The truth about agave nectar

Agave nectar is becoming a trendy sugar substitute—but is it really healthy? Read on for the scoop behind this natural sweetener

By Lesley Young

The truth about agave nectar

If you haven't been offered agave nectar instead of sugar with your coffee, you soon will. The increasingly popular all-natural sweetener is extracted from the blue agave plants that flourish in the volcanic soils of southern Mexico. Agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) is sweeter than table sugar, and while it can be used as an alternative to table sugar (it is similar in flavour), it's actually got more in common with honey (though less viscous) and maple syrup.

Why is agave nectar so popular?

"Because agave is less refined than many sweeteners, it is often considered more natural," says Nicole Fetterly, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, B.C. "And it is a natural food, just as honey and maple syrup are." Agave is certainly far less refined than many other so-called natural sweeteners on the market, she adds, including turbinado (refined sugarcane extract) and brown sugar, which is stripped-down table sugar with added molasses.

Agave's high fructose (approximately 70 to 90 percent) to glucose ratio also makes it a lower-glycemic sweetener and therefore, potentially, a healthier sweetener, she says. While some people say that agave's high fructose content makes it unhealthy, Fetterly says that fructose—when eaten in its natural form, such as from fruit or agave—is still low glycemic and therefore a better choice than straight glucose or sucrose (table sugar). "The high-fructose corn syrup found in so many packaged foods is not the same as the fructose from fruits or plants," she adds.

Is agave nectar actually healthy?

Agave nectar is one-and-a-half times sweeter than table sugar, so to get the most weight-maintenance benefit from this trendy food, you need to use less than you would if you were using sugar. "A lot of people forget or don't know to use less," says Fetterly. If you become accustomed to sweeter flavour profiles, and switch back to table sugar, you might end up using more, which could lead to excess calorie consumption.

How can you use agave nectar?

Agave is ideal for sweetening hot beverages like tea and coffee, and especially cold drinks such as iced tea and lemonade because it dissolves well. It's a direct substitute for maple syrup on pancakes or waffles, or a substitute for honey in baking. Just be cautious about using it in baking instead of sugar because it could alter the texture of the dish, says Fetterly.

How much agave nectar should I eat?

It's important to consume any sweetener in moderation, points out Fetterly. The ideal is to use it as a substitute for table sugar—and cut your usual portion by at least half. "If you use a teaspoon of sugar in your tea every day, use half a teaspoon of agave nectar (and you'll consume half the calories)," Fetterly recommends.

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Web exclusive, March 2011

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