Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Agave Nectar: Which Should You Choose?
Someone told me recently that they’d stopped using agave nectar because they’d heard it was as bad for you as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I was rather stunned because I use agave nectar and like it a lot. Long before HFCS and agave nectar were even on the market, health experts warned about the overconsumption of refined sugar. But lately, it’s like sugar is fine and HFCS and other high fructose sweeteners are the bad guys. What is this opinion based on? As I researched, I found that the negative press about HFCS started when researchers put a graph of the rise of obesity in the U.S. over a graph showing the increased use of HFCS. The rises were similar, so they assumed that HFCS must be causing obesity. Well, that’s not enough proof for me. I decided to find out more about sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar and how different sweeteners are metabolized before coming to any conclusions.
First, I needed to find out what sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar were and how they are produced:
Sugar is actually sucrose, a disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Granulated white sugar comes from either sugar cane or beets. Both crops are treated with high doses of pesticides and herbicides. In addition, genetically modified (GM) sugar beets are now entering the market. Not only is the safety of GM foods questionable, these Roundup-ready beets are “designed to withstand multiple doses of Monsanto’s toxic weed killer” which means the plants are treated with even more herbicides, especially as the EPA just increased the allowable residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, by 5,000%. Both cane and beets are processed using high heat and chemicals, as well as animal bone char, to remove nutrients and color to produce white granulated sugar. Since white sugar has been depleted of vitamins and minerals, when it is consumed, nutrients such as calcium are leached from the body, bones, and teeth as the sugar attempts to metabolize itself.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is almost always made from corn that has been genetically engineered to kill insects. This BT corn is actually registered as a pesticide with the EPA. First, corn is processed into plain corn syrup, which is 100% glucose. Acids and enzymes are used to convert part of the glucose to fructose to create HFCS, which is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
Agave nectar or syrup is the juice of the agave plant, which is filtered and heated (raw agave syrup is heated only to 118 degrees F) to create a syrup of a consistency slightly thinner than honey. Agave syrup contains some nutrients including iron and calcium. Unlike white sugar, no animal products are used in filtering. Agave syrup is mainly fructose and glucose though ratios vary from 56% to 92% fructose depending on the agave variety. Because of the high fructose content, agave nectar doesn’t raise your blood sugar as much as most other sweeteners.
All three sweeteners are made up mainly of glucose and fructose, so next I found out how those sugars are metabolized in the body:
When foods containing glucose are consumed, the pancreas secretes insulin, which takes glucose from the blood and puts it into the cells. When you eat sugary foods, the pancreas has to pump out high amounts of insulin at once—and if you eat sweetened foods a lot, the repeated demands on the pancreas could eventually cause pancreatic exhaustion, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Also, keeping your insulin levels high, prevents fat and triglycerides from getting broken down, which can lead to obesity, hypertension and heart disease. Your immune system can also become compromised. Glucose and vitamin C have similar chemical structures. When there is more glucose in the blood, the cells take in less vitamin C.
Fructose is handled by the body quite differently than glucose. Fructose is metabolized in the liver and therefore does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels. Studies have shown that it can increase triglyceride levels in people who are carbohydrate sensitive or insulin resistant. There is also some evidence that suggests that it causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A 2007 study done by researchers at the University of California, Davis tested the affects of consuming glucose versus fructose. For eight weeks, subjects drank three sweetened beverages per day—half of them drank beverages sweetened with pure fructose and half with pure glucose. At the end of the eight weeks, the fructose drinkers had increased their LDL (bad) cholesterol, blood fats, and other signs of heart risk more than the glucose drinkers. In addition, insulin sensitivity in the fructose drinkers had decreased, indicating increased diabetes risk. Although both groups gained about three pounds, the fructose drinkers gained abdominal fat, another sign of increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. This test was done using very large amounts of sweeteners per day, however. Moderate amounts of fructose didn’t have significant affect on diabetes risk and pure fructose, as part of low calorie diets, has been successful in weight loss programs.
Sugar versus HFCS
Surprisingly, sugar and HFCS have almost the same ratios of glucose and fructose. Some experts argue that the fructose in HFCS is “more available” because is not bound to the glucose and causes more serious health effects than the fructose in sucrose, but others disagree. A study presented at the Obesity Society 2006 Annual Meeting compared HFCS to sugar (sucrose) and found that they have essentially identical physiological effects on blood glucose and insulin levels. Kimber Stanhoupe, a UC Davis researcher, says “preliminary data from new studies show that regular sugar and high-fructose corn syrup each seem to have the same effect as fructose alone—even though both are only about half fructose and half glucose.” One study funded by the Center for Advanced Food Technology of Rutgers University, however, found that HFCS contains high levels of reactive carbonyls, a compound not found in table sugar. Reactive carbonyls are believed to cause tissue damage and has been associated with type 2 diabetes.
Rather than singling out one particular sweetener, it’s much more likely that the amount of sweeteners consumed is linked to the rise in obesity and other diseases. Excessive amounts sucrose, fructose and HFCS can all lead to a wide range of health problems. USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid recommends limiting added sugars to 12 teaspoons per day. The average daily consumption per person in 2000 was 31 teaspoons—almost three times as much as is recommended. Americans consumed nearly 60 pounds of sweeteners per capita in 2006, with soft drinks being the lead source of sugar. According to USDA data, soft drink consumption has increased almost 500% per capita over the past 40 year. Consuming this much sugar in any form would obviously have negative health affects.
Since the physiological effects of all sweeteners are similar, I turned my focus to the processing and additives when determining the healthiest choice of a sweetener. Although there has been extremely limited research done on the affects of genetic engineered foods in regards to sweeteners (if any), studies have shown that pesticides have been linked to many serious short- and long-term health problems including infertility, birth defects and cancer. Given the choice between sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar, I’ll stick with organically-grown, unbleached cane sugar (evaporated cane juice) and organic raw agave nectar that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical bleaching agents; not genetically engineered; and still retains some nutrients, as well as being vegan. Since HFCS is not available in organic form and is highly processed, I would never use it. Of course, organic sugar and agave nectar still have pretty much the same physiological effects as nonorganic sweeteners, so moderation is key.