When agave was first introduced to the market more than a decade ago, diabetics—not to mention vegans—jumped for joy. Here was a mild-tasting, low glycemic, plant-based sweetener that could be used anywhere honey was used, but without the same spike in blood sugar. And agave’s taste is much more neutral and more pleasing than honey’s, so it’s great in recipes that require a more delicate sweetener.
Then the critics began to chime in. “Agave is the same as high-fructose corn syrup.” “Agave will destroy your liver.” “Agave is just as addictive as sugar.” So what’s a health-conscious woman to do ? Here’s my take on the controversy and whether or not agave is a healthful sweetener.
Agave is Mostly Fructose. . .
Unlike other natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or coconut sugar, agave has a higher concentration of fructose (the form of sugar found in most fruits). Some sources say it’s up to 90% fructose; others cite around 55%. Variations may occur depending on the brand and the processing method. And it’s also true that very high concentrations of fructose can be harmful to the liver and may ultimately lead to health problems such as inflammation, heart disease, insulin resistance or high triglycerides. (Note that fruits are not included in this caveat because they contain a smaller amount of fructose in relation to the other sugars found in them; they are also whole foods, which already contain a healthy balance of fructose versus other natural sugars).
But Not All Agave is Created Equal.
On the other hand, some of the articles focusing on the high fructose content of agave may be pointing to lower quality agave nectar that is either refined or actually does have high fructose corn syrup added to it. Traditionally made agave has existed in Mexico and South America for centuries. When produced without high heat or chemicals, agave contains inulin, a natural sugar found in many plants that is not only low glycemic but also a good source of soluble fiber that can help to control cholesterol levels. Inulin is also one type of “prebiotic,” a substance that feeds the good bacteria in your gut—essential for proper digestion and a healthy immune system.
And let’s not forget about the reason those folks danced with joy about agave in the first place: its flavor is versatile and, at 1.5 times the sweetness of sugar, a little goes a long way. In other words, even if agave does contain a higher level of fructose than other sweeteners like sugar or brown rice syrup, the amount of agave in any one recipe will be less, so the total amount of fructose it contributes is also lowered.
Bottom Line: Should You Use Agave?
It’s true, the kind of agave that we can purchase in the stores today is not identical to the traditional miel de agave consumed in Mexico. It’s more processed and more refined, with a lighter, milder flavor.
Having said that, my feeling is that agave should be used like any other natural sweetener—sparingly. If I’m baking a special treat and it happens to contain three tablespoons of agave, I’m not going to fret about consuming one tenth of that dessert, on occasion (that’s less than a teaspoon of agave nectar per serving).
It appears that many raw foodists, restaurant chefs and organic food manufacturers feel the same way: agave nectar clearly isn’t going away any time soon. So for now, I’ll continue to enjoy it on occasion when I’m looking for something sweet that won’t trigger a leap in my blood sugar levels.