Sunday, November 30, 2008
Agave Nectar, the High Fructose Health Food Fraud
Agave nectar is advertised as a "diabetic friendly," raw, and a "100% natural sweetener." Yet it is none of these. The purpose of this article is to show you that agave nectar is in reality not a natural sweetener but a highly refined form of fructose, more concentrated than the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas. Refined fructose is not a 'natural' sugar, and countless studies implicate it as a sweetener that will contribute to disease. Therefore, agave nectar is not a health building product, but rather a deceptively marketed form of a highly processed and refined sweetener.
Agave nectar is found on the shelves of health food stores primarily under the labels, "Agave Nectar 100% Natural Sweetener," (1) and "Organic Raw Blue Agave Nectar." (2) In addition, it can be found in foods labeled as organic or raw, including: ketchup, ice-cream, chocolate, and health food bars.
The implication of its name, the pictures and descriptions on the product labels, is that agave is an unrefined sweetener that has been used for thousands of years by native people in central Mexico. Botanically, agave plants are in the lily order Liliales and the order Asparagales (depending on which botanical taxonomic system you use) both of which define agave as a flowering plant. For "thousands of years natives to central Mexico used different species of agave plants for medicine, as well as for building shelter," so claims the fanciful pedigree of this plant. Natives would also allow the sweet sap/liquid of the agave to ferment naturally, which created a mildly alcoholic beverage with a very pungent flavor known as 'pulque'. They also made a traditional sweetener from the agave sap/juice (miel de agave) by simply boiling it for several hours. But, as one agave seller explains, the agave nectar purchased in stores is neither of these traditional foods: "Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990's." (3)
What is Agave Nectar?
The principal constituent of the agave is starch, such as what is found in corn or rice. The process in which the agave starch is converted into refined fructose and then sold as the sweetener agave nectar is through an enzymatic and chemical conversion that refines, clarifies, heats, chemically alters, centrifuges, and filters the non-sweet starch into a highly refined sweetener, fructose. Here, a distinction must be made. Fructose is not what is found in fruit. Commonly, fructose is compared with its opposite and truly naturally occurring sweetener, known as 'levulose'. There are some chemical similarities between fructose (man made) and levulose (made by nature), and so the synthetically refined sugar fructose was labeled in a way to make one believe it comes from fruit. Levulose is not fructose even though people will claim it is. Russ Bianchi is Managing Director and CEO of Adept Solutions, Inc., a globally recognized food and beverage development company. Russ explains:
"If fructose were natural, I would be able to go out to corn field and get a bucket of sweetener. I can go to a beehive and get honey that I can eat without processing it. I can go to an apple tree and pick an apple and eat it. I cannot go out into a cornfield, squeeze corn, and get fructose syrup, and I cannot go into an agave field, and get the product sold on retail shelves, as agave nectar. Falsely labeled agave fructose and high fructose corn syrup are both products of advanced chemistry and extensive food processing technology." (4) Mr. Bianchi has an insider's view of the health food industry and the food creation industry, having worked in the industry for decades.
Take water for example. We all know that the chemical formula for water is H2O: two hydrogens and one oxygen. The opposite would be O2H, which is nothing close to water. Likewise, man-made fructose would have to have the chemical formula changed for it to be levulose, so it is not levulose. Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn't recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. Refined fructose is processed in the body through the liver, rather than digested in the intestine.(5) Levulose is digested in the intestine. Refined fructose robs the body of many micronutrient treasures in order to assimilate itself for physiological use. While naturally occurring fruit sugars contain levulose bound to other sugars, high fructose corn syrup contains "free" (unbound), chemically refined fructose. Research indicates that free refined fructose interferes with the heart's use of key minerals like magnesium, copper and chromium. (6)
The reason why refined fructose is used so commonly as a sweetener is simple: it's extremely cheap in cost.
Agave nectar, as a final product, is mostly chemically refined fructose, anywhere from 70% and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites. The refined fructose in agave nectar is much more concentrated than the fructose in high fructose corn syrup. For comparison, the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas is 55% refined fructose. High fructose corn syrup is made with genetically modified enzymes. Is agave syrup (refined fructose) made the same way?
"They are 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 into highly refined fructose inulin that is even higher in fructose content than high fructose corn syrup", says Mr. Bianchi. Inulin is a chain of chemically refined fibers and sugars linked together, and, this bears repeating, high fructose inulin has more concentrated sugar than high fructose corn syrup!
In a confidential FDA letter, Dr. Martin Stutsman (from the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Labeling Enforcement) explains the FDA's food labeling laws related to Agave Nectar: "Corn syrup treated with enzymes to enhance the fructose levels is to be labeled 'High Fructose Corn Syrup.'" According to Mr. Stutsman, agave, whose main carbohydrate is starch, requires the label "hydrolyzed inulin syrup." Even though, like corn, agave is a starch processed with enzymes, it does not require the label high fructose agave syrup because the resulting refined fructose sweetener is so sweet that it is chemically closer to inulin.
From this point forward, agave nectar will be referred to by a more accurate name: agave syrup. This name is also legally uncomplicated and non-deceptive, per US Federal labeling laws, even though the true name would be hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup. "The product called 'agave nectar' is really chemically refined hydrolyzed high fructose, which is intentionally mislabeled to deceive consumers," states Mr. Bianchi.
In a stunning report released in October 2008, the U.S. government's own accountability office reported that of the thousands of food products imported into the US each year from 150 countries, just 96 total food items were inspected by the FDA to insure label accuracy and food safety. (7) The FDA doesn't usually protect consumers regarding food safety or food labeling, nor does it usually take action against many misleading labels. This was seen with the processed infant formula scandal from China, where infant milk powder was tainted with toxic melamine.
High Fructose Agave's Dubious History
In the year 2000, with warrants in hand, federal agents from the Office of Criminal Investigations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came banging on the door of North America's largest agave nectar distributor, Western Commerce Corporation in California. In an extremely rare case of the FDA protecting consumer interests (rather than supporting big business, while shutting down legitimate and health consciousness competition), they discovered that Western Commerce Corporation was adulterating their agave syrup with high fructose corn syrup (to lower the cost even more and increase profit margins). While the federal agents confiscated the material in the warehouse, the owners of Western Commerce Corporation were nowhere to be found. Those who ran the company fled the country with millions of dollars in assets to avoid criminal prosecution.
This adulterated agave syrup (refined fructose) was also labeled as certified organic (8) to fool consumers into thinking they were getting a pure product. This shows you how unverified organic labels were used in the USA, and continue being used even now.
Today, high fructose agave syrup is made primarily by two companies, Nekulti, and IIDEA. Yet a third agave marketer, by the name of 'Volcanic,' has a suspicious claim on their website. "If your agave comes from one of the other two companies in Mexico, something has been added." (9) They are referring to Nekulti and IIDEA. Their claim is based upon an analysis, which claims that their agave nectar has a lower refined fructose level.
Blue Agave Nectar is Not a Safe Sweetener
When the Spaniards came to the New World, around 1535, they brought with them a
desire for brandy. When their supplies ran out they had to find a new alcoholic beverage to replace their lost brandy. The Spaniards found that by distilling the juice of the plant now known as the blue agave plant they could produce a potent alcoholic beverage, which over time has evolved into what we now call tequila. In order to produce a sweetener from the blue agave plant, the entire pineapple -like, giant root bulb of the plant is removed from the earth. It is then dried and juiced, making an agave starch juice. This in no way resembles any form of traditional use of the blue agave plant. While great for distilling tequila, the blue agave plant, when transformed through a chemical process into refined fructose, may contain many properties that make them dangerous and toxic for regular human consumption.
"Yucca species, together with other agaves, are known to contain large quantities of saponins," according to Tyler's Honest Herbal. Saponins in many varieties of agave plants are toxic steroid derivatives, as well as purgatives, and are to be avoided during pregnancy or breastfeeding because they might cause or contribute to miscarriage. These toxins have adverse effects on non-pregnant people and many health compromised consumer categories as well. They are known to contribute to internal hemorrhaging by destroying red blood cells, and they may gravely negatively harm people taking statin and high blood pressure drugs. Agave may also stimulate blood flow in the uterus.(10) Other first hand reports indicate agave may promote sterility in women. Since the agaves used for agave syrup are not being used in their traditional way, there should be a warning label on the sweetener packages that it may promote miscarriage during pregnancy, through weakening the uterine lining.
What's Wrong With Fructose?
Once eaten, refined fructose appears as triglycerides in the blood stream, or as stored body fat. Elevated triglyceride levels, caused by consumption of refined fructose, are building blocks for hardening human arteries. Metabolic studies have proven the relationship between refined fructose and obesity.(11) Because fructose is not converted to blood glucose, refined fructose doesn't raise nor crash human blood glucose levels -- hence the claim that it is safe for diabetics. Supposedly, refined fructose has a low glycemic index, and won't affect your blood sugar negatively. But the food labels are deceptive. Refined fructose is not really safe for diabetics. "High fructose from agave or corn will kill a diabetic or hypoglycemic much faster than refined white sugar," says Mr. Bianchi. "By eating high fructose syrups, you are clogging the veins, creating inflammation, and increasing body fat, while stressing your heart. This is in part because refined fructose is foreign to the body, and is not recognized by it."
The average person consumes about 98 pounds of highly refined corn fructose per year in the USA, that roughly translates into half a cup of refined fructose per day. In an average supermarket, at least 2/3 of all items contain some form of highly refined fructose, because it is one of the cheapest ingredients and fillers for foods, next to water, air, and salt. In health food stores, some foods contain a sweetener called crystalline fructose or other sweeteners labeled as fructose. Essentially, these are all refined corn fructose, labeled in a way to trick people that it is something more natural. Mr. Bianchi concludes:
"The simple answer tends to be the correct one. There is no land of milk and agave. Milk comes from goats, cows, humans, etc., and honey comes from bees. What I want people to understand is that mislabeling a sweetener like agave syrup is about money and profit, to the real determent of your health. The unethical factor is that the natural health food business has gone to great lengths in the case of agave to defraud consumers, by deceiving and lying to those who are trying to seek better health. There is something ethically worse about a company pretending to sell something all natural to people seeking health, than a mainstream company not pretending that their food is healthier. For example, nobody selling fast and junk foods is advocating it is health food. When you are in a natural health food store, you expect to pay extra money for something that is good for you. We have con artists here, pretending to deliver better health at a higher cost, when in reality it is equal to, or much worse than the many other sweeteners or harmful junk food. People are expecting to receive health, and are intentionally being defrauded for profit."
Amber Agave Syrup (refined fructose)
Agave syrup (refined fructose) comes in two colors: clear or light, and amber. What is this difference? Mr. Bianchi explains, "Due to poor quality control in the agave processing plants in Mexico, sometimes the fructose gets burned after being heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, it creates a darker, or amber color."
Chain Food Stores and Health Food Stores
When Western Commerce Corporation was shut down, due to their agave syrup alteration scheme in 2000, the big guys in the food industry stayed away from any agave syrups. They knew better than to risk lawsuits, and health consumer fraud. "They were clear that agave was criminally mislabeled per US Code Of Federal Regulation labeling laws, with an untried sweetener, new to the market, that contained saponins, and was not clearly approved as safe for use." explains Mr. Bianchi. For many years following this bust agave syrup was not used.
But recently, some sellers in the agave syrup field, once quiet, have begun sneaking back into the food and beverage chain. And retail food giants like Whole Foods, Wegman's, Trader Joes and Kroger, (12) who should know better, and who should know the food labeling laws and requirements, still have no hesitation in selling the toxic, unapproved, and mislabeled refined fructose agave syrup, as well as products containing it. Mr. Bianchi explains the legality of this practice. "The simple answer here, again, tends to be the correct one. The stores carry agave products knowing that if they are caught, the legal responsibility will be on the agave sellers and producers, and not the stores. They will just pull it off the shelves. They may also be victims themselves and lied to by the purveyors and sellers of agave products. So long as agave products are profitable, the stores will carry them, regardless of fraudulent labeling or health concerns. Stores will continue to carry agave until consumer fraud complaints to local district attorneys, consumer unions, class action litigation or severe reactions like death ensue."
Conclusions on Agave Syrup
Without the FDA making efforts to enforce food-labeling laws, consumers cannot be certain that what they are eating is even what the label says it is. New sweeteners like agave syrup (refined fructose) were made to coin a profit, and not to help or assist vital health. Due to the lies from many companies who sell agave syrup (refined fructose), you have been led to believe that it is a safe and a natural sweetener. The retail refined agave syrup label does not explain that it goes through a complicated chemical refining process of enzymatic digestion, which converts the starch into the free, man-made chemical fructose that has a direct link to serious the degenerative disease conditions so prevalent in our culture. While high fructose agave syrup won't spike your blood sugar levels, the fructose in it will cause: mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, obesity, and may be toxic for use during pregnancy.
If you want to buy something sweet, get a piece of fruit, not a candy bar labeled as a "health food." If you want to create something sweet, use sweeteners that are known to be safer. For uncooked dishes, unheated raw honey or dates work well. For cooked dishes or sweet drinks, a good organic maple syrup, or even freshly juiced apple juice or orange juice can provide delicious and relatively safe sweetness. In general, to be healthy, we cannot eat sugar all day, no matter how natural the form of sugar is, or is claimed to be. One should limit total sweetener consumption to approximately 10% of daily calories. Or one sweet side dish per day, (like a bowl of fruit with yogurt.)
While it may be depressing news to hear about the lack of standards in the health food world, let this news help encourage you to seek access to more pure and unrefined foods and sweetener sources, so that you can be healthier.