What is agave nectar? In recent years, this sweetener has been promoted as a healthier alternative to sugar, prized for having a low glycemic index. But what exactly is agave nectar —where does agave come from, and how is it produced?
First, let’s define agave: the agave plant is not a species of plant but rather a broad genus of succulent plants that grow in hot, arid regions of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Some species of agave also grow in tropical regions in South America. Agave plants have thick, fleshy leaves full of agave sap, which has been used in traditional recipes for centuries.
You are likely to recognize agave for its connection to tequila. Sap from a Mexican agave species called “blue agave” or “agave tequilana” is distilled to create tequila and mezcal. Some agave syrups are also made from blue agave.
It’s also common to refer to agave as the “century plant”. These succulents bloom only once in their lifetime, sending up a long stalk with a large display of aromatic, edible flowers in its final season.
Agave nectar vs. agave syrup
The terms “agave nectar” and “agave syrup” are often used interchangeably. Some people do make a distinction between the two, claiming that the nectar is closer to raw agave sap, having only undergone a heating process, while agave syrup is the result of enzymatic processing that changes the sap’s chemical composition to that of a fructose-rich syrup.
Because these terms are often used interchangeably, it is difficult to know which one you are buying. In addition to finding organic agave nectar and organic agave syrup on the shelves, you’re likely to find products labeled as both: “organic agave syrup nectar”. For this reason, if you are looking for agave products that are less processed, it’s best to search for agave products labeled as “raw”.
What Does Agave Taste Like?
Agave syrup is available in several varieties, including light, amber, dark, and raw. Lighter syrups have a very neutral flavor aside from their sweetness, with amber and dark syrups exhibiting stronger caramel notes. The consistency of agave syrup is generally less viscous than honey, which makes it easy to use straight out of the bottle as a topping for pancakes or as a liquid sweetener in beverages.
Agave Nectar Nutrition Facts
Agave nutrition facts are sometimes listed according to a serving size of 100g, which is roughly 5 teaspoons, and a whopping 68 grams of sugar. Therefore, depending on how you use agave, it may be more practical to calculate the nutrition facts in terms of teaspoons rather than 100g servings.
Agave facts Per teaspoon:
Carbs: 5g (of these sugar accounts for 4.7g)
In agave, carbs come mostly from sugar. The majority of this sugar is in the form of fructose, containing a very small percentage of glucose as well.2 One examination of agave measured 74% fructose and 26% glucose. The fact that agave sweetener delivers a sizable portion of fructose is one of the reasons why the health claims surrounding this product have been called into question.
Agave Health Benefits
Agave has been promoted as a healthy sweetener based upon its low glycemic index, antioxidant capacity, and antibacterial properties.8 Some research suggests that agave may also have a positive influence on weight management as well.4
Is Agave Bad For You?
For some, the negative aspects of agave syrup may outweigh its benefits. For starters, in making agave syrup, freshly extracted agave juice is heated or treated with enzymes that convert the complex carbohydrates into monosaccharides (simple sugars). This results in a product that’s mostly fructose, eliminating the soluble fiber originally present in unprocessed agave juice in the form of a substance called inulin.1
Many consumers are already aware of the negative implications of high-fructose products (the most infamous of these is corn syrup). The “fructose hypothesis” has prompted researchers to examine the alleged link between fructose consumption and various health conditions like fatty liver disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.5,7 Studies have also found links between fructose and aggravation of the symptoms of IBS, in addition to increased rates of fructose intolerance.2
Agave Syrup: Better or Worse than Alternatives?
In addition to a sugar substitute, agave syrup has been promoted as a healthier alternative to other sweeteners like honey, stevia and splenda. How does it compare to fellow sugar substitutes?
Agave vs. Honey
Agave and honey are comparable in many ways. Both are sticky and viscous, although honey is slightly thicker. In terms of taste, honey might have floral or fruit notes, while darker agave syrups offer notes of caramel. Honey and agave syrup also have roughly the same number of calories (about 60 calories per tablespoon).
In the agave nectar vs honey debate, antioxidants may be one of the tiebreakers. Research on antioxidant levels in sweeteners such as honey, agave, molasses, cane juice, etc., found that honey ranked among the top suppliers of antioxidants, while agave ranked in the bottom. Of course, both of these have more antioxidants than table sugar.6
Agave vs. Sugar
Several studies compared agave nectar vs sugar, usually focusing on each substance’s effect on participants’ blood glucose levels and other aspects of the body’s sugar metabolism. In terms of sweetness, people generally believe agave to have a sweeter taste than sugar. Research does support this assumption to an extent—agave’s high fructose-to-glucose ratio is considered an indicator of higher sweetening capacity, and in sensorial tests, agave syrup was ranked as tasting sweeter than cane sugar syrup.8
The calories in agave and sugar also differ: where sugar provides about 40 calories per tablespoon, agave provides 60. However, because agave is considered sweeter, it’s common to use less agave than you would sugar.
Agave vs. Stevia
In terms of sweetness, it’s likely that stevia beats agave by a longshot. Although there are no known studies comparing the tasting profiles of stevia and agave syrup, we know that stevia is about 250 times sweeter than sugar.1 In terms of taste, people generally assign a moderate bitter or metallic aftertaste with stevia, noting a very faint licorice-like aftertaste for agave, if any at all. Another notable difference between the two sweeteners is that stevia has zero calories per serving.
Both agave and stevia have associated pros and cons. Stevia has zero calories and contains no sucrose, but research shows that high doses may be associated with adverse testicular effects, at least in mice. While agave has been approved as safe for human consumption, some people are still wary of agave due to its high fructose-to-glucose ratio, concerned that it may cause the same negative effects associated with other high-fructose products.
Scientific Research Referenced in this Article
- Fitch, C., Keim, K. (2012). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(5), 739-758. Retrieved from https://www.andeal.org/vault/2440/web/JADA_NNS.pdf
- Latulippe, M. E., & Skoog, S. M. (2011). Fructose Malabsorption and Intolerance: Effects of Fructose with and without Simultaneous Glucose Ingestion. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 51(7), 583–592. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2011.566646
- Cravinho, A. Hammon, M., Rieger, K. and Kern, M. (2015). Acute Ingestive Effects of Agave Nectar Versus Sucrose in Healthy Young Adults. The FASEB Journal, 29(1). Retrieved from http://www.fasebj.org/content/29/1_Supplement/596.17.short
- Hooshmand S. et al. (2014) Effects of agave nectar versus sucrose on weight gain, adiposity, blood glucose, insulin, and lipid responses in mice. J. Med. Food, 17, 1017–1021. DOI: 10.1089/jmf.2013.0162
- White, J. (2013). Challenging the Fructose Hypothesis: New Perspectives on Fructose Consumption and Metabolism. Adv Nutr, 4: 246-256. DOI: 10.3945/an.112.003137
- Phillips, Katherine M. et al.. (2009) Total Antioxidant Content of Alternatives to Refined Sugar. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 109(1), 64 – 71. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19103324
- Ouyang, Xiaosen et al. (2008) Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology, 48(6), 993 – 999. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhep.2008.02.011
- Mellado-Mojica, E., López, M. (2014) Identification, classification, and discrimination of agave syrups from natural sweeteners by infrared spectroscopy and HPAEC-PAD. Food Chemistry, 167, 349-357. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.06.111
- Tandel, K. R. (2011). Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics, 2(4), 236–243. Retrieved from: http://doi.org/10.4103/0976-500X.85936