Is Agave a Healthy Substitute for Sugar?

When you need a sweetener, is agave a good choice? We asked a nutritionist to compare the nutritional value of agave and sugar, and explain how to use it as a substitute in recipes.
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What are the health benefits of agave compared to sugar?

Agave sweetener is produced by heating or enzymatically treating and filtering sap from the heart of the agave plant. A teaspoon of agave has 21 calories and trace amounts of nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6, compared with refined white sugar’s 16 calories per teaspoon and zero trace nutrients. When it comes to other sweeteners that contain trace nutrients, such as date sugar, molasses, barley malt sugar, brown rice malt syrup, maple syrup, honey, dark brown sugar, and raw cane sugar, a study found that they actually score higher than agave in health-preserving antioxidants.

The main reason agave is considered a more healthful option among sweeteners is that it ranks relatively low on the glycemic index (GI): the GI for agave is 13, whereas for white table sugar it’s 65; pure honey, 58; and Canadian maple syrup, 54. GI measures how high a food raises blood sugar—the lower the GI, the better, since a high spike in blood sugar gives you a fleeting surge of energy followed by a crash. Research links low GI diets to reduced levels of the hormone insulin and inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, and higher dietary GI to greater risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. High GI diets are also associated with obesity and increases in belly fat.

Agave has a gentler impact on blood sugar due to its fructose content. Fructose is a type of sugar that is metabolized differently than other sugars; instead of getting absorbed directly into the bloodstream following digestion, it’s metabolized in the liver. Fructose was accused a few years back of causing fatty liver disease and negatively affecting blood lipids and insulin levels, therefore increasing risk of heart disease and obesity. But the newest research suggests that fructose isn’t any worse than other types of sugar regarding fatty liver disease, lipids, or insulin; the problem lies in the excess calories that come from any type of sugar. That’s why organizations such as the American Heart Association recommend using all sweeteners in moderation: no more than 5 to 9 teaspoons of added sugar, which amounts to 100 to 150 calories, per day.

Bottom line: When you need a sweetener, agave may be a good choice based on its trace amount of nutrients and comparatively mild impact on blood sugar levels. But as with all sweeteners, use it sparingly—unlike naturally sweet whole fresh fruits, such as berries, it’s no nutrient powerhouse.

A rule of thumb: Use 2/3 cup of agave in place of 1 cup of white sugar in recipes, and reduce other liquid in a recipe by 1/4 to 1/3 cup; because using agave may over-brown baked goods, decrease the oven temperature by 25°F, and increase the baking time slightly.

Give it a try with these 5 fabulous recipes that make great use of agave:

Spinach Salad with Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette

No-Knead Swedish Cardamom Braid

Red Pepper Soup with Balsamic Reduction

Mango-Lime Sorbet

Blueberry-Cucumber Smoothie

Health-food junkie Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, is creator of the weekly e-newsletter Nutrition WOW.

How you use agave in your kitchen? Share in the comments!