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The Truth About Agave

By Jenn Horton
WebMD Feature

You've seen agave syrup in your grocery store or in products sweetened with its nectar. It's about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar and comes from the same plant that's used to make tequila.

Should you reach for it instead of sugar, honey, or maple syrup? What if you're working on losing weight or have diabetes?

The answer may be more about your personal taste than about health. If you were hoping that you could use as much agave as you like, that's unfortunately not the case.

What Is Agave?

The agave plant grows from the southwestern U.S. through the northern part of South America. It’s the same plant used to make tequila.

Most agave sweeteners come from the blue agave plant. You don't get its raw nectar. Much like high-fructose corn syrup, it's highly processed before you can add it to your tea, top your pancakes with it, or get it in an energy drink, bar, or other product.

Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar. So to save on calories, you'd need to use less, which should be possible, since agave is sweeter.

Agave and Diabetes

Have you heard that agave is a better sweetener for people with diabetes? In theory, it's high in fructose and low on the glycemic index, making it a better option than refined sugar. But there's not a lot of research to back that up, and one of the studies was done in lab animals, not people.

The American Diabetes Association lists agave as a sweetener to limit, along with regular table sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and all other sugars.

Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis, agrees. She says your body doesn’t know where the fructose or glucose comes from, be it fruit, agave, or high-fructose corn syrup; so if you eat too much of it, that's a problem.

Applegate's advice: It's better to choose naturally sweetened items that have some nutritional benefit, like fruit or even a little bit of honey, which is a mite richer in antioxidants than sugar is.

Less Is More With All Added Sweeteners

Just like most other added sugars, agave offers no miraculous health benefits, Applegate says. It simply adds sweetness.

If you want to switch from one sweetener to another, Applegate suggests instead looking at the overall amount of added sugars already in your day. Some of them are in foods you might not expect. Check food labels, write down everything you eat for a week, and see how much sugar you're already getting.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting sweeteners to no more than 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men per day, on average. That includes all sources, whether it's agave, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or anything else.

Reviewed on July 22, 2014

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