What is Agave Nectar?
Have you heard of Agave Nectar? Unless you live in a cave you probably have. It’s the new “healthy” alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. I tend to be skeptical, or at the very least, curious about any product that comes on the market claiming to be a healthy alternative to anything. And when I see people touting it’s benefits to specific sectors that can actually cause harm, such as to people with diabetes I get a little concerned.
So, what exactly is Agave Nectar? It is the “juice” from the Agave plant, which is grown in Mexico and South America, that is then filtered and processed. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? A “natural” sweetener extracted from a plant and then processed and packaged – kind of like, well, sugar.
What’s all the hype about?
What makes Agave healthy? Well there is a lot of hype about what makes it a better alternative to other sweeteners. First are the claims that it is natural. This isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, it originates from a plant but, like most sweeteners you buy, it is processed and heavily concentrated.
Besides being marketed as natural we frequently hear that Agave is a better alternative because it has a lower glycemic index than sugar and other sweetners. The glycemic index is a scale that measures how much a food raises blood sugar levels. For the most part, including foods in your diet with a low glycemic index is a healthy choice, especially if you are diabetic or watching your weight. It appears to be true that Agave does have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels than most other forms of “sugar”, so the next question is why?
Popular sweeteners like sugar and even high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain a mixture of fructose and glucose. Table sugar is 50/50 and HFCS is about 55/45. The fructose content in Agave is generally between 75-90%. That’s right, Agave has more, a lot more, fructose than the infamous high fructose corn syrup. What does that mean? Well, fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit. That sounds pretty good right? Sure, if you are eating an apple. The fructose in an apple is somewhere around 7% and also comes along with good stuff like fibre and vitamins. What makes the high level of fructose in Agave unhealthy, especially since it has a smaller effect on blood sugar levels which we are told is a good thing? The reason that Agave is so much lower on the glycemix index is because fructose is processed by the liver and that can be a problem. Glucose turns to energy when consumed, whereas, fructose goes straight to the liver and is turned into fat. This can cause some serious metabolic issues, increase visceral fat, heart disease and diabetes.
Like most food, Agave in reasonable amounts probably isn’t going to hurt you – with a couple of exceptions:
- If you have IBS you might want to avoid Agave because it can be hard to digest and may aggravate symptoms
- If you have diabetes be aware that the American Diabetes Association puts Agave on the same list as sugar, honey and molasses and recommends limited use – despite marketing claims that it is “diabetic friendly”
Remember that it is much sweeter than sugar or honey so you really need a very small amount to achieve the same sweetness – something that people often overlook when using Agave. There certainly is no compelling reason (noting the above exceptions) to put Agave on your blacklist but just be aware that the health claims that come along with it are unregulated, often misleading and sometimes all together false. So be aware that you might not even be consuming pure Agave, there are many reports of manufacturers adding corn syrup (remember it’s not regulated). Also keep in mind that North Americans as a whole consume far more sugar, in all forms, than we really should and Agave is just another one of those sugars.
I am not a dietician or a health professional. I do have a lifelong interest in healthy eating and nutrition. The information presented here is based on information I have gathered (and contemplated) from various sources.
Some additional reading on the subject: