that factory farmed animal products are horribly unhealthy and advocate animal meats, dairy, and eggs from local farms who raise their animals outdoors on pasture. They may seem a little extreme, but as vegetarians/vegans also hold animal welfare in high regard, it is really just a matter of two sides of the same coin.

    I am lost on the agave nectar debate too! I tend to stay away from it after reading their article and use maple syrup. Sometimes its hard though =) Especially when it is in Purely Decadent’s coconut milk ice cream!

  7. I choose a plant-based diet, but Laura is right on about the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). The WAPF might promote a diet based on animal products and be extremely opposed to vegetarianism, but they are not even remotely connected to meat or dairy lobbies. In fact, the WAPF is 100% opposed to factory farming. The only animal foods worth eating according to the WAPF are grass-fed meat, pastured chickens, wild fish, raw milk from free-ranging cows, etc. I don’t eat any of the above myself, but I’ve found the WAPF to be a wonderful source of information about fermented foods, soaking grains, and supporting local agriculture. I have my own problems with the WAPF, but stating that they’re a front group for the meat industry or supporting factory farming in any way is completely incorrect.

  8. PS I was once a vegan and have friends who still are who are very healthy. I tend to think all of our bodies are different and our ancestors all evolved on different diets and hmm.. I guess what I’m trying to say to take their website with a grain of salt, I usually do. =)

  9. Thanks, Chandelle and Laura! I knew very little about WAPF before reading this report, so I appreciate the info about them.

    Laura, one of your comments got caught in moderation, but it should be showing up now on page 1. :)

  10. Why not use local honey ???????????? dah. It’s natural, sweet and it’s HEALTHY.

    Contains minerals and is readily absorbed into the body. Gives quick energy and it’s GOOD FOR YOU !!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. I just wanted to say, I read this site almost everyday and really love it, everything is always interesting, helpful and well-written. Just thought I would tell you…..

  12. I appreciate Laura’s comments on Weston Price foundation and their support of humanly raised animals and their milk products.

    I stumbled on a documentary about agave production and it was amazing. It take a lot of physical labor and the plants must grow a long time before harvesting. It seemed to me the farmers were doing all they could to produce a healthy product.

  13. I enjoyed this article very much. I’m an ecovegavore: eat vegan most of the time, with specific exceptions based on low environmental impact. Local honey is one of those exceptions, to me — after much consideration, it just seems like less overall harm is done by individual beekeepers, using best ethical practices, than by the production of any highly processed sweetener. I love agave nectar, and buy it when there’s not a local honey source I trust; but by the time you factor in fuel use for processing & transport, insects killed during sugar cane or corn farming (typically with HEAVY pesticides dumped into the eco-web), and environmental degradation caused by intensive monocrop farming… Other than growing your own Stevia (which I also do sometimes), it seems to me like local honey might actually do the least overall harm, compared to other sweeteners (including agave). I know my vegan friends disagree with me, & I respect that; that’s just my $0.02… anyway, thanks for sharing the information here; it’s new info to me, and worthy of further exploration… knowledge is power, right?!

  14. This is so interesting. It reminds me that stevia was considered bad for you until Coke and Pepsi wanted to put it in their products. Suddenly it received FDA approval. Coincidence? I don’t think so, considering Coke and Pepsi are responsible for Truvia and the other new brand of stevia sweetener, whose name escapes me at this time. It’s always important to check the source, I guess, of everything!

  15. Thank you guys for the great comments. I’m really enjoying all of the discussion and am super impressed that things have stayed so civil!

    Charlene – Do you happen to remember the name of that documentary? I’d be interested to see it.

    Evz – That’s an interesting take. I like the idea of finding local honey that you know comes from good, ethical beekeepers. Thanks also for the info on how agave is grown/harvested!

    Trixie – That’s an excellent point about stevia. The story of stevia sounds a lot like the story of Nutrasweet when you frame it that way, doesn’t it? A little spooky.

  16. I would love to know how agave honey is made? I grew up with hives of honey. When summers were bad,and bees didn’t have enough honey to sustain them for the winter,there was a large pot of ‘candy’boiled for them-sugar and water.Now it is difficult to find pure honey,and rarely on the comb.(The wax from the comb was a pure anti-allergenic).Now I buy Manuka honey-not good for carbon footprint-and,although very expensive,is antibacterial and antibiotic.The Manuka essence is now extracted and used as impregnation for bandaging for MRSA and ulcerated flesh.
    And most herbal remedies no longer available in lot of Europe.Some available on G.P.’s prescription,but G.P.s untrained in herbal/homeopathic/aromatherapeutic therapies,and difficult to find out if practitioners are qualified and insured.

  17. This is the first I’ve heard of anything negative about agave. As some have suggested, I will take the info with a grain of salt. It’s not conclusive enough for me to abandon it. I buy the raw kind and have only so far been using a teaspoon a few times a week in my tea. Big deal. As a mostly raw raw vegan I think it’s a good alternative to honey.

  18. I have no issues with Agave Nectar. I’ve heard a lot of the debate and have dove into fairly deeply. I use the Raw Unprocessed kind.. and yes there is a difference even though many cry otherwise. Everything is ‘technically processed’… if you put an apple in a juicer it is ‘processed’. The key is whether there is harmful adulteration during that ‘process’. And there are different types of Agave and ways in which they are processed depending on the manufacturer. It’s key to know and trust those who make the products you take into your body.

    A few reasons why I use it.. 1- I don’t have to use as much. So comparing if you eat a pound of each… Is a bad way to assess their merits. With Agave I use WAY less to achieve the same sweetness. 2- Fructose is what you find in NATURAL fruits like apples, etc. Fructose is absorbed into the body slower than sucrose(therefore the much lower glycemic index) so there’s no Spike then Crash of your blood sugar which causes one to lose energy and BURN LESS CALORIES. Regardless of whether you’re Diabetic OF COURSE it matters! It might not kill you, but there is an adverse effect. And finally.. 3- Sugar is processed using Animal products such as BONE CHARCOAL! ICK!

    So to sum it up… Agave allows me to moderate my sugar intake a great deal!

  19. I recently began using Agave Nectar figuring it would be better than sugar while pregnant. From the moment I began using it I have been getting terrible diarrhea and nausea and could not figure out what it was until I read about it online. To make matters worse I also heard it causes miscarriages?!?! I will be taking this off my food list, at least until I have the baby!

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