Environmental Nutrition

Q. What is agave nectar, and can it help me control my blood sugar?

A. Agave nectar (or syrup), made from a succulent that grows in Mexico, is in hot demand.

Your local natural food store probably features agave in bottles, as well as in foods. Agave marketers claim that it's the perfect natural sweetener for diabetics. But is there any truth to the advertising hype? To fully appreciate agave nectar, let's get back to its roots.

Agave nectar, like its cousin tequila, is made from the sap of the heart of agave plants. Many manufacturers produce agave nectar using organic standards. To make the nectar, juice is collected from the core of the agave plant, which is then filtered and heated in order to break down the carbohydrates into sugars. The finished product is a sweet, syrup-like liquid. Critics claim that agave isn't as "natural" as it is often portrayed to be. Indeed, agave nectar is considered a processed sweetener that is less processed than high fructose corn syrup, but more processed than honey. The main sweetener in agave nectar is fructose (the same sugar found in fruit), because raw agave juice is rich in inulin, a complex form of fructose. Agave nectar has about the same number of calories as table sugar (16 calories per teaspoon), but it's sweeter, thus less is needed.

Light agave nectars are mild in flavor and can be used for sweetening beverages, fruits and baked goods; dark nectar has a stronger, caramel-like flavor and is better suited as a topping for pancakes or waffles. If you're substituting agave nectar for sugar in a recipe, cut down the amount of agave by about one-fourth and reduce the liquid in the recipe by about one-fourth as well. If you'd like to give agave nectar a try, drizzle a small amount over fruits in a cobbler, stir it into plain nonfat yogurt, blend it into a fruit smoothie, or pour it over buckwheat waffles.

A 2006 review of the scientific literature on agave nectar published by the American Botanical Council concluded that agave is safe in the amounts usually found in food and beverages, although it is not recommended for pregnant women. Beyond safety, agave nectar has been widely promoted for its low glycemic index (GI) and potential blood sugar benefits. (The GI is a ranking of how carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels; the higher the GI value the more rapid the rise in blood sugar levels.) The GI for agave nectar is lower than other nutritive sweeteners. The GI for agave nectar is 20-30, compared with 55 for honey and 68 for table sugar. However, health experts stress that no available studies evaluate the specific effects of agave on blood sugar levels. The American Diabetes Association lumps agave along with table sugar and high fructose corn syrup on the list of "added sugars" that you should minimize in your diet. The bottom line on agave: Consider it sugar -- albeit a sugar that may not have as dramatic effects on your blood sugar -- and enjoy it in moderation.


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