Yeah, yeah, yeah – you’ve heard it before:
Sugar is the devil.
But sometimes your sweet tooth just has a mind of its own. So you pick up a bottle of agave nectar because everyone, including your mom and Sarah Palin, has raved about how healthy it is. But then you start hearing some confusing rumors that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Before you send it packing, here’s the lowdown…
What is agave nectar?
It comes from the same cactus-like plant from which tequila is made, but it won’t give you a hangover. The sap is extracted, filtered and then heated at a low temperature, which turns it into a sugary syrup. You can find it in several varieties: light, amber, dark and raw. Light agave has the flavor of honey, while dark has a deeper flavor like maple syrup – some say the former is better because it isn’t as processed.
Is It Healthy?
Depending on how it’s processed, agave has a lower glycemic index than most sweeteners, making it less likely to raise your blood sugar levels – this is why it’s often recommended for diabetics. That also means you won’t experience a sugar crash or the fatigue and hunger that go along with it. But, as Dr. Jonny Bowden, weight loss and nutrition expert, points out, agave nectar is only a low-glycemic food because it’s made largely of fructose. Some research has shown that fructose can be the most damaging type of sweetener in terms of the long-term health impacts it delivers.
All sugar — from table sugar to HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) to honey – contains some mixture of fructose and glucose. Table sugar is 50/50, HFCS is 55/45. Agave nectar is a whopping 90 percent fructose, almost – but not quite – twice as high as HFCS.
Fructose – the sugar found naturally in fruit – is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7 percent fructose) – it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it exacts a considerable metabolic price.
And fructose, friends, can actually cause insulin resistance and high triglyceride levels, which means agave nectar may not be the best option if you’re diabetic after all.
Agave Nectar vs. Honey
Aside from being plant-based, agave is sweeter than honey (so you don’t have to use as much), lighter in taste, thinner and therefore easier to pour. It also has a longer shelf life and will not crystallize.
So, What’s the Problemo?
Mainly, it’s over-hyped by marketing companies who use terms like “pure,” “natural,” and “good for you.” The number of agave products on the market more than tripled between 2003 and 2007, btw. While it may be touted as a health food, don’t be fooled − it tends to have the same amount of calories as table sugar (but you don’t need to use as much). And most agave is quite processed, so it doesn’t contain the original nutrients or enzymes.
The Bottom Line
Like soy or anything sweet, agave is a-okay to have in moderation. If you can, buy it organic and raw so you know you’re getting the best quality. Overall, it’s not significantly healthier than other sugars, but it’s a great bee-free alternative to honey.
“True, it has a low-glycemic index, but so does gasoline — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” Bowden concluded.