My regular readers know that I consider agave to be a BIG enemy to health and beauty- which is very high in fructose (up to 97% fructose). It truly irks me that sly marketing makes the general public think agave is a “healthy” sweetener, and that it continues to be used in “health” products purported to be better than regular baked or other goods, as well as in many restaurants. It is not. There is a myth that exists that fructose is a “healthy” sugar while glucose is bad stuff. In fact, in recent years, there has been a rise in sweeteners that contain this “healthy” sugar, such as the dreaded agave nectar. I sincerely hope that this information (please help spread it!) makes more people aware of the differences in sugar types, and makes more people know to avoid agave at all costs. S.O.S: Save Our Skin!!!
Fructose is one type of sugar molecule. It occurs naturally in fresh fruits, giving them their sweetness. Because of this, many people consider fructose “natural,” and assume that all fructose products are healthier than other types of sugar. Likewise, fructose has a low glycemic index, meaning it has minimal impact on blood glucose levels. This has made it a popular sweetener with people on low-carbohydrate and low-glycemic diets, which aim to minimize blood glucose levels in order to minimize insulin release. But the glycemic index is not the sole determining factor in whether a sweetener is “healthy” or desirable to use. Because fructose is very sweet, fruit contains relatively small amounts, providing your body with just a little bit of the sugar, which is very easily handled. If people continued to eat fructose only in fruit and occasionally honey as our ancestors did, the body would easily process it without any problems. Unfortunately, the traditional Western diet is extremely high in fructose, which is present in many processed foods, soda pop, baked goods, crackers, canned goods, and many others. The result is a toxic load. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, fructose intake has increased dramatically in the past few decades. The problem with fructose is that when you consume large amounts of it in its concentrated form (agave, crystalline fructose, high-fructose corn syrup), it goes straight to your liver, avoiding the gastrointestinal tract altogether. This places a heavy toxic load on your liver, which must work very hard to process it, sometimes resulting in scarring. Additionally, fructose is converted by the liver into glycerol, which can raise levels of triglycerides. High triglycerides are linked to increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. According to the AJCN article cited above, “hepatic (liver) metabolism of fructose thus favors lipogenesis.” High fructose intake has been associated with:
- Increased levels of circulating blood lipids
- Fat around the middle
- Lowered HDL
- Increased levels of uric acid (associated with gout and heart disease)
- Liver scarring (cirrhosis)
- Fatty liver
- The formation of AGE’s* (advanced end glycation products), which can lead to wrinkling and other signs of skin aging
*Some studies show that fructose creates AGE’s up to 10 times more efficiently than glucose Bottom line: A little fruit is just fine – it contains small amounts of fructose the body can easily metabolize. Concentrated fructose in HFCS, agave, and crystallized fructose on the other hand, can cause a real health problem and should be avoided.
Another type of simple sugar is glucose, which is the most common form of carbohydrate. It is derived from starches. When you eat starches, your body converts them to glucose, which raises blood sugar levels and supplies your body with energy. Your body metabolizes glucose via the intestinal tract, causing a rise in blood sugar. In order to return your blood sugar to a normal level, the pancreas releases insulin, which is a storage hormone. The insulin binds to the glucose and carries it to the cells that need extra energy, storing any remaining energy in long-term storage (a.k.a. fat cells). Cells that need glucose have insulin receptors that encourage glucose to enter in order to efficiently utilize it. The problem arises when glucose is continuously high. Eating highly processed foods, simple starches (white flour, white rice), and foods containing sugar elevate blood glucose significantly. For a while, the pancreas can handle this workload; however, over time it becomes exhausted and unable to efficiently release insulin any longer. This can result in the chronically elevated blood glucose levels found in type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. At the same time, because insulin release is now inefficient, glucose is no longer being delivered to the cells that need it, resulting in cell starvation. Hyperglycemia over time has been related to:
- Decreased immunity
- Poor wound healing
- Nerve damage
- Kidney failure
- High levels of blood lipids
- Heart attack and stroke
- Peripheral nerve disease
Bottom line: Your body will cull the glucose it needs from complex carbohydrate-rich foods including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Eating excess levels of starches and simple sugars can break your body’s glucose management mechanism (metabolism), resulting in numerous health problems.
Many people recognize the inherent health risks of sugar and fructose, and thus turn to alternative forms of sweetness. This often occurs in the form of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. Unfortunately, these sweeteners have their own health risks, are artificial chemicals, and are neurotoxic. Artificial sweeteners have been associated with:
- Increased rates of cancer
- Neurological problems
- Brain fog
- Aches and pains
What to Do
When you want something sweet, what can you do? Try some natural sweetness from a piece of fruit, a dried fig or date, or a smoothie. You may also enjoy stevia (different brands taste better than others. I like NuNaturals), which is a sweet herb or xylitol, which is a sugar alcohol that has negligible effect on blood sugar levels. For liquid sweetener needs, raw coconut nectar is great as it is only 10% fructose (compared to agave, which is up to 97% fructose) and is rich in minerals in amino acids. Even maple syrup is a better choice than agave. Besides avoiding refined white sugars and artificial sweeteners, be sure to avoid fructose-loaded sweeteners such as agave and high fructose corn syrup. What’s the one thing I want you to remember from this blog, which I repeated about twelve times? :) Here it is again: Avoid agave, agave-containing products, and restaurant dishes that include agave in their ingredient list (if you are not sure, ask!).