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Ask A Dietitian: Agave?

by Sara McGinley, OUHSC Dietetic Intern

Q: Many of my “health-nut” friends have started using agave nectar instead of sugar in their cooking and baking. They tell me it’s a healthier alternative to regular sugar and claim its all-natural, but is this true? Is there really such thing as a healthy sugar?

A: It’s good to hear you’re being skeptical! With obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates on the rise worldwide, many consumers have started to become more health conscious when it comes to diet. This trend toward preventative health measures through healthful eating is inherently great news, because healthier people mean reduced health care costs. But, as with many of us know already, it can also be very easy to get caught up in the fads and trends that continuously pop up and mislead us when it comes to healthful eating. Because following the latest craze may actually end up doing more harm than good when it comes to health, it is important to remain an informed consumer.

One such trend that appears to have generated quite a bit of buzz more recently among health-conscious consumers, is the use of agave nectar (also called agave syrup) as an alternative sweetener to other refined sugars. Derived from the sap of the agave plant (the same plant used to make tequila), agave nectar has been used for centuries, including by the Aztecs, for its believed medicinal properties. However, agave nectar is now gaining popularity among many health-aware consumers in light of the increasingly bad raps now tailing refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup, which have subsequently pushed many to seek out a healthier, more natural (meaning minimal or no processing) sweetener.

While Agave nectars and syrups are often marketed as “natural,” this sweetener is actually processed just like any other sugar. Because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not regulate or legally define the term “natural,” many manufactures often include the term on labels as a marketing ploy to increase sales and enhance the product’s “healthy” image.

Another reason agave has recently gained popularity as a “healthier” sugar, is because of its low score on the glycemic index, a scale used to measure how much a food raises a person’s blood sugar. For this reason, agave nectar has even been deemed “diabetic friendly” by some manufacturers. However, the American Diabetes Association cautions against all forms of excessive sugar intake, including agave.

Additionally, agave nectar or syrup is actually most nutritionally similar to high fructose corn syrup, which is processed a bit differently in the body than sucrose (white or table sugar) and other forms of sugar. In fact, this difference in nutritional functionality may actually hinder health instead of enhance it. According to research from the Journal of Clinical Investigation, individuals who consumed similar amounts of concentrated fructose (i.e. agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) were found to gain greater amounts of unhealthy fat, were more likely to be insulin-resistant, and found to be at greater risk for developing diabetes and heart disease than those who consumed similar amounts of concentrated glucose (i.e. table sugar, brown sugar, honey, etc.).

In general, besides having a lower glycemic index than that of other sugars, agave nectar/syrup does not appear to offer any additional health advantages over other varieties of sugar, and may even aid in the promotion of unhealthy weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes when consumed in excess. Nowadays, the most common form of excess sugar consumption tends to be in the form of sweetened beverages such a soda, sport and energy drinks, and even fruit juices. All that excess sugar, even from natural sources (like honey and juices) can lead to an array of health problems such as tooth decay, weight gain, poor nutrition, and increased triglyceride levels, which negatively affect cholesterol. Thus, when it comes to all sugars, natural, refined, processed, etc., moderation is truly key when having your cake (and eating it too!)

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.

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