Monday, July 12, 2010

Trendy Bytes: Agave

Photo courtesy of Suzie T (flickr).

Agave nectar or agave syrup seems to be one of the latest celebrities in the world of sweeteners.  Agave syrup has a slightly thinner consistency than honey and is considerably sweeter than regular table sugar, and it has been touted as a more superior alternative to refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It's often acclaimed for being a more natural sweetener and for its low glycemic index.  On its rise to fame, agave nectar has gained many fans hopeful that this new alternative sweetener will help them accomplish things, such as improved nutrition and weight loss.  So, how does it stack up against the competition?

Agave syrup, that's just a naturally-occurring nectar that is simply extracted from the agave plant, like aloe from an aloe plant, right?  Not necessarily.  There are several different species of agave that can be used to produce agave syrup; however, regardless of where it comes from, the liquid extracted from the agave plant undergoes heat and/or enzyme treatment that breaks down larger carbohydrate molecules into simple sugars, fructose and glucose.  This process vaguely reminds me of the one used to make HFCS.  Natural? You be the judge. 

Agave syrup has a lower glycemic index than sugar, so it's better for me, right?  Not so fast!  The glycemic index (GI) of agave syrup ranges between 10-35, which is considerably lower than the comparative standard of 100 for pure glucose or white bread.  However, the GI has its flaws.  While most GI test portions included 1-2 Tbsp of agave syrup, most people using it would not just eat 1-2 Tbsp of pure agave syrup alone.  They often use it in or on other foods, and each food or beverage consumed with that meal affects the overall glycemic response. There are other factors, such as the presence of diabetes, that can affect glycemic response, too.  Consider this, some vegetables, legumes, and fruits have a higher GI than fructose, but does that mean they aren't nutritious?  While many diet books and programs proclaim the benefits of the low-GI diet for weight management, the evidence doesn't really support its use for this purpose.  On the other hand, some evidence suggests that using the GI may be helpful for those who have diabetes.  However, carbohydrate counting continues to be the most effective dietary strategy for managing blood sugar levels for those with diabetes.

Well, it's got to be better than high fructose corn syrup or table sugar, right?  As previously mentioned, agave syrup is actually composed of fructose and glucose.  In fact, HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose while agave syrup can range between 85 - 97% fructose and 3-15% glucose.  Yes, its fructose composition is even higher than HFCS. Gasp!  (That is actually what contributes to its low GI.)  Some studies suggest that high intakes of dietary fructose (>/=20% of total calorie intake or about 50-100 g/d; 1 Tbsp of agave could provide about 14-15 g of fructose) may contribute to elevated triglycerides and increased LDL-cholesterol in certain populations.  For individuals with fructose malabsorption, consumption of agave syrup may contribute to digestive disturbances, such as bloating and abdominal discomfort, due to its high fructose content.  While the actual agave plant may have a high antioxidant capacity, agave syrup appears to have lower antioxidant levels than raw cane sugar, dark and blackstrap molasses, maple syrup, and honey.  Also keep in mind that agave contains approximately 4 calories per gram or about 16 calories per teaspoon, which is comparable to both HFCS and table sugar.  Essentially, agave syrup is another form of sugar.  Because it is not naturally occurring in foods, it is considered an added sugar in the diet, and current guidelines recommend limiting the intake of added sugars.

On the bright side, agave syrup is sweeter than regular sugar (thank the higher fructose content), so users report needing to use less to sweeten their beverages and food.  That could help reduce overall added sugar and calorie intake.  It is also a vegan-friendly alternative to honey.

What's the bottom line?  Agave nectar is not necessarily more nutritious than table sugar, honey, or HFCS.  It's a form of added sugar, and it's best to curb our intake of added sugars to achieve our best health.  In more practical terms, my advice is to move toward 2 or fewer servings of added sugar, like agave nectar, daily while focusing on consuming enough of the more nutritious foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes.


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