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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.

COMMENTS POSTEDsort icon

There are so many negative claims in the comments that are false or exaggerations that one scarcely decide what to address and what to leave up to commentators to investigate on their own. The only fault with the original post is that whereas it is true that "the FDA has refused some shipments due to excessive pesticide residues", their records show there were only two instances and those were years ago.

Levulose is just another name for fructose which is the same in fruit as it is in agave syrup. No one uses the term levulose which is completed outdated and misleading. The body recognizes and processes fructose no matter what the source. If you read otherwise, it was probably at the web site of the Weston A Price Foundation where you can find all manner of false notions about agave syrup.

And how about this one: "Because fructose is digested in your liver, it is immediately turned into triglycerides or stored body fat. Since it doesn’t get converted to blood glucose like other sugars, it doesn’t raise or crash your blood sugar levels. Hence the claim that it is safe for diabetics," to which the commentator adds, "But it isn't." The truth is that in humans, around 50% of ingested fructose is converted to glucose and the amount it contributes to triglycerides (fats) is about 3%, which is scarcely significant. That's why it takes a very high amount (at least 104 grams per day) to even modestly increase body weight.

To the assertion that "fructose makes you want to eat more", human clinical trials have not established that to be the case, and there have been quite a number of them. That's also true for glucose, by the way. All told, they do not show that glucose is more satiating than fructose or that HFCS is less satiating than regular sugar. Interestingly enough, however, studies have more consistently shown that a low glycemic index diet results in the consumption of less food, which would suggest that fructose or a low GI sweetener like agave syrup (consistently demonstrated in a number of human clinical trials) would contribute to the overall low glycemic index of the diet if it replaced high GI sweeteners such as HFCS and regular sugar.

And then there's the ongoing myth that agave syrup is made from starch by a process similar to that for making HFCS. What starch? The part of the plant used to make agave syrup contains less than 1% starch, whereas the content of starch in corn is over 60%. The process for agave syrup is very different from that for HFCS and if anyone is using enzymes, they would be the rare exception. The claim that agave syrup is made by a "Chemical process" is highly deceptive and fostered by the likes of Dr. Mercola and the Weston A Price Foundation. The sap is extruded from the heads of the plant, which are in fact the short stems, and heated to remove moisture. No other part of the plant is used; not the leaves and not the root or "root bulb". In the process, the content of fructans in the sap or "juice" release their bonds of glucose and fructose to leave the syrup. No chemicals are added and the syrup is certified organic.

What else? How about agave syrups contain at least 70% fructose. In the form in which the syrups are sold, they contain anywhere from around 50% to close to 70% fructose, although I saw one with about 74%. Dr. Mercola claims that they can contain up to 97%. Here's the problem. If a syrup was 97% fructose, it would be less than 3% water. At that amount, how would it pour? What the high figures refer to are dry weights, with all the water removed. By that method of analysis, a syrup containing 97% fructose by dry weight would contain around 74% by wet wet, which is the form you find at the store. In the most extensive survey to date, the wet weight contents of fructose in agave syrups, and there were 19 of them, was around 54% to 70% and the average content was about 64%. Others not included in the survey do contain around 50% fructose by wet weight, as shown by the certificates of analysis from independent labs. If you want more glucose, then HFCS or regular sugar would be your best bet. The most glucose in syrups surveyed was about 11.4% and the least 3.6%. From regular sugar, you get 50% glucose and from HFCS it's 41% or 53%.

Anonymous

08/07/2013 - 7:42am

The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.

Compare that to the typical fructose content of high fructose corn syrup (55%)!

Concentrated fructose is not found in fruit, or anywhere else in nature. When the sugar occurs in nature, it is often called “levulose” and is accompanied by naturally-occurring enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. Concentrated fructose, on the other hand, is a man-made sugar created by the refining process. To clarify:

Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn’t recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is [fructose] naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. Refined fructose is processed in the body through the liver, rather than digested in the intestine. Levulose is digested in the intestine.

Because fructose is digested in your liver, it is immediately turned into triglycerides or stored body fat. Since it doesn’t get converted to blood glucose like other sugars, it doesn’t raise or crash your blood sugar levels. Hence the claim that it is safe for diabetics.

But it isn’t.

That’s because fructose inhibits leptin levels — the hormone your body uses to tell you that you’re full. In other words, fructose makes you want to eat more. Besides contributing to weight gain, it also makes you gain the most dangerous kind of fat.

Anonymous

07/23/2013 - 1:06pm

Pick your poison. Moderation in everything is key. Agave works for me and many others.

Anonymous

07/08/2013 - 8:51pm

People are becoming food and sugar phobic because of all the conflicting informations and reports. I think as with anything, moderation is key. As someone else stated, Agave does NOT cause the hunger and senseless eating that comes from eating sugar and foods sweetened with sugar. Artificial sweetners can sometimes create this same effect (in my experience) and lead to binge eating, in search for some type of satiety. Technically, we should mostly drink water throughout the day. So you shouldn't really have to use a lot of sugar, honey, agave or otherwise during the day. Stevia to me, tastes like crap. I can't use it. But alternating between splenda (I know it's no good) and Agave works for me.

Anonymous

06/20/2013 - 4:57pm

there is no such agave study listed in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition's web site. I searched for it and found nothing.

Anonymous

04/18/2013 - 1:48am

Despite what any current reports say, I tend to draw from my own experience. I have found that white sugar and HFCS leave me wanting. Wanting more of it and other foods. If I eat enough of them (which isn't hard, since they are in many products), I become addicted to them and have actual withdrawal symptoms. For me, honey and agave do not have that effect. I will continue to use them both since I personally have had no negative experiences with them. To each his own!

Anonymous

03/12/2013 - 10:50am

Correction for everyone that has generalized agave as being worse than high fructose corn syrup. This is half true. Most agaves are worse than HFCS. however, if you compare CLEAR agave, it is almost half the fructose level than others. So not all agave is created equal and shouldn't be generalize or this may mislead people. A gentleman who owns a raw food company, uses agave in his products AND he's diabetic. Clear agave is not the same and wont spike peoples blood sugar levels AND is not harmful for diabetics.

Anonymous

02/06/2013 - 2:13pm

well which is it? agave or stevia?

Anonymous

01/29/2013 - 5:19pm

Agave is as bad as High Fructose Corn Syrup for you health. It has far too high a concentration of fructose. Free fructose gets converted to fat/triglycerides. I know it tastes great (so do the many things that have HFCS), but it really is not a healthy option. Real honey would be better, or my favorite, Stevia.

Anonymous

02/05/2012 - 11:15am

Agave syrup is good on oatmeal!

Anonymous

11/02/2010 - 6:46pm

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