About 10 years ago, agave—a sweet nectar derived from the same desert plant that gives us tequila—emerged as a supposedly healthier, supposedly more natural sweetener than refined white sugar. Even though agave had been around for ages, suddenly it was everywhere: Influential health practitioners such as Dr. Oz and Dr. Weil recommended it, coffee shops began offering squeeze bottles of the syrupy stuff alongside their Splenda and Equal packets, and food and beverage brands launched all kinds of agave-sweetened products.
Fast-forward to today, however, and agave isn’t such a hot commodity anymore. You’ll still see it around sometimes, and it retains some of that health halo, but most of the doctors and dietitians who once touted its advantages over other forms of sugar have changed their tune. It turns out that agave’s alleged health benefits aren’t so awesome after all. Even its “natural” cred wasn’t quite deserved.
Agave became a rock star primarily because it contains a lot less glucose than refined white sugar from sugarcane or sugar beets. Although the viscous liquid is 1.5 times sweeter than crystalline sugar, its low glucose content gives it a low glycemic index, meaning it does not spike blood sugar levels and prompt the pancreas to crank out insulin in response. Generally, avoiding this rapid seesawing of blood sugar and insulin is a good thing, especially for diabetics, which is why they are advised to seek out low-glycemic-index foods.
The fructose factor
While agave may be lower in glucose than refined sugar, health experts now understand that this benefit does not outweigh the sweetener’s big downside: it is sky-high in fructose. Agave is 70 percent to 90 percent fructose whereas regular sugar is just 50 percent. In fact, agave contains more fructose than any other common sweetener, even that famous pariah high-fructose corn syrup.
So what’s the problem with fructose? Although it doesn’t jack up blood sugar in the short-term like glucose does, fructose does in fact have a negative impact on insulin control over the long haul. When consumed in heavy doses—and frequently—fructose can cause blood sugar levels to be chronically elevated. This can lead to insulin resistance, which sharply increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
On top of that, the body metabolizes fructose differently than it does glucose, which is problematic if you consume a lot of it. While every cell in your body uses glucose for energy, only the liver cells can break down fructose. Processing this sugar within the liver generates triglycerides, a form of fat that increases risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues. It also churns up free radicals, which can damage cell structure and incite inflammation. Finally, fructose processing produces uric acid, a substance that can compromise arterial function.
Another potential side effect of heavy fructose intake is increased body fat. Yes, all added sugars can contribute to weight gain, but because of the unique ways that fructose, specifically, impacts the body, some experts believe it is converted to fat more quickly than glucose.
Another knock against agave is it’s not nearly as natural as it sounds. Sure, it comes from a spiky succulent plant that thrives in the sandy soils, but the substance we use is not the raw sap. This isn’t like pure maple syrup, which undergoes minimal processing (basically just boiling and filtering) between being tapped from a tree and topping your pancakes.
Nope, agave is very highly refined. It is put through an enzymatic process that breaks down the starchy fructans, which are good for metabolism and insulin control, into fructose. It also strips away most of the nutritional benefits that the straight sap might offer. The end result is a concentrated, fructose-loaded substance that’s not too unlike high-fructose corn syrup.
While a little agave here and there won’t tank your good health, there really is no good reason to seek it out over other sweeteners. Stick with trying to limit added sugars in any form as much as possible. If you want to add a sweet swirl to your oatmeal, granola, yogurt or cup of tea, you’re better off with 100 percent maple syrup or raw honey. These natural sweeteners are much less refined, retain more of their natural goodness and won’t flood your body with fructose.