The Shocking Truth About Agave Nectar

The table sugar substitute may not be the healthy sweetener you thought it was.

November 11, 2015
agave syrup
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAT HASTINGS/GETTY

When it comes to foods with a glowing health halo, agave nectar is right up there with quinoa and kale. After all, it’s natural and not insanely processed. Plus, it’s always showing up in raw and vegan desserts—so it’s got to be healthy, right? 

Well…no. As far as your body is concerned, it’s basically a potent liquid form of table sugar. Before going any further, let’s review some Food Science 101. Both agave nectar and refined white sugar are high in fructose, a type of simple sugar found in fruit that can only be processed by your liver. And many agave nectars consist of 70 to 90 percent fructose—that’s more than what’s found in high-fructose corn syrup! (A quick note about fruit: Yes, it contains the same fructose as agave and table sugar but in tiny quantities and with plenty of fiber to keep any negative effects at bay.)

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Related: The Shocking Truth About How Much Sugar You’re Eating

Agave doesn’t cause a big blood sugar spike like table sugar does, but when you take in tons of fructose at once, say, by devouring half a batch of cookies, your liver has nothing to do with the excess that your body doesn’t need for energy. So it gets turned into fat. That could have something to do with why studies link high fructose consumption to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and obesity. 

Instead of glorifying (or demonizing) one type of sugar over another, you’re better off sticking with whatever natural sweetener you like best and using it in moderation.

Your liver is basically repackaging agave as blood fats called triglycerides, which increase your risk for heart disease. These high fructose levels can also contribute to insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes, as well as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Complicating matters, studies—including one published in 2010 in the journal Cancer Research—are finding that fructose actually feeds some cancers.

Related: How Safe Is The Newest “Natural” Sugar Substitute? 

When University of California San Francisco researchers replaced the fructose in subjects’ diets with an equal amount of fructose-free carbs (think, swapping candy for pasta), subjects struggled to maintain their weight even though they were eating the same number of calories. And though the subjects all started out with symptoms of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and extra body fat), those problems had all but vanished by the end of the study nine days later. Which, if you’ve been happily chowing down on agave-sweetened raw chocolates or nondairy ice cream, is pretty bitter news. 

 

Related: The 5 Worst Sweeteners (+ 5 Healthy Alternatives)

“There is little to make agave nectar significantly more or less healthy than table sugar, honey, or maple syrup,” explains Kantha Shelke, a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists and founder of the food science and research firm Corvus Blue. In other words, all types of sugar are, well, sugar. And they’re all bad for you. 

So what’s a health-minded eater to do? Instead of glorifying (or demonizing) one type of sugar over another, you’re better off sticking with whatever natural sweetener you like best and using it in moderation. (One teaspoon of agave nectar in the occasional dessert recipe is fine.) Your health—and your waistline—will thank you.

Tags: nutrition