What is agave syrup?
Agave syrup is a sweetener made from blue agave, a cactus-like plant primarily grown in Mexico. The sweetener is also often called ‘agave nectar’ in supermarkets, but the ‘syrup’ label is more accurate as it’s made from the starch of agave’s fruit-like core rather than the plant’s sugary sap.
The syrup is made through a filtering and refining process that exposes the core’s juice to high temperatures and enzymes that break down fibres into sugars. This reduces the juice to a syrupy concentrate that’s even sweeter than table sugar.
Some cooks take advantage of the syrup’s sweetness by using it as a more efficient sweetener for cooking and baking. For example, because agave syrup is a lot sweeter than normal sugar, you would only need to use ⅔ cup of it in a recipe that calls for a whole cup of normal sugar. While the difference may not seem that large, it’ll shave away calories and carbs from your diet in the long run. That said, it’s still a carb-heavy food, so those on a keto diet should look elsewhere for alternative sweeteners.
Besides being used for cooking, agave syrup also gets used as a sweetener for cold drinks and cocktails since it dissolves more quickly than other syrups. The comparatively neutral flavour also makes agave syrup a popular alternative to maple syrup for breakfast foods like pancakes and waffles.
While agave syrup is certainly pretty tasty, it was its low GI score that made it THE alternative sweetener for health-conscious people. The medicinal properties of the plant also helped build the syrup’s reputation as a healthier alternative to anything sugary. However, a lot of the plant’s health benefits are lost during the refining process, and the low GI score comes at an insidiously dangerous cost.
Compared to other sweeteners, agave syrup contains a massive amount of fructose. Now, fructose by itself isn’t bad; almost all fruits contain small amounts of fructose. However, agave syrup can be made of 55-90 percent fructose, which is an even higher fructose content than high-fructose corn syrup! At those levels, fructose spells bad news for your heart and liver.
Since your liver is the only part of your body that can metabolise fructose into glucose, large amounts of fructose can overwhelm your liver. Excess fructose also gets stored in your liver as fat, which can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and permanent liver scarring. High amounts of fructose can also cause problems for your heart as fructose can raise your blood triglyceride and bad cholesterol levels, both of which lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
The excess fructose also makes agave syrup less diabetic-friendly. As your body gets used to high amounts of fructose, you become more resistant to insulin, which makes you more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
With all that said, a single tablespoon of agave syrup won’t instantly cause these problems. However, since fructose build-up can happen without you noticing, you might be better off using healthier substitutes.
What are good agave syrup substitutes?
If you still want to use agave syrup as a sweetener, you can try using raw agave syrup instead. Similar to how raw sugar is more nutritious than refined sugar, raw agave keeps some of the fibres lost during the refining process of regular agave syrup.
But, if you’re in the market for a healthier alternative with less fructose, you can’t go wrong with honey.
Like agave syrup, honey is sweeter than table sugar, so you’ll need less of it to sweeten your food. Switching to honey also won’t add to your caloric load as it has a similar amount of calories with around 60 calories per tablespoon. Honey also contains antioxidants and other nutrients that give it antibacterial properties, making it healthier than most sweeteners in the market. It’s even used as a tasty alternative to cough syrup!
But with all that said, as a sweetener with a more equal balance of fructose and glucose, honey has a similar GI score to regular sugar, so diabetics should use low GI sweeteners like Stevia or Splenda instead.
While agave syrup may not be all that bad in small amounts, you’ll be better off with healthier sweeteners that contain less fructose. But, if you’re craving for some agave syrup, or you need it for a specific recipe you can easily find a bottle at your local Coles and Woolworths.