Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Agave and Stevia: All Natural, Unsafe, or Unhealthy?

April 15th, 2010 · 25 Comments · Food for Thought

During this Reduce the Refined Sugars week, it’s worth taking a look at some of the newer-on-the-market “natural” sugars.  There are many bloggers who have done comprehensive posts on all the natural sugars, and since I haven’t really experimented with most of them, I’ll defer to their expertise (links at the bottom of the post).  Stevia and agave nectar or syrup are two that deserve special mention, mostly because there is some controversy both about how natural, unprocessed and traditional they are and how safe they are to consume.

Agave: A Natural Sweetener?

image Agave nectar or agave syrup is made from the juices or sap of the agave plant from Mexico, a relative to the yucca in my garden that will not die.  The process reminds me of maple syrup, because once the juice is collected from the plant, it is first filtered, then heated to increase the sweetness and make a syrup texture.  In maple syrup making, it’s called caramelizing.  I’m guessing it’s about the same here.

The process of breaking down the complex sugars into simple sugars is called hydrolyzing, which sent this writer into fits about the unsafe processed food that is agave nectar.  However, hydrolyzing is pretty similar to dissolving, and it’s what our bodies would have to do to complex sugars in order to digest them.  I’m not convinced it’s evil; that said, the fructose in agave nectar is then made more easily assimilated into our systems.  You can read a list of the dangers of too much fructose here.

Agave is deemed as a good, wholesome sweetener by many because it comes from a plant and has a low glycemic index.  On the other hand, it’s very high (up to 95%) fructose content can result in some questionable side effects.  High fructose corn syrup, by comparison, has 55% fructose.  The processing may be done at very high heats, which raw foodists don’t like and can sometimes damage health benefits.

There are always two sides to every coin.

A commenter shared: Actually if you really look into it, there IS raw agave nectar. Just because there is people giving agave nectar a bad rap doesn’t mean we need to not use any at all. There is a lot of bad things said about honey but they are talking about the processed honey not raw. Should all honey be eschewed because of what we hear. Same with agave.

For example, Wild Organics sells a raw agave that is processed at 113 degrees, under the 118 at which enzymes die.  In this case, I’m thinking it’s as natural as maple syrup.  ???

Here is Nourished Kitchen’s take: When Natural Foods Aren’t Natural.  She makes a good point that agave was only discovered/invented in the 1990s, so it’s a far cry from a traditional food.  If it had been made in a lab, I would not bother with it because it hadn’t been tested long enough.  Therefore, personally I don’t use agave because (a) it’s fairly new and untested and (b) there’s enough controversy to make the premium price not worth my budget.

Stevia: What’s in that Little Herb?

image Stevia is even more conflicting in its history.  It’s either been used by millennia by the Chinese, centuries in South America,  or 30 years in Japan, depending on your source.  It’s a green herb whose leaves are 70-400 times as sweet as sugar.  Because it can have a bitter aftertaste and people don’t really buy into green things being sweet, it’s often processed into a clear liquid or a white powder.

Is that processing necessarily evil?  Who knows.  Ghee goes through some heating and filtering and processing, but it’s still a traditional fat.  You can read about how stevia is processed here.

Most would say if you’re going to use stevia, try to find the crushed green leaves to be as close to its natural state as possible.  You could also simply grow a stevia plant in a pot and dry and crush your own leaves.

The serious benefit of stevia is that it has zero calories and no impact on glycemic index.  You only need a pinch to sweeten a cup of coffee or bowl of yogurt.  That’s a powerful sweetener!

The one caveat with stevia is that there are some – perhaps just two – studies that show that it may have contraceptive effects.  Because of that, even if it’s only a slight chance, I won’t allow my children, especially my daughter, to consume it.  I have some, only because I was trying to get my husband to stop putting sugar in his yogurt, so I purchased some little packets, and then I won a great big giveaway package from NuNaturals.  We are using it, sparingly, but will keep in mind the possible side effects.  This source claims stevia is very safe and not a contraceptive at all.  Here’s another fairly balanced source.

UPDATE: I’ve done more research as part of the Sweet, Sweet Summer series. Read more on the facts about stevia.

There are a few other “new” sweeteners, like xylitol and erythritol, both made from corn, I believe.  Anyone have any info on those?

Other bloggers talk natural sweeteners:

Want to hear something funny?  I was trying to make soaked banana cranberry muffins yesterday, and I only had 1/4 cup of white sugar left in the whole house!  It’s like Monday Mission karma – if I believed in that sort of thing.  ;)

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • Marci@OvercomingBusy

    Looking forward to reading more about the other sweetners. I try really hard to keep the sugar out of the house, although grandparents, holidays, church parties and all that seem to bring more and more sugar in!! As far as daily use, I must have a little sugar in my coffee in the am. I have been using a blend of stevia and cane sugar(cuts down on that stevia taste). It seems a safer alternative to me that spenda and aspertaime and the like. But, I am open to finding the safest for me and my family.

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  • Simple in France

    Interesting–I think I’ve mentioned it before, but stevia powder is not allowed in Europe. I feel more trusting of the leafy stuff myself.
    .-= Simple in France´s last blog ..Do you wish you spoke any other languages? =-.

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  • Jassica

    I have found Stevia Powder in the dental section of Alnatura in Germany, and the dried leaf in the cosmetic section. Liquid extracts are also available in health food stores. It must vary by country.

    I did not like the white powdered stevia, but the leaf was ok steeped with my herbal tea. I also ordered the powdered leaf online, and that is good, but it takes VERY little!!

    I think Xylitol was originally found in Birch tree bark, and some is still made from birch. Much is made from corn. I’ve heard both good and bad about it, but can’t remember much. I only use it in my toothpaste anyway (Spry).

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  • Heather

    As far as I can tell, the liquid stevia is just a glycerine tincture, which can be made easily at home from any herb. And, at least around here, 1 dropperful is plenty of sweetening for an entire gallon of chai iced tea (yes, tea is maybe not ideal, but I’m not willing to give it up, so I make my own blends & sweeten with stevia). If the stuff has contraceptive properties, they DEFINITELY don’t work for me.

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  • Caroline

    One of my daughters is allergic to sugar cane and we’ve had to learn to use sweeteners derived from other sources, and agave is our favorite so far. I think it’s been in use much longer; when we were researching alternatives, I read multiple places that agave was used by several pre-columbian societies. However, according to my research, it was extremely valuable and used sparingly.

    In general, I think our issue with food and health is less about what we eat and more about the quantity we eat. Fructose is fine – just not in large quantities. Sugar is also fine – in small quantities. It’s just that in the US, we’ve evolved to the point where many people eat sugar, not just every day, but at every meal (and sometimes multiple times in between meals). Even as recently as 150 years ago, sugar was consumed infrequently – only on very special occaisions.

    I know there were issues with several brands that were not selling pure agave – some were even adding HFCS to cut costs. Two of these companies are no longer in business. (Some days I wonder if I need to install a chemistry lab in my home to test labeling claims for myself.)

    Practicing moderation – and teaching it to my children – is such a challenge. I pray daily that I model good habits and effectively teach my children to make healthy choices.

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    Helen Reply:

    Caroline,

    Thank you for the comments on agave. My Mexican grandmother has been talking about agave nectar since I was a small child. When I lived in Texas I bought agave nectar from a local guy whose family had been making the stuff for several generations. I’ve read the opinions on agave from the WAPF and don’t buy any of them.

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  • Raine Saunders

    Over a year ago I started using Lakanto, a natural, zero-calorie, zero-glycemic, fermented sweetener made erythritol (a healthy fermented sugar alcohol) and luo han gua (a medicinal Chinese fruit). Most sweeteners made from erythritol are not fermented, so there is a big difference between the two. It’s from Body Ecology (Donna Gates) whom I trust a great deal to provide good information about health.

    Her studies are backed by good references and data, as well as all of her information is based on philosophies of good bacteria/gut and digestion balance, and whole foods nutrition from real and fermented foods.

    I’ve been very happy with Lakanto. It is expensive, but I still have the same bag that I bought over a year ago because I primarily use it for baking and occasionally for other uses. The price for one 35.5. ounce bag was about $40.

    She has also worked with Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride in the past to educate the public about children’s health and has kids of her own.

    I have also used the following sweeteners in place of sugar or other harmful sweeteners:

    maple syrup, raw honey, sucanat, date sugar, molasses, and stevia (in the powdered form, I’m going to try the liquid or crushed leaf form next).

    I believe the most natural form of stevia is the best also. Like anything, you can take something and completely adulterate it so it does not at all resemble its original form.
    .-= Raine Saunders´s last blog ..Organic Is Only Part Of The Story… =-.

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  • Rebecca

    I am a big fan of sorghum syrup as a sweetener, also brown rice syrup, both of which are gluten free and like molasses, have added health benefits. that being said, sugar is still calories no matter the source, and even the “healthiest” sugar should be consumed only occasionally.

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  • Kate

    I’ve continued to follow these issues. A year ago I did use a fair amount of agave. Although I regretted to give it up because I liked it and felt better with it than with sugar, I decided that it probably was not good for my health. I’ve noted that the “raw” agave nectars are usually processed with enzymes and I don’t know that the chemical process is really any better. Mercola seems to think it’s quite scary, especially for small children and pregnant women. So, I stay away.

    As for stevia, I’ve tried it a couple times but I can’t wrap my head around it being good for me. It tastes artificial and has an aftertaste that, to me, is very similar to chemical sweeteners. My body just says NO on that one. Not healthy.

    I try to stick to honey as much as possible — local and raw. That I believe is truly nature’s sweetener because we can clearly see how it is produced and we need to do basically nothing to it before consuming. All other sugars I try to really limit (I limit honey too but not as much). Luckily my 2-year-old is obsessed with honey right now. She frequently asks for cold tea with honey. :) Easy!
    .-= Kate´s last blog ..Breastfeeding Stories =-.

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  • Sarah

    I also looked into the contraceptive issues with stevia, because a friend brought them to my attention as my husband and I were having a very hard time trying to conceive #3. As I read about the studies I almost started laughing. If you look into the research, they used an enormous amount of the herb on the rats and it was way more than any human would have used daily. The reports I looked at also cited some cultures in South america that have been using the Stevia plant as a sweetener for hundreds of years and they have plenty of children and don’t seem to have a problem conceiving.

    I love it because you don’t have to use very much and it doesn’t affect my blood sugar at all! We are currently using the powdered leaf form, which takes some getting used to how to use it. I usually dip the small end of a chopstick in my container then sprinkle over my coffee and pretty much whip it until it appears to blend. I have found that overall I have a much better coffee flavor and sweetness doing that than even sugar. I get to the bottom of the cup and there’s still sugar sitting at the bottom and only the bottom 1/3 of the coffee was sweet. With the Stevia I can get my whole cup pleasantly sweet, even though there may be a bit of powder residue at the bottom of the cup. I also think that with the powdered leaf, there’s less of an aftertaste.

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    Heather Reply:

    Oh, for Pete’s sake! I thought maybe people had some better studies than those that they were worried about! My MIL sent us a link to those a few years back. They fed the rats enough stevia to choke an elephant, IIRC–and in a format that we don’t usually use.
    If you are getting a weird or bitter taste from stevia, you are using too much. Use less. You’ll still get the sweetening you need, without the bitter. As I said, ONE dropperful is enough for a whole GALLON of iced tea. For a 16-oz glass, a few drops is all that is needed, or about 1/2 a packet of powdered stevia (I don’t use this at home, but do carry it in my purse for restaurants. Aspartame gives me migraines, & I can’t bring myself to use the other chemical sweeteners, either, anymore)

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  • Kacie

    I recently came across this link from Heavenly Homemakers:

    http://www.drmercola.com/2010/03/7-reasons-why-you-should-avoid-agave.html

    So perhaps agave isn’t so good? I wish things were more clear-cut!
    .-= Kacie´s last blog ..A Keeper and $100 =-.

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  • April

    Katie, I have read that the agave nectar is not made from the sap of the agave plant, but that it is actually made from the starchy root, and is processed much more like corn syrup. I wish I had the link–our computer was stolen last week, and all my bookmarks are gone! I’m headed to bed, but I’ll see if I can find it tomorrow and send it to you. I want to say it was actually on the WAPF website? Not sure… Either way, I had purchased some before I learned about how it was processed. I’m not 100% comfortable with using it now, but I don’t want to throw it out either, so I’m just using what we have, and I don’t plan on replacing it. It’s funny how I can give into my soda cravings every once in a while and then freak out over “natural” sugars not being healthy enough for me!

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  • April

    Just kidding–couldn’t wait until tomorrow! Here is the link to an article by Sally Fallon that talks about HFCS and Agave:

    http://www.westonaprice.org/Agave-Nectar-Worse-Than-We-Thought.html

    Here is just a little excerpt:

    In spite of manufacturers’ claims, agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules.Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave.

    I hate to burst anyone’s bubble. I just don’t want to see us get hoodwinked into thinking we’re consuming one thing when it’s actually something else entirely.
    .-= April´s last blog ..Seriously??? =-.

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  • rhiamom

    I have managed to completely eliminate white sugar from my home. My husband uses evaporated cane juice.I am diabetic, so I need an alternative. I have finally settled on xylitol. My source claims to make it from non-GMO corn. I know it’s not the best choice, but I think it is a better choice for me in my circumstances than aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, etc.
    .-= rhiamom´s last blog ..WoW Still Owns My Soul =-.

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    Katie Reply:

    Rhiamom,
    Have you tried stevia? It might be nice to have another option in your arsenal. Awesome job on the sugar! :) Katie

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    rhiamom Reply:

    I have tried Stevia. I hated it.
    .-= rhiamom´s last blog ..The Condo complex =-.

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  • Heather H

    I eat such a large amount of good fat (mmm butter) that I have zero sugar cravings. I haven’t had sugar in quite a few months. It started with a Candida Cleanse, and I just never went back….I find that homeade unsweetened yogurt (raw milk) with a few blueberries thrown in, is like the ultimate Heaven of sweetness now.

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  • Kathryn

    I have a stevia plant. The first time i tried a leaf i really didn’t like it. The next time i had 1 stevia leaf with one of peppermint. That was a nice thing to chew on. Don’t know how often i’d do it.

    We live in a rather cold climate & even my kitchen window garden isn’t growing all that fast because the house is chilly. The stevia isn’t growing very quickly.

    I’d heard the stevia/infertility link & so didn’t use the stevia for about 3 years. Didn’t make a difference, we won’t be having children. I question that study, however. It has been used in South America for a long time with no ill effects. Just my thought on it. I now occasionally use stevia, but it is a rare – not daily – thing.
    .-= Kathryn´s last blog ..Hard to believe . . . =-.

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  • abbie

    I didn’t know that agave and stevia were so processed. I guess it is wise to use any sweetener in moderation, including these too, but simply because they are processed, I think I am going to go back to raw honey.
    As for Xylitol, I have read that it has great anti-bacterial properties and is good to brush your teeth with. I am afraid of bathroom problems that come with eating too much of it, so we simply brush our teeth with it. Yes, the kids love it because it is sweet, but it is okay to ingest, unlike fluoride, and it is supposed to promote a healthy pH and good flora in the mouth. and the kids haven’t had any cavities yet.
    .-= abbie´s last blog ..One Small Change April ~ Plastics =-.

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  • Ali

    Interesting topic. It’s so hard to know what’s safe because we can find info persuading and dissuading use of just about anything. I personally use stevia and agave. I didn’t find the studies against stevia to be legitimate. And agave, I feel like it’s at least a more natural option than regular sugar. If only it were easier to avoid sweet foods altogether! Regarding xylitol, I’ve never felt right about it. Did easily find some information on it that concerned me. Here’s one article:

    http://www.naturalnews.com/022986_xylitol_health_sugar.html

    I’ve seen other strong advice against it. Seems to processed to be considered natural at all.

    [Reply to this comment]

    rhiamom Reply:

    Regular white table sugar is no more processed than both stevia and xylitol. Dry white stevia powder, the type most commonly available, is a highly refined food. As for xylitol, acetic acid, used to process xylitol, is vinegar. Real hazardous chemical, vinegar. The American Dental Association refuses to recognize the merits of xylitol for oral health because they are wholly committed to fluoride.
    .-= rhiamom´s last blog ..Toothpaste and L-Theanine =-.

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    Katie Reply:

    Rhiamom,
    You’re right! Sometimes we forget that sugar comes from a plant, too. Just because it’s “natural” i.e. from nature doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Fascinating about xylitol. I can’t keep all these straight! :) Katie

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  • åslaug

    Hmm, I don’t use stevia (we make our own maple syrup and I grew up on good, raw honey, I also buy one bag of organic evaporated cane juice and try to make it last as long as possible, it’s a game ;)) but I saw a video by Debi Pearl on YouTube, and she said that when you grow stevia and harvest the plant, dry it in a paperbag and shake the bag, the white powder collects at the bottom of the bag, from the dried “veins” of the leaves.

    So, not so processed. It does have a chemical taste, though, but apparently, if mixed with water in a bottle and left without the cap on overnight, it turns into a slightly fermented liquid and the chemical taste is gone.

    Like I said, I haven’t tried it, but someone that has much stevia and a bottle, some water and a food blog (hint, Katie) might try it out and tell us how it went??

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    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    LOL! If only I didn’t have such a dastardly brown thumb…although I know the next time I bump into a stevia plant at the Farmer’s Mkt (next summer) I’m going to think of this and make an impulse buy, darnit! ;) Katie

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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