Agave: Healthy or Harmful?

Depending on who you talk to, agave nectar is either pure goodness sent from the heavens or something from the labs of Dr. Evil. This is often seen with foods, where we build them up to a “super food” status, only to knock them down. But sometimes things aren’t as black and white as they may seem.

What’s Agave
Agave is made from dessert plants, which also give us tequila. The juices of these plants are a sweet carbohydrate called inulin, which is extracted from the plant, filtered, heated and then treated with enzymes to convert it to sugar, which is marketed as “nectar.”

The Benefits
Agave nectar has a relatively low glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t spike your blood sugar as much as white sugar. It has a neutral flavor and can dissolve easily in cold liquids, like freshly brewed iced tea. It’s also sweeter than white sugar with the same amount of calories (16 per teaspoon), so you don’t need to use as much. Plus, it’s good for vegans who don’t eat honey.

The Controversy
The concerns about agave revolve around its naturally high fructose content. Unlike sugar which is broken down by the body to 50% fructose and 50% glucose, agave breaks down to up to 90% fructose. That is a higher fructose content than even high fructose corn syrup. Ironically, agave’s high fructose content is the very reason it has a low glycemic index. But a number of studies show that large quantities of pure fructose can harm your liver;however, there are no indications that small amounts are problematic.

My Take
Although I prefer less-refined sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey and molasses, which have some antioxidants and trace minerals, agave has its own distinct benefits and has a place in my repertoire of sugar alternatives. It doesn’t deserve its health halo though. Agave, like all added sweeteners, should be used sparingly.

10 comments (Add your own)

1. Anna wrote:
I think agave is the way to go. It's sugar and carbohydrate content is 1 step down from honey. Should you see a product that's just 1 step down from agave, let me know.....

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 4:15 PM

2. Jaime wrote:
What about whole leaf stevia... I'd be interested to hear what you'd have to say about it.

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 5:12 PM

3. Sarah wrote:
Yes, I would like to hear what you have to say about stevia as well! Thanks Ellie Krieger, you are THE BEST!!

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 6:16 PM

4. Dr Jim Gardiner wrote:
Thanks Ellie for your common sense approach to this. I love agave and use it to sweeten the cashew milk I make. It makes the milk taste heavenly. I also use it to make vegan ice cream, which stays soft and creamy for weeks in the freezer.

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 6:19 PM

5. Kalyn wrote:
Thanks for taking a common-sense approach to this. I have recommended it on my blog (where I use it very sparingly, since I hardly ever make sweet things) and some people have come completely unglued over it.

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 6:21 PM

6. Lauren wrote:
What about raw agave nectar??

Mon, December 19, 2011 @ 7:00 PM

7. Jeanette wrote:
Thanks for the clarification. I used to use agave as a sweetener, but became wary after hearing about the high fructose level. I would also be interested in hearing your views on stevia. I've been sticking to honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup mainly.

Tue, December 20, 2011 @ 8:50 AM

8. Suzanne wrote:
I was recently talking about agave and a store I love (organic avenue) said that they switched to coconut sugar as a sweetener. Anyone want to weigh in about that?

Tue, December 20, 2011 @ 10:53 AM

9. nikki wrote:
just watching your show where your making shepherds pie, this is not shepherds pie you made it's cottage pie because you used beef.. shepherds pie is made with lamb hence the name as shepherds look after sheep....

Mon, January 2, 2012 @ 6:05 AM

10. Kevin S wrote:
Thanks for the great tips!

Wed, January 11, 2012 @ 7:19 AM

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