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The Truth About Agave

Is this 'natural' sweetener healthier than table sugar?
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WebMD Expert Column

"Natural" sweeteners are gaining in popularity as fears about white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup sweep America. One that has been generating a lot of buzz is agave, which comes from the same plant used to make tequila.

Although it's fast becoming the preferred sweetener for health-conscious consumers and natural cooks, the truth is that agave is processed just like other sugars -- and is no better for you than other sugars. And don’t be dazzled by the word "natural"; U.S. food regulators do not legally define the term, so it's left up to manufacturers.

What Is Agave?

More than 300 species of agave plants grow in the southern United States, northern South America, and the hilly regions of Mexico. Agave nectar has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for its medicinal properties. The Aztecs mixed it with salt and used it for skin infections and wounds.

Most agave sweeteners are produced from the blue agave plant. The core of the plant contains the aguamiel or "honey water," the substance used for syrup production (and, when fermented, tequila). Although agave starts out as this natural elixir from Mother Nature, the form you can buy has been processed to form a syrup or nectar.

Processing the aguamiel yields a product with either a dark amber or light color, and a consistency much like maple syrup. The light-colored nectar resembles maple syrup or honey in flavor, but the taste is more delicate -- which has made agave a popular sweetener for energy drinks, teas, nutrition bars, and more. Amber and dark agave nectar taste similar to caramel, and can be used like maple syrup on pancakes and waffles.

Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar. But because agave is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it - which means you can achieve the same sweetness for about the same number of calories.

Is Agave Healthier Than Sugar?

But what about agave's supposed health benefits?

The bottom line is that refined agave sweeteners are not inherently healthier than sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other sweetener. Nutritionally and functionally, agave syrup is similar to high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (Karo) syrup. It does contain small amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, but not enough to matter nutritionally.

Agave nectar or syrup is as high as 90% concentrated fructose (a simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit), and the rest glucose. But the agave you can buy ranges from 90% to as little as 55% fructose (similar to high-fructose corn syrup), depending on the processing, says Roger Clemens, professor at the University of Southern California and a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

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