Q. A Healthful Sugar: Is Agave Nectar Healthier Than Sugar or Other Sweeteners?
A. Agave syrup, produced from sap of a plant that’s been used medicinally in Mexico for generations, is gaining popularity in the U.S. In 2008, 29 new products with agave, including chocolate, energy bars, granola and soda, hit supermarket shelves, according to Mintel, a leading market research company.
The natural sweetener is valued as a vegan alternative to honey and touted for its low glycemic index. 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.) According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, agave’s GI value is about five times lower than table sugar’s. 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, five more than granulated sugar, but, like honey, it’s sweeter than sugar, so you need less to achieve the same level of sweetness. A general substitution is to use one-third less agave nectar than you would white sugar and reduce other liquids by one-fourth. (This may require experimentation when making some recipes, such as baked goods.)
One final caveat: look for USDA-certified organic products. Nearly all agave sold in the U.S. is imported from Mexico and the FDA has refused some shipments due to excessive pesticide residues. Check for the USDA-certified organic seal or Quality Assurance International (QAI) certified-organic stamp, an independent, global organic certifier accredited by the USDA.