Agave Is a Natural Sweetener—But Is It Healthier Than Sugar? We Asked Nutritionists

Agave syrup has some nutritional benefits, but that doesn't necessarily make it better than sugar.

Agave has recently become a buzzword in the food space. People are putting agave syrup in smoothies, using it as a sugar substitute for baking desserts, and even drizzling it over pancakes and oatmeal like maple syrup.

But what is it, where does it come from, and is it actually that healthy for you compared to other sweeteners out there? The short answer: It's a little more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no." We talked to a nutrition experts for all the details on this trendy ingredient.

What Is Agave?

Blue Agave (American Aloe) Plant; Pink Background
Getty Images

When most people say the word agave, they're actually talking about agave syrup—which is the sweet stuff people can't seem to get enough of. Agave syrup—sometimes incorrectly called agave nectar—is a sweetener derived from the agave plant, a spiky succulent native to North and South America.

Tear open an agave plant, and you'll find a fair amount of sap. This sap can be harvested and turned into agave syrup or tequila, depending on how it's handled. (Yep—agave syrup and tequila come from the same plant!)

To create agave syrup you would use as a sweetener, the sap is heated until its sugars become concentrated and its texture gets much runnier. (If you've ever tried putting agave on your pancakes before, you know it comes out a lot faster than maple syrup.)

Agave Nutrition Benefits

The chief benefit of agave is that it has a low glycemic index (GI), especially compared to other common sweeteners. "The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100, based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating," says Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist and author.

For reference, table sugar has a GI of 65, honey has a GI of 58, and maple syrup has a GI of 54. Agave syrup, on the other hand, has a GI of 30. As you can see, agave syrup's glycemic index is much lower in comparison, which means it's likely to affect your blood sugar less than the other sugary substances mentioned here.

"Foods with a high glycemic index, like white bread, are rapidly digested and cause substantial fluctuations in blood sugar," Dr. Naidoo explains. "Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole oats, are digested more slowly, prompting a more gradual rise in blood sugar." So foods with higher GIs (those closer to 100) spike your blood sugar more than foods with low GIs do (those closer to 0).

Why should we care how high the glycemic index of food is?

For one thing, this metric can be incredibly important for people with diabetes. Diabetes is a health condition characterized by too-high blood sugar levels, so it involves near constant blood sugar regulation. Given that, it makes sense that someone with diabetes would care about how certain foods would affect their blood sugar levels.

But the glycemic index can also be useful for just about anyone. When we eat, our bodies release a hormone called insulin. This hormone works to convert glucose (a type of sugar found in food) into energy. Any excess glucose—so, glucose that isn't immediately turned into energy—gets stored in fat calls to be used as energy later.

"The higher a food is in glucose, the higher it raises blood sugar levels," Dr. Naidoo says, so foods that are higher in glucose tend to have higher GIs. She adds that high-glucose foods can also be tough for our bodies to process. Over time, this can wear out our body's ability to process glucose in the first place, lead to sugar cravings and dependence, impact mood and energy levels, and more. "Continually eating high-sugar foods can exhaust the body's ability to metabolize glucose with insulin," Dr. Naidoo says. "[This] has been associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease—among other conditions."

What are the Downsides of agave?

The downside of agave? While agave is low in glucose, it's high in fructose—a different kind of sugar. Foods are typically made up of three kinds of sugar: glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Glucose is a simple sugar that makes up carbohydrates, so you'll often find it in carb-heavy foods (like pastas, breads, and cereals). Fructose is a simple sugar found in fruits and plants (like agave), and sucrose is made up of both glucose and fructose.

"Glucose is the most important form of sugar for our bodies," Dr. Naidoo says. "Its structure makes it easy to break apart and metabolize for fuel." That means glucose is the first sugar our body turns to when it needs energy. (But, as mentioned, there is such a thing as too much glucose.)

Fructose, a different kind of sugar, is not as easily metabolized. It has to be sent to the liver, where it will be turned into glucose—which can then be used as energy. Because this process takes a little longer, fructose is less likely to affect your blood sugar than glucose is.

While this does mean foods that are high in fructose (like agave) tend to have lower GIs than those high in glucose, it doesn't necessarily mean they're healthier.

"It is true that fructose has less of an impact on immediate blood sugar, because the body can't use it right away," Dr. Naidoo says. "[But] it [can be] incredibly taxing on the liver. And [it can] lead to increased fat storage, which we know to be unhealthy." Excess fructose intake has also been linked to metabolic disease, gastrointestinal disease, insulin resistance, and health concerns.

In other words, too much glucose may be a bad thing, but too much fructose is also a bad thing. "It is important to remember that whether you're consuming fructose or glucose, you're still consuming sugar," Dr. Naidoo points out.

Bottom line: Is agave better than sugar?

If you're seeking out agave for health benefits, you'll probably be disappointed. "Despite having a low GI value, agave should be treated the same way you'd treat any other sugar—in moderation," says Nicole Avena, PhD, a nutrition expert and author. Too much sugar isn't a good thing—and that's true whether the type of sugar you're consuming is high in glucose or in fructose.

"If managing your blood sugar is a main concern for you, however, using agave as a sweetener (like in your coffee, for example) could be a reasonable alternative to regular sugar," Avena adds. Just remember that the low glycemic index doesn't make agave a de facto healthy choice. It's prone to the same weaknesses as any other high-sugar food.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles