Feel free to disagree with me here, but it seems that every year another sweetener hits the shelves and is promoted as a healthy alternative to sugar.
Over the past few years, one of the “natural” sweetener darlings promoted by many (including Dr. Oz) has been agave. It is said that the Aztecs used agave nectar with salt to heal wounds, so it is often referred to as some kind of health food.
In my coaching practice, I’m often asked about alternatives to sugar for baking and for sweetening up coffee, tea, and other beverages. Some people want to know about the sugar substitutes available to those with blood sugar regulation issues.
Agave is a sweetener that often comes up in these discussions. I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at this sweetener to see just how healthy it really is.
So, sit back and grab your favorite paleo beverage because this guide to agave is going to be SWEET!
The Use Of Sweeteners
Today, sweeteners make up 20% of the calories we consume. If you look at the nutrition labels of most food products, you’ll notice that some type of sugar or sweetener has been added, whether you’re buying Lucky Charms or tomato sauce. Even bacon sometimes contains added sugar.
Sweeteners are usually used to enhance the taste of foods and beverages. They are also used to extend the shelf lives of some foods.
Agave nectar comes from the agave plant. The leaves are cut off the plant to expose its core. It is from the core that the agave sap is extracted, filtered, and heated at low temperatures.
Agave nectar is composed of natural sugar – fructose and glucose. Fructose and glucose are found in most sweeteners and generally in anything that is sweet. Agave nectar tastes similar to honey.
- Honey: 50% glucose / 50% fructose (9g of fructose per tablespoon)
- Table sugar: 50% glucose / 50% fructose (6g of fructose per tablespoon)
- Agave: 27% glucose / 73% fructose (12g of fructose per tablespoon)
Agave nectar can be either light or amber in color. The lighter nectars have undergone less filtration than the darker ones.
- 1c of honey = 1c of agave
- 1c of maple = 1c of agave
- 1c of brown rice sugar = 1/2 to 1/3c of agave
- 1c of white/brown sugar = 2/3c of agave
The “Natural” Sweetener?
Not all the buzzwords you hear thrown around in the food industry are all they’re cracked up to be.
When it comes to sweeteners and sugar, you often hear the word “natural” being used. However, sugars are technically already natural because they come from a plant or an animal (lactose sugar is dairy). There’s no need to announce that they’re natural.
- Agave plant
- Maple trees
- Sugar cane
- Coconut palm
- Sugar beets
What makes sugars unnatural is the refining process that many of them go through before they’re put on supermarket shelves. Raw honey (in small amounts) is a my favorite sweetener because the only processing it goes through it done by bees.
One of the primary reasons, if not the only reason, that agave has been pushed as one of the best alternatives to traditional table sugar, is that it has low glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) scores.
These indexes are used to tell us how quickly a food is broken down into glucose in the body. Foods with lower scores take longer to break down than foods with higher scores. Foods with lower scores therefore have less of an impact on blood sugar levels than foods with higher scores. Foods with low GI and GL scores are typically recommended for those with blood sugar regulation issues, diabetes, and borderline diabetes.
Scores of fifty-five and lower are generally considered low GI foods, while foods with a score of fifty-five or over are considered high GI foods.
Agave comes in with a GI of thirteen and a GL of two, making it a low GI and GL food. This is why it’s often recommended as an alternative to other sweeteners for those looking to reduce body fat, regulate blood sugar issues, and manage diabetes.
Agave has such a low GI because of its high fructose content. Fructose, which is found in honey, vine fruits, berries, high-fructose corn syrup, and even flowers, has such a low GI because nearly all of it is absorbed by the liver before insulin secretion can occur.
Agave And Fructose
A lot of research has been carried out in the past few years into fructose consumption and health concerns.
Fructose itself is processed a little differently in the body than other sugars. Once it enters the system, it restores liver glycogen but the liver can only store so much. Excess fructose is stored as fat.
Diets that contain over 50g of fructose per day have been linked to high blood triglycerides, insulin resistance, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
In a study conducted in 2009, it was shown that when a person switches 25% of the calories they consume from glucose to fructose, there’s a fourfold increase in abdominal fat (1). Abdominal fat is a great predictor of elevated cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, and high triglycerides.
Excess fructose consumption has also been shown to cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is linked to diabetes and obesity. Dr Robert Lustic describes fructose as poisonous to the liver, pointing to its relationship with diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease.
Diets that provide less than 50g of fructose per day don’t seem to cause health concerns.
Fructose is typically associated with fruit but I don’t want all this talk to steer you away from eating some of nature’s finest candies. The amount of fructose found in most fruits is minimal at best.
- 32 ounce soda: 50g of fructose
- Ten apples: 50g of fructose (yeah, you read that right but stick to one or two apples and you’ll be ok)
- Banana: 7g of fructose
- Raspberries: 3g of fructose per serving
- Mango: 27g of fructose per serving
If you are mostly consuming paleo fruits (especially berries) and staying away from tropical fruits that are much higher in sugar, you should be pretty good to go on fructose consumption.
If fat loss and general health are your goals, stick with one to two fist-sized servings of low sugar fruit like berries a day. Remember to assess and not guess, so that you’re able to discover what is working for you and what is not.
Summing It Up
Most agave found on store shelves has been heated up and altered using GMO enzymes. It generally contains concentrated fructose and does not contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, or pectin, all of which you would get from eating real food, like paleo-friendly fruits.
In my opinion, sticking with black coffee, unsweetened tea, and water flavored with lemon, lime, and cucumber is the way to care for your body. I’d recommend avoiding adding any sweetener to your drinks, whether it’s a “natural” one or not.
Some will say that everything is OK in moderation, even sugar and sweeteners. That may be true but, in my experience, moderation is something that humans are terrible at.
If you do need something a little sweet, raw honey, coconut sugar, and white stevia will be your best options, though I still wouldn’t consume them regularly. If you have a craving for something sweet, low sugar berries are your best bet. Try some in a bowl with coconut milk and you will not be disappointed, I promise you.
Do you use sweeteners? Which ones and why?
Angelopoulos TJ, et al. The effect of high-fructose corn syrup consumption on triglycerides and uric acid. J Nutr 2009;139:1242S-1245
S.Schaefer EJ, et al. Dietary fructose and glucose differentially affect lipid and glucose homeostasis. J Nutr 2009;139:1257S-1262S.
Bray GA. Fructose: should we worry? Int J Obes (Lond) 2008;32 Suppl 7:S127-S131.
Forshee RA, et al. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2007;47:561-582.
Photo credit: John Loo