by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
Q. I have been trying to reduce my sugar intake so I recently started using natural agave nectar instead of other sweeteners. But I’ve been told by several people that the negatives of this sugar alternative far outweigh the benefits. Should I be using this or did I fall prey to marketing hype?
A. Like any sweetener, agave nectar has both pros and cons. Because it’s widely viewed as a “healthier” sweetener, people often mistakenly believe that agave nectar is lower in calories. But agave nectar contains virtually the same amount of calories as other liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup—calories which, if over-consumed, are just as likely to lead to weight gain.
Aside from being more “natural” than refined sugar, agave’s main advantage is that it doesn’t cause as great a rise in blood sugar. That's because a high percentage of the sugars in agave nectar are in the form of fructose, which is not absorbed into the bloodstream but processed in the liver.
See also: Is Fructose Toxic?
As you might have noticed, there's been a lot of hoopla over fructose lately. Researchers have found that large amounts of fructose may raise triglycerides and cause damage to the liver. A lot of these studies are in rats, not humans, and involve feeding them giant amounts of 100% fructose—which is not how it is generally consumed. Still, many people are now trying to avoid concentrated sources of fructose—and agave syrup is quite high in it. In fact, it often contains more fructose than the much-reviled high fructose corn syrup!
(As an aside, I think the hysteria about fructose and HFCS is slightly misplaced. The real problem, in my opinion, is that we tend to over-consume sugar, in all its forms.)
The Bottom Line on Agave Nectar: Small amounts of agave syrup are unlikely to cause problems and may offer some advantage vs. other sweeteners in terms of blood sugar control. But, in my opinion, it should be consumed in limited quantities, like ALL concentrated sweeteners!
Agave cactus from Shutterstock