As a dietitian, especially a plant-based dietitian, I find that many of my clients use agave nectar as a sweetener of choice. If you’ve never heard of Agave, it’s a sweetner produced from several species of agave, including the popular Blue Agave plant.
One of the main benefits of using agave is that it is lower on the glycemic index and therefore does not have the same effect on insulin response like white sugar. So, is this sweetener a health food and something we should be replacing white sugar in our diets for?
Let’s go back to the more evil sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup. (I hope that you all are not confused by the “surprisingly sweet” commercials that the corn refiners assoc. is putting out. It’s not the same as sugar and has the same ill effects that agave has.)
Fructose, the part no one likes in high-fructose corn syrup, is the main ingredient in Agave. Fructose is metabolized much different than other sugars. Instead of going to the blood stream (where it would raise blood sugar levels) most of it heads to the liver. This is why fructose has a lower glycemic index (GI) as glycemic index is rated on the effect on blood sugar.
Many people see a lower GI level as a good thing since blood sugar levels are not raised as they would be when consuming a more sucrose based sweeteners (like table sugar). The problem however, lies in fructose’s ability to raise triglycerides and thus increase risk of heart disease. Some studies show that high amounts of fructose can raise the risk of insulin resistance which is the leading cause of type 2 diabetes. The above reasons are why many health food enthusiast avoid high fructose corn syrup in the first place.
Here’s the punch line:
Agave syrup contains 70-90% fructose while HFCS contains only 55% (table sugar contains 50% fructose)
Most dietitians and medical professionals don’t see the glycemic index as a reliable indicator on how healthy a food is (bananas and carrots also rank high) and I personally never use it as a tool in my practice.
I’m not letting HFCS of the hook either. A study in the journal of Environmental Health, showed mercury in 50% of commercial HFCS samples. Another large concern about HFCS is that when heated, they can create Advanced Glycogen End Products (AGEs) which are thought to lead to development of diabetes, aging, and renal failure.
My point is, if you are concerned about the possibly negative health effects from eating high fructose corn syrup than agave would be much worse because of the higher % of fructose. When looking at studies and Glycemic load studies, quantities of more than 50g fructose had negative health effects. Yes, that’s a lot of fructose in a diet, but thanks to manufactures using fructose more and more those grams can quickly add up. I occasionally will use agave in recipes because it is very sweet so I don’t have to use much.
Sweeteners, no matter what form, are harmful in large quantities. Limiting your intake of all sweets will help in reducing the possibilities of heart disease, elevated triglycerides, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and added weight.