Agave’s Health Halo Gets Tarnished

For the last few years, agave nectar has been on the minds, shopping lists, and mouths of many health-conscious Americans. It’s no wonder. As sugar quickly becomes public enemy #1, and rates of obesity and diabetes rise, people are always looking for ways to cut back on sugar but somehow still sate their sweet tooth.

And when I heard that the Glycemic Index (GI) of agave was lower than that of other sweeteners (meaning that it doesn’t cause as rapid of a spike in blood sugar, as well as the quick crash) I, too, started happily drizzling this syrupy, honey-esque stuff onto my daily yogurt.

But the more I’ve read about agave, the less fabulous it seems. And while what I’ve learned makes it no monster, it should be used as judiciously as other sweeteners.

According to Mark Hyman, MD, the author of the current bestseller The Blood Sugar Solution and the former co-medical director of Canyon Ranch, Lenox. “Yes, agave may have a lower GI than things like honey or table sugar, but the health halo stops here.” The truth is, you’re better off having a bit of honey, as opposed to a large amount of agave. “The amount is almost always the problem,” notes Hyman.

What’s the deal? Well, agave is actually nearly all fructose, and what’s been the big-bad-boogeyman in the American diet in the last few years? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)!

Agave is 90 percent fructose; by contrast, HFCS is 55 percent fructose/45 percent glucose; table sugar is 50-50. Both HFCS and agave have been linked to insulin resistance and can raise triglyceride levels. It’s true that agave doesn’t raise the blood sugar in the same way that other sweets do, which makes it better for some diabetics, but some experts say that attribute is otherwise rather meaningless and is outweighed by the bad side.

Seems like the real reason why agave seems to have gotten a bit of a pass is that in theory it’s fabulous and it sounds exotic and earthy. (It comes from the same plant that gives us tequila, after all!) It’s suitable for vegans (no bees needed!) and is gluten free. Plus, extracts of agave can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as fiber in the form of inulin. But by the time most of us are squirting the commercially-made, amber-colored liquid into our tea or tubs of unsweetened Greek yogurt, all those things are long gone.

Bottom line: No need to ditch agave entirely, but don’t think it’s a total free pass, either. Because it’s so sweet, you don’t need a lot to get the punch you want, so err on the side of skimpiness before over-squeezing.