There have been numerous articles proclaiming agave nectar to be the next best thing for diabetics and for food purists. It promises a sweeter taste than honey with none of the negative aspects of sugar.
What exactly is agave nectar, and is it as good for you as manufacturers would have you believe? Let’s look at what it is and what it is not.
Where does agave nectar come from?Agave nectar comes from several species of agave which grow in Mexico. Agave comes from the same plant as tequila although, of course, agave nectar has none of the properties of tequila. There are more than 100 species of agave. The ancient Aztec civilization used agave to sweeten their foods and referred to it as “honey water”. Most of the agave nectar produced in Mexico comes from the state of Jalisco.
How does agave nectar compare to other sweeteners?Agave nectar is said to be sweeter than honey, but is not as thick or viscous. It is composed of fructose and glucose primarily, with fructose found in greater concentration than glucose. Its glycemic index is similar to fructose and it has a much lower glycemic index than table sugar (sucrose). Manufacturers state agave nectar is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, so less is needed to provide the same amount of sweetness to foods. It dissolves rapidly and can be added to liquids to sweeten them. In addition, it has none of the bitterness associated with artificial sweeteners.
Agave nectar and diabetesSome people have claimed that agave nectar is suitable for diabetics because it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar. While this may be true, that’s not all that diabetics need to know about agave nectar.
First, we need to look at how glucose and fructose are used in our bodies:
Glucose- when we eat foods containing sugars and starch (carbohydrates), our body digests these foods, breaking them down into glucose, which is used to power our cells. Our small intestine releases glucose into the bloodstream. Our body responds with insulin, which allows glucose to be taken in by our cells. When we take in too much glucose, our body stores the rest as glycogen for later use, or as fat.
Fructose- fructose works differently in the body. When we eat foods containing fructose, the fructose goes to our liver and does not enter our bloodstream, and therefore our blood sugar levels do not rise in response. For this reason, fructose has been said to be a safer alternative for diabetics. However, fructose in the liver is processed much as alcohol is: it is converted to fat and triglycerides.
There have been numerous studies done regarding fructose and metabolic syndrome (a syndrome of insulin resistance, obesity, elevated triglycerides, and elevated LDL cholesterol). Many leading experts believe that fructose in large quantities predisposes to metabolic syndrome, which is associated with heart disease. Fructose has also been implicated in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gout, diseases of aging and other health problems.
There are few studies on agave nectar alone; however, its similarity to fructose makes many experts question its safety when used in large amounts. What about the number of calories contained in agave nectar? One tablespoon contains 60 calories, all of which are from carbohydrates.
The pureness of agave nectar?There has also been debate about how pure agave nectar truly is. Food purists consider food to be “pure” when it is unadulterated, or unchanged from its pure form. Agave nectar that is mass produced as a sweetener is heated at temperatures far higher than some food purists state are acceptable in order for a food to be considered pure. Agave nectar is processed at temperatures between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit; foods are not considered pure if they are heated to above 118 degrees.
Agave nectar is processed in the following manner
- Plants are crushed to release their sap
- Sap is heated at approximately 140 degrees for 36 hours- this is done to concentrate the liquid into a syrup
- As a consequence of heating, the fructose is hydrolyzed, or broken down into their individual fructose units
- The resulting solution, which is rich in fructose, is then filtered
Take the good with the badAlthough agave nectar has been shown in a more negative light in this article, I think the key to using any sweetener is moderation. Used in small quantities, agave nectar is probably an acceptable sugar substitute. Should it be eaten in large quantities by anyone, diabetic or not? Probably not. There is not enough research to support its safety for regular use. Used in moderation, in small quantities, agave nectar is probably no worse than many other sweeteners. The bottom line? It’s best to stay away from all sweeteners whenever possible, using foods that are naturally sweet, such as fresh or dried fruits, to satisfy your sweet tooth.
The debate over agave nectar and its suitability as a sweetener will likely continue. Of course, manufacturers want you to believe that their product is the second coming of sweeteners, while some experts would prefer we all avoid sweeteners like the plague. Somewhere in the middle are the rest of us, who want a sweetener that is as harmless as possible so we can continue to indulge our cravings for sweets. In this case, I recommend that you do some research on the pros and cons of agave nectar. Reach your own conclusion about its suitability and safety. There is much information to be found on the internet on this subject, but you should keep in mind when searching for information that certain purveyors of information regarding agave nectar have their own agenda and their own reasons for publishing information. Keep this in mind as you decide for yourself whether agave nectar is a super sweetener, or just super hype.