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Agave: Sticky facts about the natural sweetener

Agave syrup has been touted as a worry-free, low-glycemic sweetener. But now a debate is brewing over just how healthy it is. Here's what you need to know.

agave smoothieAgave syrup has been touted as a miracle sweetener, one you can use worry-free thanks to its status as a low-glycemic food. But now a debate is brewing over just how healthy the sweetener is, in part because of what nets its low-glycemic ranking: its high fructose content.

Agave syrups can have a fructose content of 90 percent. (Refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup are half fructose and half sucrose.)

And according to some in the wellness community, like Sugar Shock! author Connie Bennett, agave fructose is highly refined. “This makes agave worse than high fructose corn syrup,” says Bennett.

But agave producers and many natural food companies using the sweetener disagree. “You don’t need to add any chemicals to make agave. And you do with high-fructose corn syrup,” says Gnosis Chocolate’s Vanessa Barg, who’s observed agave’s production first-hand and likens it to the dehydration process used to create raw bread.

Teaspoon of Agave Nectar Syrup
Sadly, agave is still a spoonful of sugar

Many advocates of agave like the fact that the body metabolizes it (and fructose, in general) more slowly than other sugars, so it doesn’t produce the same spikes in blood-sugar levels. However, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism linked high consumption of fructose-sweetened drinks to increased triglyceride levels.

This can translate to weight gain or, in those with high cholesterol levels, a risk of heart disease, says  wellness expert Latham Thomas. “The body does not like sugar broken down to that degree,” says Thomas. But Barg, who is also a certified holistic health counselor, says she’s never seen someone gain weight from switching from refined sugar to agave.

But for concerned customers, Barg uses low-glycemic palm nectar in some of her chocolates. She and Thomas both cite stevia as another option, while Thomas favors maple syrup. And palm sugar is emerging on the wholesome shelves at Organic Avenue as an agave alternative.

Bottom line: No matter your choice of sweeteners, it’s good to remember they’re all still sugar.Nina Pearlman