Sugar substitutes – agave explained

With sugar in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the health-conscious are turning to less refined substitutes. But are the alternatives any better for you? We take a closer look at agave.

Agave syrup in a bowl with a spoon

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 bakes. 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.

Sugar-free banana cake

Nutritional information

Agave21kcal (per tsp)GI value: 15
Table sugar16kcal (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.

Health claims

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.

Simple nutty pancakes

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 process. 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 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 16 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food

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 and noticed a difference? Leave a comment below...

 

Comments, questions and tips

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Magicdog
16th Nov, 2016
I have bought some organic agave syrup to use in hot drinks but to achieve the same sweetness I am used to with sugar I am having to use the same amount. Everything I have read says this should not be the case. Do they vary in sweetness?
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