Is Agave Syrup Smarter Than Sugar?

Is agave -- the earthy sugar alternative popping up in cookies, ice cream, candy, granola, and even salsa and spaghetti sauce -- healthful, hype, or downright dangerous?
Is Agave Syrup Smarter Than Sugar?

Bethenny Frankel adds agave syrup to tequila and sells it in her premixed Skinnygirl Margaritas. Celeb chef Travis London bakes it into "guilt-free" vanilla cupcakes. And Gourmet magazine dubbed it "nimble nectar." But is agave -- the earthy sugar alternative popping up in cookies, ice cream, candy, granola, and even salsa and spaghetti sauce -- healthful, hype, or downright risky?

This liquid sweetener is made from the sweet nectar (aguamiel, or "honey water") at the heart of a Mexican desert plant -- yep, from the same succulent used for making tequila. Makers of agave syrup claim that it saves you calories, keeps blood sugar low, and is just plain better for you than conventional sweeteners because it's "natural" and sometimes "organic."

Is any of that true? We dug in and found out.

CLAIM: Agave syrup is lower in calories than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
VERDICT: Hype.

Since agave syrup is about 25% sweeter than conventional sweeteners, like honey and refined sugar, you need less in your morning coffee and favorite muffin recipe. But at 60 calories per tablespoon, it has about 25% more calories than mainstream sweeteners (45 calories). So to get the same amount of sweetness, you need the same number of calories.

CLAIM: It's more healthful.
VERDICT: Nope.

About 70% to 85% of the sugar in agave syrup is fructose. Compare that to about 50% in refined sugar and HFCS. Fructose may be low on the glycemic index scale, but it still encourages weight gain and blood sugar problems -- maybe more than regular sugar does. Why? Fructose lowers your levels of the two hunger-control hormones (insulin and leptin) and increases your "I'm hungry" hormone (ghrelin). Fructose also interferes with your body's ability to absorb blood sugar (hello, diabetes) and encourages the buildup of lousy LDL cholesterol in your arteries. And there's more. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fructose may worsen the bloating, pain, and diarrhea that accompany this digestive disorder.

CLAIM: It's "natural."
VERDICT: Pretty much.
 

That depends on how you define natural. The agave syrup sold at your grocery store is a processed sweetener made from the plant's nectar.The key word is processed: Various evaporation techniques, enzyme reactions, and filtering methods are used to remove strong odors and flavors. Still, no colors or artificial flavors are added. That's why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows it to be labeled "natural." Raw food purists might take issue with agave marketed as "raw," since the syrup has been heated to at least 120 degrees. 

CLAIM: It's good for cooking.
VERDICT: If you're careful.

Cooks say using it in baked goods is a little tricky, requiring several adjustments to avoid runny batter and overly brown tops. Ania Catalano, the author of Baking with Agave Nectar (Ten Speed Press), suggests using one-fourth less agave syrup than the amount of sugar a recipe calls for; cutting other liquids by one-third; and reducing oven temperature by 25 degrees. Mixologists say agave syrup dissolves easily in cold drinks, making it a good choice in sweet cocktails and a convenient substitute for simple syrup. That's why it wound up in those margaritas. Try these five good-for-you cocktails.

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