There's Bad News for All Those Health Nuts Who Swear By Agave

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

Humans love sugar. Ever since we got our first taste of honey 10,000 years ago, naturally saccharine foods just haven't been sweet enough. Today, about 13% of American adults' daily caloric intake comes from added sugars. 

But sugar also seems to be the original guilty pleasure — we kind of hate ourselves for loving sweets as much as we do. Rather than cutting down, we've created a multibillion dollar business out of finding ways to eat sugar without, y'know, the sugar. Enter "healthy" substitutes like agave.

One small problem: Sugar alternatives aren't necessarily better. While agave is 50% sweeter than sugar, and tastes similar to a syrupy sugar in the raw, it isn't exactly healthy — even if that's what food companies have gotten lots of health nuts to believe.

Just because it's from a plant doesn't mean it's natural. Since saccharine (hello, Sweet'n Low) was discovered in the late 1800s, sugar substitutes have cycled in and out of fashion. Recently that's brought the rise of so-called "natural" sweeteners, touted for coming from sources you could technically find growing in the ground.

When stevia became the it-sugar a few years ago, for example, companies made sure to emphasize that it comes from "a little green leaf." But while stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener, it isn't any more "natural" than regular sugar. As food writer Stefan Gates told the BBC, "The big deal about stevia is that it has a natural source. That doesn't mean it isn't incredibly highly processed by the time it gets into your drink or food ... but that's what everyone is craving."

The same goes for agave, a plant that's been consumed for centuries but only recently made its way into grocery stores, cocktail bars and home pantries. Like sugar and stevia, the agave syrup you tend to find in stores is processed and refined before it gets to you — not unlike the high fructose corn syrup that almost no one believes is healthy. 

Agave is healthy, but only if you only focus on certain ingredients. One of the most commonly listed benefits of agave is that it has a low glycemic index. This is because it has virtually no glucose compared to other sweeteners. Diabetics, who must carefully manage their sugar intake, often often subscribe to low-glycemic index diets because it helps avoid large increases in blood sugar levels; other people aim for low GI levels for weight loss.

Instead of glucose, however, agave is almost 90% fructose. (That's almost twice as much as high-fructose corn syrup, which has fructose right in the name. The difference is that the fructose in agave is naturally occurring, rather than artificially created.) Studies have suggested high consumption of fructose could lead to cardiovascular disease and weight gain, as well as take a toll on the liver.

Anyone who says they'll 'just use less' agave likely won't. Though agave lovers often say you can use less of the syrup because it's sweeter than sugar, most people probably don't. Multiple studies have found that people's portion sizes are affected more by the size of a dish or how much they're used to pouring than by actual hunger (or how sweet a substance actually is). Unless you're following a recipe, it can be hard to eyeball that single teaspoon of agave, which has about 21 calories compared to refined sugar's 16.

Food companies and your health-conscious brain have done a good job convincing you that new sugar substitutes are somehow better than the old ones. But there is no good-for-you way to consume more than 70 pounds of sugar every year, no matter where it comes from. Though there's some disagreement over which of sugar's specific attributes causes weight gain and heart-related issues, it's a safe bet that eating less sugar lowers your risk of experiencing them.

All kinds of sugar, even the substitutes, should be treated equally. Sadly, an entire batch of cookies sweetened with agave is still a batch of sugar-and-carb-filled cookies. Like most sugar substitutes, agave is no better than the real thing — but it probably isn't worse, either. 

Which is pretty much the best news you can ask for when it comes to sugar.

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Tove Danovich

Tove is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.

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