Q&A: Is Agave Nectar Healthy?

Q. I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about Agave Nectar. What is it exactly? Is it healthy for me?

Agave nectar is a sweetener produced by mashing the pulp of agave plants and heating it to break down its starch.  The starch is composed of long chains of fructose sugar units, which, when broken into individual sugar molecules, taste sweet.  Most Agave Nectars sold in the U.S. contain somewhere between 70-80% fructose, which is higher than the fructose content of other sweeteners such as table sugar (50% fructose), High Fructose Corn Syrup (55% fructose), or honey (38% fructose).

Fructose is different from other sugars in two important ways:

First, it tastes sweeter than other forms of sugar such as glucose or sucrose (table sugar).  For this reason, you should be able to use less of a higher-fructose sweetener to achieve the same sweetness as a lower-fructose sweetener.  Since all of these sweeteners contain the same number of calories (16 calories per teaspoon, or 4 calories per gram), if you were to swap out the sugar in a recipe for a smaller amount of Agave Nectar, you should be able to save yourself a significant number of calories without affecting the taste.  Experts recommend using 1/3 to 1/2 cup Agave for every 1 cup of sugar a recipe calls for, and reducing the liquid in the recipe (if applicable) by 3 TBSP.  To me, this seems like a “healthier” swap… but since Agave is still just added sugar at the end of the day, it would be healthier still to keep even Agave-sweetened foods and drinks to a minimum.

Second, fructose differs from other forms of sugar by how it’s processed in our bodies.  Unlike glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream immediately from the intestines, fructose must first travel to the liver to be converted to glucose before it’s released into the bloodstream.  Since this process takes some time, fructose tends to produce lower spikes in blood sugar immediately after eating it (in other words, it tends to have a lower glycemic index).  For this reason, Agave Nectar has earned a reputation as being “safe” for people with diabetes, though I must caution that this reputation is based entirely on anectodal evidence.  There is no scientific research on the glycemic effect of Agave Nectar in diabetic subjects, and I would advise anyone with diabetes to tread carefully, using their own pre and post meal fingersticks as an indication as to whether they can tolerate small amounts of Agave safely.

Given the recent public debate about whether High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) “causes” obesity by virtue of its fructose content, devotees of Agave Nectar may want to take note that it does indeed contain significantly more fructose than HFCS.  Having read much of the scientific research on the topic, I’m not convinced that there’s enough evidence to implicate the fructose in an average American diet as an obesity-causing agent per se; most of the damning research on fructose was done using extremely high doses of pure fructose rather than the lower, mixed doses we typically encounter… even in a lousy diet.  But I’ve spoken to some physicians who believe that increasing amounts of dietary fructose may be contributing to an increase in a gastrointestinal disorder called ‘dietary fructose intolerance.’  The bottom line is that we don’t really know yet whether fructose is healthy, harmful…or something inbetween.

For this reason, I recommend using Agave Nectar in the same way as I recommend using other added sugars: sparingly.  Women should aim for no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar (24g) per day from any source, and men should aim to keep their added sugar intake to less than 9 teaspoons (36g) per day.

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