I’m betting my bottom cactus pad that many of us heard first of agave in connection with tequila.  It’s only been recently that it came back into our field of vision as the ‘new health food’.

Natural?  Healthy?  Not so fast.

Just like every other miracle sweetener that hits the market, it can take some work to find the fine print on this one.

Reader Jan recently- brought the agave question to my attention, a perfect opportunity to share my findings  with you.

Q.  Lani, can you explain a bit more on agave? From what I thought, it [was] extracted (naturally), from the plant, but I guess I’ll have to learn more about it.  I used to use Splenda in my coffee, but gave that up when I changed over to a plant-based diet.  I don’t like black coffee, that’s all.  I’d like to continue using agave.  I only drink one cup of regular, unflavored coffee in the morning, so it’s not like I’m drinking 5 or more cups a day!

Great question Jan and happy to help.

Agave = fructose

To begin with, the primary form of sugar in agave, just like that in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is fructose.  Remember, fructose is metabolized by the body in a different fashion  than other sugars.  Instead of going into the blood stream, where it can raise blood sugar, it goes, for the most part, directly to the liver.   

This explains why fructose has a lower glycemic index (GI), which is why many people promote it.  But that’s only part of the story.

Though the consumption of fructose tends not to raise blood sugar, fructose – or for that matter any concentrated sweeteners high in fructose – can result in elevated levels of triglycerides, associated with increased risk for heart disease and insulin resistance.

Fructose may also not affect your satiety center as well as pure sucrose, which basically means you don’t feel full as fast .  Over consumption of calories, beyond your caloric needs, can thus more easily take place.   And we all know what over consumption of calories leads to.

Long short, to stay out of trouble when trying to lose weight and gain health, processed, concentrated sugars of any kind should play a small part in our diet – especially those high in fructose – for those with health concerns.  With that as rule number 1, which sweetener you pick may not be as important as how much.  Make it only a little of whatever you choose, and it probably doesn’t matter which sweetener you use.   For example, if your only added sugar for the day is a teaspoon of agave syrup on your oatmeal, you’re probably fine.  But if you make muffins with 1/2 cup of agave syrup and have a few of those, it could be problematic.

Stronger flavors = more mileage

Sweeteners with a stronger flavor get more mileage than those that are lighter flavored and simply sweet.  For example, sucanat has a strong flavor in addition to the sweetness, giving it more sweetness mileage.  Same with maple syrup and coconut sugar.


For more on fructose and triglycerides:

1. Br J Nutr. 2008 Nov;100(5):947- 52. Consumption of fructose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks increases postprandial triacylglycerol and apolipoprotein- B concentrations in overweight and obese women.

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