Agave nectar: it sounds almost ethereal, doesn’t it? It makes me think of Aztec gods and goddesses and a world far more luxurious than my own. Seeing an entire row of the stuff in my local supermarket, bottled up and sandwiched between stevia packets and one-pound bags of bright white powdered sugar is, well, somewhat less glamorous. This once-niche product is now officially mainstream, and there seems to be a pretty substantial divide between its advocates and haters. To catch anyone up to speed who is unfamiliar with agave, yes, it is also used to make tequila. There are over 100 species of agave though the blue variety (agave tequilana) is generally preferred for making the syrup. So what’s the deal? What makes it different, for better or worse, than any other liquid sweetener on the market?
Agave nectar is fairly low on the glycemic index (GI), which means it’s less likely to spike blood sugars than, say, regular table sugar. Keeping blood sugars steady, rather than spiking and crashing, is a good practice for anyone, though it’s particularly important for anyone with pre-diabetes or diabetes. Agave tastes sweeter than table sugar, which means you can often get away with using less.
The reason agave is so low GI is because it is anywhere from 70-90% fructose. Yes, fructose, the type of sugar in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that has everyone all up in arms, except…high-fructose corn syrup is only 55% fructose. So agave has more fructose than the all-dreaded HFCS, leading former agave supporters like Dr.Oz to say “Oops, my bad.” Fructose is a concern because it isn’t processed like other types of sugar and, therefore, could be contributing to the soaring incidence of diseases like insulin resistance (diabetes), obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty [linkbuilder id=”6438″ text=”liver disease”]. Processing agave is not as simple as squeezing sap from the plant into a bottle and shipping it to a grocery store near you. It is, in fact, a highly processed sweetener that has been stripped of the original plant’s nutrition. It may have been natural when farmers in Mexico extracted it manually years ago, but as is the case with most commercialized food products, that no longer holds true.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
Honestly, agave’s time in the spotlight has really already passed. It was like pulling teeth, trying to get Google to show me a single page listing legitimate, verifiable health benefits. But I still hear people making the same misguided claims: it’s natural, it’s better, it’s healthier. It’s not. Not all sweeteners are created equal, and agave does not stand in the front of the pack. Pure, 100% maple syrup is largely glucose (as opposed to fructose), does not undergo significant processing, and contains a fair amount of minerals. Raw honey is packed with enzymes and, when purchased locally, may help alleviate mild allergy symptoms. And blackstrap molasses contains both calcium and iron. All of these sweeteners are more natural and nutritious than agave. That being said, there isn’t a single sweetener out there that is a magic bullet for disease. In the end, sugar is sugar, and we should be consuming less of it no matter the form. Nature created a full palate of complex flavors: tart berries, sour citrus, and bitter coffee beans, to name a few. The beauty of our taste buds is that we have the opportunity to savor all of them, but only if we resist drowning them in whatever bottled sweetener the current generation has chosen to place on a pedestal. Those complex flavors take some getting used to, but if you give them a chance, you’ll be opened up to a world of delicious possibilities. Bon appétit!