The good, the bad, the Agave
I’ll admit that I do a fair amount of eavesdropping when exposed to public conversations about food. I can’t help it. It’s hard enough to resist taking a visual inventory of your shopping cart contents when you’re standing in front of me in line at the supermarket, so please cut me some slack. Besides, if not for my auditory curiosity, I wouldn’t have come to learn just how highly the eating public seems to regard Agave Nectar.
This relative newcomer to the mainstream supermarket has earned itself a reputation as a low-glycemic sweetener that many believe to be safe for diabetics or healthier than sugar. Given these widespread perceptions, I thought it prudent to do a little bit of nutritional truth-seeking, to help my sweet-toothed readers understand what Agave Nectar really is: benefits and drawbacks alike.
What Agave Nectar is…and isn’t
Despite what the name might lead you to believe, Agave Nectar in its ready-to-use form doesn’t actually exist in nature. In other words, you couldn’t just put a spigot in an agave plant and expect some sort of sweet, golden liquid to start pouring out of it like sap from a maple tree. Whether it’s labeled “raw” or not, Agave Nectar is a man-made sweetener derived from Mexican agave plants that must undergo several processing steps to produce the end product. The pulp is macerated to produce a juice that is filtered to varying degrees and then must be heated to break down the starch into its sugary components that make it taste sweet. (It can also be enzymatically-treated to create the same effect.) The less filtered the nectar, the darker it will be and the more minerals (like calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium) it will retain.
Because the agave plant’s natural starches are largely composed of long chains of fructose (a monosaccharide, or single unit sugar), the resulting syrup that is produced when this starch breaks down will also contain a relatively high degree of fructose. Unlike other monosaccharides (namely, glucose/dextrose), fructose must first be metabolized by our liver to produce usable energy rather than being immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and available for use. As a result, fructose does not raise blood sugar to the same extent that glucose does, and can thus be said to have a lower-glycemic effect. This is why many people believe that Agave nectar is safer for diabetics than other sweeteners.
The first catch, however, is that you have no idea how much fructose is actually in that Agave nectar you bought. While available information would suggest that Agave nectar routinely contains 90% fructose, in fact some products have been shown to contain only 55%, and most commercially available products appear to fall in the 70-80% range. (The ratio of fructose to glucose will vary by the species of agave plant used, the processing method and whether anything is added to the agave nectar.) Just by way of comparison, plain old table sugar is about 50% fructose. And High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is usually 55% , too. Which means that some brands of Agave nectar may have no different an effect on your blood sugar than plain old white sugar or HFCS. Unless you verify the amount of fructose or the glycemic index of the particular brand of Agave nectar you buy, you cannot assume that it’s any safer for diabetics than any other caloric sweetener. Not all products are 100% agave nectar, and some brands have been reported to mix in corn syrup (glucose) or other ingredients to their agave products. I should also mention that there have been no clinical trials investigating the glycemic effect of Agave Nectar in subjects who actually have diabetes that I’m aware of, so I would emphasize that caution is key when your blood sugar control is at stake.
The second catch, of course, is that we rarely eat our sweeteners alone. The ACTUAL blood sugar effect of a food will depend on the rest of the meal eaten with that food. Protein, fat and fiber all moderate the impact of carbohydrates on our blood sugar. The amount we eat of a food will also impact its effect on our blood sugar, and a larger portion of a “low-glycemic food” could easily produce a higher spike in blood sugar than a smaller portion of a “medium glycemic food” like table sugar. The only way to truly know how swapping out your current sweetener or adding agave nectar to a typical meal will affect your individual blood sugar is to actually test your blood sugar before and two hours after the meal.
Is Agave Nectar Low-GI?
Caveats aside, the glycemic index can still be a useful tool when comparing foods to one another. And so a little bit of poking around online
yielded the following Glycemic Index information on some leading Agave Nectar products from the manufacturer’s web sites. I have not independently verified any of these claims. Note that to be considered “low glycemic,” a product must produce an indexed blood sugar response of 55 or less when compared to a standard (pure glucose=100). By way of comparison, table sugar–which, if you’ll recall, is half fructose– has a glycemic index that ranges from 58-65 (it varies depending on the source of the sugar), rendering it a “medium glycemic” product.
- Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave: 75% fructose and 20% glucose. Claims a glycemic index of 39 or less.
- Madhava: The manufacturer’s website claims that their product’s glycemic index “measures in the range of 32.” (It strikes me that 32 isn’t so much a ‘range’ as a single data point, and I’d be interested to know whether the aforementioned range has a higher end…?)
- Nekulti agave nectar: claims a GI range of 34-38
- Volcanic Nectar Blue Agave: This is the only agave product I have come across that is verified by a 3rd party agency, the Glycemic Research Institute, to be a low-glycemic product. It clocked in at a 27.
- Sweet Cactus Farms: GI of 19, as listed in the University of Sydney’s generally reliable GI Database.
As you can see, there is some pretty wide variation in the reported glycemic indeces of available products, but several options that appear to fit the low-glycemic bill nonetheless.
Is fructose even a good thing?
There is an irony about our collective embrace of Agave Nectar as we simultaneously demonize its metaphysical twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Which is: the very characteristic of HFCS that leading critics argue to be responsible for its obesity-promoting qualities–namely, its fructose content– is precisely the characteristic that Agave-lovers are drawn to about Agave. So which is it? Is fructose evil and fat-promoting, or is it wholesome and health-promoting?
The answer is neither. And both.
The scientific literature shows that people on experimental diets which are unnaturally high in fructose (from any source) have significantly increased levels of triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease for which diabetics are especially susceptible) and increased production of fat in the liver (fatty liver). (The experimental doses were usually 2-3x higher than the typical fructose intake in even a crappy American diet). At lower doses, drinking fructose before a meal has been shown repeatedly to be associated with consuming more overall calories when compared to people who drink glucose (or a sweet, diet drink) instead. (Our brains do not register fructose like they do glucose, so eating fructose doesn’t trigger the hormonal signals that tell us we’re satisfied in the same way that eating glucose does.)
In other words, a high fructose diet is not a good thing for anyone. But fructose from any source in SMALL amounts--whether from table sugar, HFCS, fruit juice, Agave or honey– will not contribute significantly to an increase in fat accumulation in your liver or your blood, nor is it likely to be much better or worse than an alternative. A drizzle of honey on your yogurt, a sugar cube in your coffee once a day, a favorite salad dressing or ketchup that contains HFCS, some agave nectar on your pancakes… these are not things to sweat about in the context of a generally healthy diet. And if you are diabetic, replacing table sugar, maple syrup or honey with a higher-fructose alternative (in small amounts) could possibly–but not definitely–help to moderate your blood sugar spikes.
But when it comes to drinking your sugar– whether that beverage of yours is sweetened with HFCS, 100% sugar, honey or Agave nectar– your brain is not going to register these calories in its internal calculus of whether it’s gotten enough energy to satisfy its needs, and you are not likely to compensate for those extra calories by eating less. So drinking your sugar in any form is not a habit I’d recommend getting into, and none of these sweeteners are shown to be any better or worse than the others when it comes to sweetened beverages.
To Agave or not to Agave?
As you can see, I’m not quite convinced that Agave nectar is all that much healthier than sugar, HFCS or honey. It has the same number of calories as these alternatives (16 per teaspoon) and it’s not necessarily going to produce lower blood sugars when consumed in the context of a typical diet.
Having said that, there are a few cases I can envision in which Agave could be a better alternative to other sweeteners.
- As a honey replacement for vegans
- As a sugar substitute in baking… IF you take advantage of agave’s sweeter taste to reduce the total amount of sugar in the recipe.
Guidelines for replacing sugar with agave vary from conservative to aggressive. The more sugar you take out, of course, the healthier the end product will be, so I’d encourage pushing the envelope with your favorite recipes to see how they hold up to the swap-out.
The most conservative guidelines I’ve seen recommend a 25% reduction in sugar when using agave, or 3/4 cup agave nectar for each 1 cup of sugar that the recipe calls for. When doing this, they also recommend removing 1/3 of the liquid in the recipe and reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Karina Allrich, the Gluten Free Goddess, however, takes it further. She recommends to use 1/3 to 1/2 cup agave nectar for each 1 cup of sugar that a recipe calls for, and reducing the liquid by just 3 TBSP to compensate. If this formula works for your recipes, you’ll save at least 72g of carbohydrate and 290 calories in the entire recipe. That’s non-trivial.
Some food manufacturers are taking advantage of agave’s sweeter taste to reduce the total sugar and calories in their food products, but others are taking advantage of your unconditional love of agave to sell you expensive, agave-sweetened products that have no fewer calories and no less sugar than the original. You should always read the label and compare.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.