Agave Nectar: Healthy Sugar Substitute or An Epic Fail?

agave blog

It’s a well-known fact that processed sugars and high-fructose corn syrups are bad for our health, but when face to face with the shelves at our local grocery store, it can be difficult to know which products to choose. Agave comes to mind as a healthy sweetener, but is it really? 

The truth is, agave nectar isn’t as sweet as we’ve been told. 

The question is... is agave nectar really better than processed sugars or honey? Let’s take a look at the research and facts to see how this “natural sweetener” can actually negatively affect your health.

What’s Agave Nectar and How’s it Made?

Agave nectar is a syrup that is made from the blue agave plant, mostly grown and made in Mexico. It’s the same plant that tequila is made from. It’s also very sweet, about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar. It even and has more calories than sugar at approximately 60 calories, the same amount of sugar contains roughly 48 calories. 

That hasn’t stopped agave manufacturers from marketing the syrup as a “healthy alternative to sugar” for those suffering with diabetes, claiming it has a lower glycemic index value. The glycemic load is a classification of different carbohydrates that measures their impact on the body and blood sugar. Blue agave nectar contains lots of fructose rather than glucose, like sugar does. Fructose does not increase blood sugar levels the same way glucose does. 

Even though agave has a low glycemic index, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. The glycemic index is only one factor to consider when choosing the best sweetener. Agave nectar has some real health concerns that should be taken into consideration. 

Nutritional Info

Agave nectar is almost 85 percent fructose, which is a simple fruit sugar found in different types of plants. It’s very high in carbohydrates, sugar and calories, with about 60 calories per tablespoon. The biggest problem with agave nectar is that it’s extremely high in fructose and it lacks other important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber which makes it difficult for the body to process. 

Fructose is almost completely metabolized in the liver in a process called fructolysis. Fructolysis converts fructose into triglycerides, a type of fat. Triglycerides has been connected with an increased risk of diabetes, and heart disease. 

Not to mention agave nectar is not suitable for Keto, Paleo or other low-carb diets because it contains 5 grams of carbs per teaspoon, versus sugar which contains 4 grams per teaspoon. 1 gram may seem insignificant but when compounded over time, your calories and carbohydrates can really add up fast.

The Benefits and Side Effects of Agave Nectar

The agave plant has some amazing health benefits. It’s contains powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, but when agave is processed into syrup, most of these properties are lost.  

The biggest marketed benefit of agave nectar is that is has very little effects on blood sugar and insulin levels. 

There are claims that agave nectar promotes healthy skin, and skin soothing properties. The challenge with that belief is that again, the nutrients have been completely stripped leaving only the high amount of simple sugars which may actually feed bad bacteria on your skin. 

Some of the other health risks of agave nectar include the incredibly high levels of fructose, a simple sugar that can be very damaging to health. Fructose can only be processed by the liver, which then converts it into triglycerides, a type of fat. Increased triglyceride levels, increases the risk of fatty liver disease, which can result in fatigue, weight loss, and abdominal pain. 

Although it may not spike your blood sugar and insulin levels short term, it can contribute to long term unbalanced blood sugar levels and even insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when the body's cells don't respond normally to the hormone insulin, which may be linked to increased belly fat and weight gain. What’s even more shocking is that the increased consumption of fructose has been connected with high cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Mexican Natural Medicine

Traditional Mexican medicine makes use of agave for a number of purposes, like antibacterial, antifungal and even anti-inflammatory properties. 

Modern science is now starting to confirm these centuries-old traditions with new research reporting that the agave plant contains powerful compounds with amazing medicinal properties.

  • In a recent study by the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, it was examined that agave extracts were found to reduce swelling and inflammation in laboratory rats by up to 50%. (1) 
  • Another study published in 2006 by the American Society for Microbiology found that it helps fight pathogenic fungi, and was shown to have antifungal properties as well. (2) 
  • A review published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research concluded that “agave contains phytochemicals with activities such as: anticancer, antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitical, antimicrobial, and coadjutantin mineral absorption. (3)

How Does Agave Compare to Sugar & High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Many claim agave nectar is a fantastic substitute to refined sugar products or those made with high-fructose corn syrup. But is that the truth? 

The biggest contrast when comparing agave nectar to sugar is their chemical composition. Agave is comprised of mostly fructose and sugar is glucose. Glucose raises blood sugar levels rapidly however fructose doesn’t in the short term. However, over consumption of fructose in the long run can lead to insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and weight gain just like sugar.  

High-fructose corn syrup is a nasty ingredient often added to almost all food products today as a sweetener. Products like cereals, granola bars, yogurts, syrups, sodas, candy, salad dressings, sauces and condiments, baked goods, chips, snacks, energy drinks, jams, breads, frozen foods, juice and canned foods can all include corn syrup. It’s in almost everything! High-fructose corn syrup is usually genetically modified and it’s typically composed of approximately 55 percent fructose, plus it’s been known to contain mercury. (4)

How Does Agave Compare to Honey and Stevia?

Stevia, honey and agave nectar are all the most popular natural sweeteners available today. They are all popular alternatives for those looking to lower blood sugar levels and improve their health, but how do they stack up and which one is best? 

The biggest difference between agave nectar and raw honey is that agave is approximately 85% fructose, while honey contains a mixture of fructose and glucose. Does that mean agave is better than honey? No, here’s why. 

The agave sweetener sold today in stores is made by heating the agave and adding enzymes, which destroys the nutritional value and with it the beneficial health properties of the agave plant, creating a highly refined unhealthy syrup. This process is very similar to one used to process high-fructose corn syrup. 

This syrup has very little in common with the traditional sweetener made and used by people in Mexico for centuries. 

In contrast to the extremely processed agave nectar, raw honey is super rich in antioxidants and has even been connected with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and apoptotic properties. (5) 

Stevia is derived from the leaves the Stevia rebaudiana plant. 100 percent stevia leaf extract has a glycemic load of zero and contains no calories! That means it doesn’t affect insulin or blood sugar levels at all. With that amazing info it’s important to note that only pure green leaf stevia extract is the least processed and is the best choice. 

What’s the Healthiest Sweetener to Use?

Instead of using the highly processed agave nectars try using other nutrient dense alternatives that will not only help you boost your health but also avoid adverse health effects. So, what’s the best sugar alternative to use? Here’s a few nutrient dense sweeteners to consider:

  • Raw Honey contains several micronutrients and antioxidants, which can protect you from free radical damage and can slow the aging process. Raw honey is also been shown to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, which could help reduce the risk of liver and heart disease. (6) 
  • Stevia is an awesome sugar alternative. It may even be the absolute best because it naturally has a non-existent glycemic load of zero and zero calories.  
  • Dates are my favorite natural sweeteners because you get the fiber with the sugar, which slows the absorption of glucose, to help balance blood sugar levels. Dates are also loaded with critical macro and trace minerals like, magnesium, manganese and copper. 

In Conclusion

Agave nectar is a type of syrup which is made from the agave plant.  

Many advertise agave nectar as a healthy alternative to sugar however it’s almost completely made of fructose. Fructose doesn’t spike blood sugar and insulin levels like glucose does. 

However, agave nectar is very high in fructose which can lead to other negative health problems like fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. 

The agave nectar sold today in stores is made by heating the agave nectar and adding enzymes, which destroys the nutritional value and with it the beneficial health properties of the agave plant, creating a highly refined unhealthy syrup. In my opinion it’s best to avoid agave nectar all together unless you know that’s not highly processed and heated at high temperatures. Consider other natural sweeteners instead like raw honey, stevia or dates. 

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