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Is agave nectar healthier than sugar or other sweeteners?

By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., April 10, 2009 - 4:36am

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I love sugar. Not a lot of sugar, just a little. But the small scoop in my coffee every morning or the crunchy caramelized layer atop crème brulee is essential. My future sister-in-law, Amy, however, is my polar opposite: she sweetens her coffee with maple syrup and makes desserts using agave nectar. I had never bothered to try agave, but a few months ago I noticed that Amy wasn’t the only one trading white sugar for agave nectar. Agave nectar is popping up in the ingredient lists for chocolate, granola, energy bars and soda! (In 2008, 29 new products with agave hit supermarket shelves.) With agave nectar gaining popularity, I wanted to know: is it healthier than sugar or other sweeteners?

Here’s what Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., found for EatingWell’s April issue:

  • Agave’s GI value is about five times lower than table sugar’s, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Foods with a higher glycemic index (GI) tend to trigger a greater surge in blood sugar and insulin—the hormone that helps the sugar get into cells—just after eating. (These spikes can be particularly problematic for those with diabetes. High-GI foods also tend to make you hungry again sooner because they’re digested quickly.) Currently no studies compare how, relative to other sugars, agave may affect blood-sugar control. But based on the buzz agave’s been generating, we’ll likely see research in the near future.
  • Agave packs 20 calories per teaspoon, 5 more than granulated sugar, but, like honey, it’s sweeter than sugar, so you need less to achieve the same level of sweetness.

Until there’s more science on agave nectar, I’m not weaning myself off of sugar in my coffee. But I am open to other natural sweeteners in my dessert: like agave in this Vanilla Bean Flan with Agave Syrup & Caramelized Walnuts, honey in this Flourless Honey-Almond Cake or maple syrup in this Maple Walnut Cake.

What natural sweeteners do you like to use? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., Health Blog

Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.
Brierley holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Brierley asks: What natural sweeteners do you like to use?

Tell us what you think:

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