Derived from succulent plants native to Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., agave nectar blew up in popularity because it’s vegan (unlike honey), gluten-free (to be fair, regular sugar is also naturally gluten-free), and doesn’t cause blood-sugar spikes, making it appealing to diabetics. “Patients often tell me that they have switched to agave, thinking that they are making a healthier choice—but that’s a myth we are often de-bunking with patients,” Frank Lipman, MD, founder and director of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, tells LivingHealthy.
According to Lipman, sugary foods and syrups (like agave) are health disasters because of the excessive amounts of fructose they contain. “High fructose sweeteners can cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, insulin resistance and obesity. A January 2013 study in YaleNews found that high fructose sweeteners in fact make people crave more and eat more,” he explains. Regular table sugar is 50-percent fructose, but it might surprise you to know that agave nectar can be 55%-90% fructose, adds Lipman. Shocker #2: Agave can be even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, which typically contains 42% or 55% fructose.
Alas, it turns out that agave is not such a sweet savior after all. “How it became a so-called healthy sweetener is a testimony to marketing over science,” adds nutritionist JJ Virgin, author of Sugar Impact Diet. Research specifically done on agave is limited, but one small study did find that agave nectar contributed to more weight gain in mice than sucrose (sugar).
Even overlooking the health implications, agave has an aura of being more natural than processed white sugar and fake sweeteners, which makes it appealing. But that is just smoke and mirrors, according to Lipman, who tells us that agave is often produced with chemicals, enzymes and acids. “Light years away from the original plant, the commercially bottled stuff is just one more cleverly packaged form of sugar that your body simply doesn’t need.”