With a plate of Saturday-morning pancakes balanced in one hand, I opened the refrigerator with the other. There they stood: maple syrup on one door, agave nectar on the other. My unsweetened breakfast was beckoning me, and a decision had to be made before my fridge alarm beeped. What was a girl to do? My syrup was shaped like a kind woman in an apron, but the label on my agave nectar read "organic," "gluten-free," and "low GI." It had to be healthy, right? I went with a generous drizzle of the agave nectar, praising myself for the rest of the day for making the "healthier" decision.
Curious about this exotic natural sweetener, I soon got to talking with two nutritional experts. To my disappointment, I had fallen for just another false food fad that fateful Saturday morning. Here’s what I learned about agave nectar.
What is agave?
Agave is a green, spikey-looking succulent native to Mexico and the Southwestern regions of the United States. It is most commonly used to make tequila, but the plant’s sap can also be extracted to create what is popularly sold as agave nectar.
The agave plant itself does have some proven health benefits. For thousands of years, its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties have been used to treat burns, wounds and insect bites. And according to nutritional researcher and bestselling author Dr. Jonny Bowden, consuming the plant also has some nutritional value.
Besides being a source of zinc, iron and calcium, “agave also contains fiber in the form of inulin, which also serves as a prebiotic, which is beneficial food for the good bacteria in your gut,” Bowden told SheKnows.
Sounds great, right? Well, there’s a bit of a catch. These nutritional benefits only come from agave in its raw, cooked or dried state. Absolutely none of these benefits can be found in the sweet nectar commercially produced for our grocery stores.
So what’s the truth about agave nectar?
During digestion, table sugar breaks down into half glucose and half fructose, while agave nectar breaks down into about 90 percent fructose. So, unlike sugar and corn syrups, agave nectar has a low glycemic index, which means that it’s extremely sweet without giving you a huge spike in blood sugar. This gives the syrup some health appeal on paper to certain groups like diabetics or gluten-free dieters, but the chemistry says otherwise.
Catherine Zymaris, registered dietitian nutritionist and avid food blogger, helped me understand the difference between the two.
“Fructose isn’t as easily absorbed into our bloodstream as glucose, and it actually gets filtered out by our liver,” Zymaris told SheKnows. “It’s deemed as better because it doesn’t make our blood sugar rise as quickly. But if we eat a lot of it, our liver will be taking a lot of the fructose out of the system, leading to more fatty deposits around our liver.”
In other words, just as excess glucose can lead to weight gain, so can excess fructose.
Agave nectar manufacturers seem to ignore this scientific fact, and instead use the organic nature of the sweetener to their advantage.
“They market it as some kind of healthy sugar, different from all the rest, and it is absolutely not; in some ways, because the fructose content is so high, it’s even worse,” said Bowden. “And it’s way more dangerous because people have been lead to believe it’s healthy, so they don’t exercise the same caution they do with sugar.”
This should not be news to anyone who has ever strolled down the organic section of the grocery store and been overwhelmed with nature-oriented imagery, Earth-friendly slogans and super-vague certifications. Whether we know what we’re purchasing or not, we feel good when we shop organically. We feel good when we make healthy choices. Suddenly, we’re over-rewarding ourselves for these positive behaviors.
If agave nectar isn’t the sweetening solution, what is?
If you’re looking for healthier syrup options, Bowden suggests raw organic honey or blackstrap molasses. These options do, of course, affect your blood sugar, but they include beneficial nutrients. “As for natural sweeteners, nothing beats stevia,” Bowden added.
Otherwise, it’s back to limiting our sweets.
“We shouldn’t always be trying to search for the healthy version of these treats,” Zymaris said. “It’s about moderation and listening to your own personal hunger and fullness cues. If you want a little cookie, you should honor yourself with a little cookie, but balance the rest of your diet out.”
She’s got a point. Perhaps next time I’m looking to enjoy a plate of pancakes, I should just enjoy a portioned amount of the tastier stuff rather than overindulging with the "organic" treats. And next time I’m looking for the benefits of agave, I’m gonna have to, er, take it raw.