Agave nectar is sometimes promoted as a safe, all-natural sweetener that can be used as an alternative to sugar. Also called agave syrup, it has a low glycemic index when compared to other products such as cane sugar. And unlike honey, agave syrup is also vegan, making it popular with people who choose a plant-based diet.
But is agave syrup really as healthy as it is purported to be? Any there any side effects, such as an agave allery, that you should be aware before making it your go-to sweetener? If you're looking for an alternative to sugar, consider all of the pros and cons of agave to make a fully informed choice
What Is Agave Nectar?
Agave nectar is the sap derived from the core (or pina) of the agave plant a succulent plant that grows primarily in Mexico. There are over 130 types of agaves that grow wild throughout the southwestern United States and throughout Central America. Blue and salmiana agave are the two types typically used to make agave syrup.
Through a process that involves heating, juicing, filtering and evaporation, the syrup is created. The syrup is then used to sweeten foods or for consumers to use in recipes or beverages.
Is Agave Nectar Healthy?
One of the reasons that agave syrup has gained traction as a "healthier" alternative to sugar is that is has a lower glycemic index (GI) than traditional table sugar. Glycemic index is a rating system that measures how a particular food affects your blood sugar levels. Foods with a higher glycemic index can product a quick spike in blood sugar, whereas foods with a lower glycemic index tend to get absorbed more slowly, leading to a steadier and less dramatic rise in blood sugar.
Research, including a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has consistently shown that agave syrup has a lower glycemic index than sugar or honey. Study authors point out that about 80% of the sugars in agave syrup come from fructose and about 20% come from glucose. As a basis for comparison, table sugar contains about 50% fructose and 50% sucrose.
The higher levels of fructose mean that agave has a lower glyemic index (and less of an impact on your blood sugar) than regular table sugar. The University of Sydney, which maintains a glycemic index for a wide database of foods, estimates the GI of various agave syrup products to range between 10 and 19, making it a low glycemic good. The GI of table sugar (sucrose) is about 65 and for honey is about 61.
Are There Any Agave Syrup Side Effects?
While agave syrup does have a more appealing glycemic index than other sweeteners, there are some concerns when it comes to this product. There have been reports of agave allery (although limited) and any sweetner, including agave, can contribute to health problems when it is consumed in excess.
Contributes to Added Sugar Intake
While agave syrup does have a lower GI, experts caution against leaning too heavily on glycemic index alone. The experts at FoodInsight.org, a non-profit organization founded by nutrition and food safety experts at the International Food Information Council, remind consumers that agave syrup is still an added sugar. Current dietary guidelines provided by the USDA suggest that we consume no more than 10% of our total daily calories from added sugars.
Furthermore, some evidence has suggested that the way fructose is metabolized in the body is not healthy. Although other experts have suggested that the negative impact of fructose has more to do with excess sugar and excess calories rather than fructose specifically.
May Negatively Affect Metabolism
A 2022 report published in LWT - Food Science and Technology discussed the fact that agave nectar has an elevated concentration of fructose. Study authors note that fructose - in even small amounts - can lead to metabolic syndrome and an increase in triglycerides. Additionally, experts affiliated with Texas A&M System AgriLIFE note that agave nectar could raise blood sugar levels and should be used in moderation.
Information about the safety of consuming agave nectar among individuals with diabetes is lacking. If you are concerned about the health effects of agave nectar with diabetes, speak to your healthcare provider or dietician to get personalized guidance.
Can Lead to Stomach Problems
A 2013 study published in Molecules explains that agaves are used as a laxative and diuretic in parts of Mexico. Therefore, it can cause diarrhea in some people. If stomach problems are an issue, use less agave or discontinue use.
Additionally, since agave nectar is mostly made of fructose, it can cause bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain in those with fructose intolerance, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Potential for Agave Allergy
Although rare, some people have experienced allergic reactions to agave when they are exposed to the leaves of the plant. Published reports generally indicate that some workers who help product agave products may get contact dermatitis when handling agave leaves. There are some other (very limited) reports of agave allergy related to the sap, but again, reports are rare. Reports of an agave allergy after exposure to the sweetener are lacking.
May Be Unsafe During Pregnancy
There are some health sources that advise against consuming agave syrup during pregnancy as it may have the potential to stimulate contractions. According to AgriLIFE, agave nectar is not recommended for pregnant individuals. Check with your healthcare professional if you are considering adding it to your diet.
Is Agave Nectar Right for You?
Many people search for a magical dietary sweetener that tastes great, contains zero calories, and is perfectly safe to use. Unfortunately, such a sweetener doesn't exist. While agave is relatively safe for the general population, it comes with certain potential side effects that consumers need to be aware of. Use it sparingly until you are sure of your body's unique reaction to agave. If you experience any agave side effects, discontinue its use and speak to your healthcare provider.