At this point, we all know that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are bad for us, but when it comes to the products on the shelves of natural health food stores, things can get a little fuzzy. Agave nectar, in particular, is a sweetener that is often touted as a healthy alternative to refined sugar. However, research shows that the truth about agave syrup may not be as sweet as it seems.
So is agave better than sugar or honey, or are the purported health benefits of agave little more than hype? Let’s dive in and take a closer look at how this “natural sweetener” can impact your health.
What Is Agave Nectar?
Mainly produced in Mexico, agave (pronounced ‘uh-GAH-vay’) is a syrup that is made from the blue agave plant. The plant is known by its scientific name as Agave tequiliana. It is about 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar and contains roughly 60 calories per tablespoon, which is even more than the same amount of table sugar.
However, despite being even more dense in calories, agave manufacturers market directly to diabetics because it is supposedly lower on the glycemic index. Glycemic load is a measure of how much certain food can affect blood sugar levels. This is because blue agave nectar contains high amounts of fructose rather than glucose. Fructose does not spike blood sugar levels to the same extent as regular sugar.
Keep in mind, though, that the glycemic index is just one factor to consider when evaluating the potential effects of certain sweeteners on health. In fact, although agave sweetener may not spike blood sugar levels as much as table sugar, there are some other real concerns associated with agave nectar that should be taken into account.
Agave nectar is high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar, with about 21 calories per teaspoon or approximately 60 calories per tablespoon. It’s contains about 85 percent fructose, which is a type of simple sugar found in many types of plants. However, unlike the fructose that is found naturally in fruits, agave contains a highly concentrated amount of fructose and lacks other important nutrients, including fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Despite the low glycemic index of agave syrup, it’s not suitable for Paleo, keto or low-carb diets. This is because it contains a good amount of carbs and sugar, with five grams in each teaspoon. While this may not sound like much, it can really start to stack up fast and can cause your calorie and carbohydrate intake to skyrocket.
Is Agave Nectar Good for You?
In its natural form, extracts from the agave plant contain strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. However, none of these beneficial elements are present in the highly processed agave that is found on supermarket shelves. That is why most natural health experts agree that agave syrup isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
As previously mentioned, one of the biggest agave nectar benefits is that it has minimal effects on blood sugar and insulin levels. For example, according to one animal model published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, mice who consumed agave nectar experienced less weight gain and decreased levels of insulin and blood sugar compared to mice who consumed regular sugar.
Some claim that there are also agave nectar health benefits for skin as well, and it’s often added to face masks and cosmetics due to its purported skin-soothing properties. However, note that there is limited research evaluating the potential benefits of agave nectar for skin, and most benefits are based on anecdotal evidence alone.
That said, there are plenty of agave nectar health risks that need to considered as well. First of all, agave syrup is high in fructose, a type of sweetener that can be incredibly damaging to health. Unlike glucose, which can be easily digested and metabolized throughout the body, fructose can only be processed by the liver. When you eat high amounts of fructose from ingredients like agave nectar, it’s converted to fat by the liver, increasing triglyceride levels and upping the risk of fatty liver disease.
Additionally, although it may not spike short-term blood sugar and insulin levels, it can contribute to long-term alterations in blood sugar as well as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition that impairs the body’s ability to transport insulin from the bloodstream to the cells, where it can be used as fuel. What’s more, increased consumption of fructose has also been linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as increased belly fat and weight gain, all of which can have detrimental effects on health long term.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
According to ancient Mexican folk medicine, the agave plant was believed to hold powerful medicinal properties that could help heal a variety of different ailments. In fact, the leaves, roots, sap and juice of the plant were said to act as natural remedies for conditions such as jaundice, constipation and infections, thanks to its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic properties.
Agave has also been used topically to soothe skin, reduce irritation and treat toothaches. In some forms of traditional medicine, it was even believed to heal snake bites due to its potent healing effects.
Agave Nectar vs. Sugar vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Agave nectar is often touted as a beneficial replacement for unhealthy, high-sugar products made with high-fructose corn syrup or refined sugar. However, when it comes down to it, there aren’t too many differences between the three.
When comparing agave nectar vs. sugar, the biggest difference lies in their chemical composition. Unlike sugar, agave nectar is made primarily of fructose. This means that it won’t raise short-term blood sugar levels as rapidly as the glucose found in table sugar. Over the long run, though, overdoing it on the agave nectar can still cause insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease and weight gain, just like regular sugar.
High-fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, is an ingredient often added to sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Interestingly enough, agave actually contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. While high-fructose corn syrup is typically composed of about 55 percent fructose, agave syrup clocks in at a whopping 85 percent fructose, making it even more harmful than this common processed ingredient.
Agave vs. Honey vs. Stevia
Agave nectar, honey and stevia are a few of the most popular natural sweeteners on the market today. They are often used by those looking to improve their health and decrease blood sugar levels. So how exactly do these three sweeteners compare?
The main difference between agave nectar vs. honey is that they each contain different types of sugar in varying ratios. Agave is made up of about 85 percent fructose, while honey is made up of about half glucose and half fructose. While a single tablespoon contains almost the same amount of honey calories as a tablespoon of agave nectar, the high content of fructose does impact other aspects of health. So is agave nectar better than honey? Not quite. While heavily processed agave nectar brings little to the table in terms of nutrition, raw honey is rich in antioxidants and has been linked to several impressive health benefits.
Meanwhile, stevia sweetener is derived from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a type of plant native to Brazil and Paraguay. Pure stevia leaf extract is free of calories and has a glycemic load of zero. That means it doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels. However, it’s important to select green leaf stevia sugar over other forms, as this is the least processed form of stevia extract that retains the maximum amount of health-promoting properties.
How to Use (Plus Healthier Agave Substitutes)
Wondering where to buy agave nectar? It’s available at most grocery stores and can be found in the baking aisle near other sweeteners, such as honey and syrup. If you do choose to use agave, you can easily swap it in for sugar to flavor your favorite recipes, such as baked goods and hot drinks.
However, there are plenty of other alternatives to agave nectar that are healthier than white sugar and associated with far fewer adverse health effects. So what is the healthiest sugar substitute to use? Here are a few of the best agave nectar substitute options to consider:
- Raw honey: Not only does raw honey supply a small amount of several micronutrients and antioxidants, but it’s also associated with a number of powerful health benefits. In particular, it’s been shown to lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, which could help reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Stevia: Stevia is a stellar sugar substitute because it’s naturally free of calories and has a glycemic load of zero. According to one review, stevia may also promote weight loss, prevent cavities and stabilize blood sugar levels.
- Dates: Dates, including Medjool dates, are natural sweeteners that are high in fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar to keep blood sugar levels steady. Dates are also rich in several important micronutrients, including copper, magnesium and manganese.
Agave nectar is produced from Agave americana or Agave tequiliana, which is the same blue agave plant cultivated for the production of tequila. The plant is grown for seven to 14 years before the leaves are cut off and the juice is extracted from the core. The juice is then filtered and heated, which helps break the compounds down into simple sugars called fructans. The juice is then concentrated to form a syrup, which can range in color depending on the degree of processing that it undergoes.
It is typically sold in either light, amber, dark or raw varieties, each of which has slight differences in taste. Darker syrups have a stronger, more intense flavor and can be used in desserts or as a sweet topping for pancakes and waffles. Meanwhile, light syrup is much more mild and is better suited for delicate dishes. It’s often used to enhance the flavor of hot beverages like coffee or tea, as well as fruits, jellies, jams and baked goods.
With proper storage, unopened agave nectar can last for well over a year. It should be sealed and stored at room temperature to maximize its shelf life.
Risks and Side Effects
Agave nectar is not recommended for those with fructan intolerance. Fructan intolerance is a condition that can cause issues like bloating, gas, stomach pain and diarrhea when foods high in fructans are consumed. For these individuals, limiting consumption of fructan-rich foods, such as artichokes, onions, leeks, nectarines, bananas, lentils and agave nectar, is recommended to reduce side effects.
Additionally, although agave nectar may have minimal effect on blood sugar levels, it’s still high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. For this reason, it’s important to keep intake in moderation to avoid adverse effects on health. Agave nectar is also not suitable for those following a Paleo, low-carb or keto diet.
- What is agave nectar? Agave is a type of syrup made from the agave plant, which is a type of plant that is mainly produced in Mexico.
- Agave syrup is often marketed as a better alternative to refined sugar because it’s mostly comprised of fructose, which doesn’t increase short-term blood sugar levels to the same extent as glucose.
- However, agave syrup is still high in sugar, carbs and calories. It’s also very high in fructose, which has been associated with a number of negative health effects, including insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and more.
- Therefore, it’s best to limit consumption of agave nectar and opt for other natural sweeteners, such as raw honey, dates or stevia, as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.