The Not-So-Natural Truth About Agave Nectar

This quick primer will solve all your questions about the alternate sweetener

Regular readers of food blogs will recognize agave nectar as an ingredient that every few months experiences a flare-up of buzz. Sometimes it’s positive — "Agave nectar is a great new sweetener that’s excellent in these summer cocktail recipes I wrote!" Sometimes it’s negative — "Agave nectar is totally unnatural and terrible for you!" Right now it’s going through a negative cycle, so to help those of you who might be confused , here are some answers to questions you may have about agave nectar.

What is agave nectar?
You might think it’s the nectar of the agave plant, but you’d be wrong. Nectar is a sugary liquid plants produce on their own to attract insects, but agave nectar is artificially produced from the leaves of the agave plant. The resulting liquid is sweet due to fructose which can make up more than 90 percent of an agave nectar sample. Although the use of agave in food goes back to pre-Columbian times, agave nectar itself was developed in the 1990s.

"Artificially produced," so that’s bad?
That’s a judgement call. Some would argue there’s nothing inherently wrong with something being produced artificially and lots of other foods need some form of refining before they’re in the shape we need them to be in to eat. However, much of agave nectar’s appeal is based on it’s being natural, which is a little misleading.

So what’s the appeal?
Agave nectar has a low glycemic load which is appealing to diabetics, people on certain diets, and people with some other health conditions. And because it is so sweet, a little goes a long way as a sweetener.

And the downside?
Because it is mostly fructose, the same concerns exist about agave nectar that exist about the other famous fructose-based sweetener — high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In fact, HFCS which is generally regarded as a Big Agriculture villain has a lot in common with agave nectar. They’re both relatively new fructose-based sweeteners made by highly processing an existing crop. Consumption of HFCS has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other negative health effects and there’s no reason to think agave nectar is any better.

So what’s the bottom line?
People are understandably concerned about the effects of sugar and HFCS in their diets which leads to a market for alternative sweeteners like agave nectar. But the fact remains that all sweeteners have consequences. In the end, agave nectar probably won’t do more harm than other sweeteners, but it’s best not allow yourself to think it’s better or more natural either. The best course of action is to reduce the amount of sweets you eat and consume all sweeteners from sugar to honey to agave nectar in moderation.

— Brooklyn Supper, Babble


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