Should You Use Agave Nectar Instead of Sugar?

Filed under: Nutrition: Health, Mealtime

Agave nectar has received a great deal of press over the last couple years and it seemed so good at the beginning that I couldn't help but be drawn to it. Now that this product has been available for some time, more information has flooded the market -- which can add to the confusion when you're trying to decide if it's the right product for your family.

First, a few basics on agave nectar: It originates from various species of agave (including blue agave, which plays a role in the production of tequila). It can also be referred to as a syrup, as it is a commercially available sweetener similar in appearance to different forms of liquid honey. To produce agave nectar, juice is expressed from the core of the agave plant, which is then filtered and heated so the polysaccharides are broken down into fructose units and the nectar is sweeter to taste.

But is it good for you? Find out, after the jump...
One question that arises from the production of agave nectar is whether it can truly be classified as a "raw" food. If the agave has been heated above temperatures of 118 degrees Fahrenheit, it can no longer be classified as a raw food. But Blue agave nectar, for example, makes the claim that it is heated under 118 F, so it can still be classified as a raw food that retains its natural nutritional value.

But is it healthy?
Whether it's raw or not, one must be aware of the main components that make up agave. Agave consists of mainly fructose, with a small amount of glucose. One perk to being mostly fructose is that fructose stops its processing in the liver which lowers its glycemic index (GI) value (one variety actually states it has a GI of 27, which is similar to many green vegetables). This means it has it has little effect on spiking your blood sugar. Low GI foods are recommended for everyone, as stable blood sugars mean fewer sugar cravings, a lower risk of developing diabetes and a lower chance of becoming obese. (High GI foods -- such as candy and juice or pop -- cause a flux of insulin to be produced, which correlates closely with abdominal fat.)

As exciting as this new syrup is, new research has been looking into high-fructose foods with a measure of caution. Many health care experts are suggesting that high-fructose foods may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, according to The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making you Fat and Sick, by Richard Johnson, MD.

If you want to give agave nectar a try, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Does your family like to add a touch of sweetness to many foods? If so, agave nectar would be OK to use, but you must watch your portions and frequency.
  • Remember that this form of sweetness does hold calories and will add to your daily caloric intake.
  • Do your research to uncover which varieties are truly raw. Have a look in your local health food store. The less an item has been heated, the more it will hold its natural nutritional value.
  • Agave nectar is sweeter than normal table sugar, so less is needed if you're using it for baking -- aim for about three quarters less, which can help you save calories, too.
Karla Heintz, B.Sc., is a nutrition educator and author of Picky? Not Me, Mom! A Parents' Guide to Children's Nutrition. Visit her website for more information on family health.

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