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Is Blue Agave Nectar a Healthy Alternative to Sugar?

Updated on December 30, 2010

Agave Nectar is Gaining in Popularity as a Sugar Alternative

As consumers become more health conscious natural sweeteners are gaining in popularity.  The fear of white processed sugar and corn syrup is magnified by media coverage of obesity and related health concerns.

One sugar substitute that has been generating a lot of buzz is agave, which comes from the same plant used to make tequila - Agave!

Although it's fast becoming the favored sweetener for health-conscious consumers and natural cooks, the reality is that agave is processed just like other sugars -- and is no better for you than other sugars. And don’t be dazzled by the expression "natural"; U.S. food regulators do not officially define the term, so it's left up to manufacturers.

What exactly is Agave Nectar and Why Would You use Agave?

There are many varieties of Agave.  In fact there are about 300 species of agave plants that grow in Northern South America, the Southern United States and hilly regions in Mexico. Agave nectar has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for its therapeutic components. The Aztecs mixed it with salt and used it for skin infections and wounds.

Most agave sweeteners are produced from the blue agave plant. The core of the plant consists of the aguamiel or "honey water," the substance used for syrup production (and, when fermented, tequila). Even though agave starts as this natural elixir from Mother Nature, the form you can buy has been refined to form a syrup or nectar.

Processing the aguamiel yields a product with either a dark amber or light shade, and a uniformity much like maple syrup. The light colored nectar resembles maple syrup or honey in taste, but the taste is more delicate -- which has made agave a well-liked sweetener for energy drinks, teas, nutrition bars, and more. Amber and dark agave nectar taste similar to caramel, and can be used like maple syrup on pancakes and waffles.

Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the identical amount of table sugar. But because agave is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it - which means you can achieve the same sugariness for about the same number of calories.

Agave Nectar The Healthy Alternative to Sugar or Not?

So what about the healthy aspects of Agave nectar?

The bottom line is that refined agave sweeteners are not inherently better than sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other sweetener. Nutritionally and functionally, agave syrup is comparable to high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (Karo) syrup. It does include tiny amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, but not enough to matter nutritionally.

Agave nectar or syrup is as high as 90% concentrated fructose (a simple sugar that takes place organically in fruit), and the rest glucose. But the agave you can buy ranges from 90% to as little as 55% fructose (comparable to high-fructose corn syrup), based on the processing, says Roger Clemens (Not the Baseball Player) professor at the University of Southern California and a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

All Sweeteners as well as Agave contain Little Nutritional Value.

Any fructose sweeteners in concentrated form do not offer any bona fide health advantages. In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggested that consuming fructose might be less healthy than consuming comparable quantities of glucose. Study members who consumed fructose had been found to put on more unhealthy visceral fat, were more insulin-resistant, and were at bigger risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

One of the most celebrated properties of agave is its profile on the glycemic index, a scale that measures how much various foods raise blood sugar levels. Agave ranks lower than many other sweeteners on the glycemic index. As a result, some producers advertize it as a "diabetic friendly" sugar. But, according to Clemens, "there is not consistent evidence to assign a glycemic value to any food, and it should not be used as a green light for diabetics."

In fact, the American Diabetes Association lists agave along with other sweeteners (table sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, maple sugar, and confectioner’s sugar) that must be limited in diabetic diets.

Sugar vs. Agave vs. Honey vs. Corn Syrup vs. Molasses vs. Maple Syrup

Health Experts Concur: Americans eat way too much sugar in their diet especially in the form of soft drinks and sugary beverages.

One of the simplest ways to improve the healthfulness of your eating habits is to decrease the amount of all simple sugars -- agave, sucrose, honey, maple syrup, raw sugar, molasses, brown sugar, corn syrup, turbinado sugar, and more. When it comes to sweeteners, the choice is yours -- but keep in mind that all caloric sugars are practically the same.

It's better to gratify your sweet tooth with whole fruit than with any kind of concentrated sugar. Not only is it unprocessed, and fiber and nutrient rich, it has an even lower glycemic index than agave.

Agave Nectar has a constancy similar to honey and can vary in color from a light to dark amber.
Agave Nectar has a constancy similar to honey and can vary in color from a light to dark amber.

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