With sugar hitting the health headlines for all the wrong reasons the nutrition-conscious are turning to unrefined substitutes for sweet satisfaction. But are these alternatives really any better for you? Here we take a look at the health claims of agave...
Derived from the sap of the agave plant (a type of cactus native to Mexico) agave nectar is a sweet brown liquid. Now commonly used as an alternative to sugar, honey or maple syrup, agave has become a popular replacement for table sugar. After the juice is extracted from the plant it is filtered, heated and concentrated into a syrup. Its taste resembles molasses and as a rule, the darker the colour, the richer the taste.
|Did you know...|
Tequila is made from fermented water from the root of the blue agave cactus
How to use
Agave nectar is about one and a half times sweeter than sugar, which means you can achieve the same sweetness by using less. It is versatile and easy to use, popular for sweetening hot drinks, porridge or used in baking. It can be used in place of syrups such as golden syrup but because it is sweeter than sugar, you'll need less to achieve the same taste. It works well in chewy bakes like flapjacks as well as sticky cakes and muffins - but be aware that you'll need to cook at a lower temperature (reduce the cooking temperature by about 10C/50F). For more tips on baking with alternative sweeteners see our sugar-free baking guide.
|Agave||21kcal (per tsp)||GI value: 15|
|Table sugar||16kcal (per tsp)||GI value: 65*|
*As stated by the Sugar and Sweetener guide
Although there are slightly more calories in agave than white sugar you will need to use less than half the amount of agave to achieve the same sweetness, meaning fewer calories overall. Agave syrup is processed by heat, which alters raw agave's natural nutrition values and lowers its antioxidant content. It therefore does not have a special nutritional profile and only contains small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Agave contains less glucose and so has a lower glycemic index (GI) value than table sugar. This means the body absorbs agave more slowly into the bloodstream and as a result does not cause such a rapid spike in insulin. However, agave contains significantly more fructose than sucrose (table sugar). Although this gives it its sweet taste, fructose is metabolised differently from glucose. Whereas glucose is converted into energy by the mitochondria of all cells, fructose is primarily metabolised by the liver. Consuming excessive fructose is thought to put pressure on the liver and may have undesirable effects on the body. Because fructose is considered to be one of the most damaging forms of sugar, always use agave in small quantities and buy organic, raw agave rather than the cheaper, highly processed version.
Some people also have trouble absorbing fructose and may experience unpleasant side effects such as bloating or abdominal discomfort in sensitive individuals, particularly those with irritable bowel syndrome. If you’re prone to gastrointestinal discomfort, you may want to avoid agave.
Is agave better than sugar?
The jury is out on whether agave is actually better for you than table sugar. It will have less of an immediate impact on your blood sugar levels due to its low GI score but the high fructose content may make it more difficult for your body to digest. Some opponents of agave claim it is simply a condensed fructose syrup, with minimal nutritional value.
It's also worth remembering that like other syrups, agave is classed as a 'free' sugar – the type we are advised to cut back on. However, if you are considering agave as an alternative to sugar, it is important to look for an ethical brand that processes the syrup at low temperatures to preserve all the natural enzymes and contains an overall fructose content of around 50% (some are as high as 90%). This may not always be obvious on the packaging so doing a little research before purchase is advisable.
If you’re a healthy individual, and prefer the taste of agave, then it is safe to use in moderation. Don’t use agave as an excuse to increase the sugar in your diet just because it has a low GI - in excess it is not a low calorie option and the consumption of high amounts of sugar can contribute to health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
This article was last reviewed on 22 November 2017 by Kerry Torrens.
A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
Jo Lewin works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at www.nutrijo.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts find all the answers in our sugar hub:
All you need to know about sugar
Have you swapped sugar for agave in your diet and noticed a difference? Have you found it helpful or harmful? We'd love to hear about your experiences...