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Is Agave Nectar (Agave Syrup) Healthy?

Is this agave syrup or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? More importantly, does it really matter?

Is this agave syrup or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? More importantly, does it really matter?

Is agave nectar good for you?

Short answer: not particularly. Certainly not any healthier than sugar or the vilified high-fructose corn syrup, which, incidentally is almost its equivalent with respect to its composition.

Agave Nectar (also more prosaically, and more correctly, called Agave Syrup) is made from the processed nectar of the agave plant, that wondrous Central American plant that gave us tequila, which is made of fermented agave nectar. Agave nectar has become enormously popular among vegans and, strangely (I'll explain in a bit), raw foodists.

So why is agave touted as "good for you", "healthier", and "gentle on the body" (all taken from product labels I saw in my local natural grocer)? Because usually those making those claims have absolutely no understanding of science, and invent quackery on the fly. Remember, these are the same folks who told us that chocolate/cocoa was deadly, for decades, and that we should eat considerably less-flavorful carob instead, when it turns out chocolate is actually quite good for you. There are plenty of reasons to be more than a little skeptical.

Let's take a look at what agave nectar really is, before we think it's healthy just because it came from a plant (as do sugar and HFCS.):

  • agave nectar is primarily composed of inulin, a polysaccharide that acts like fiber in the system
  • inulin is not really sweet so it must be processed (usually by heat) to convert it into fructose, primarily, which is sweet
  • it must be boiled down, regardless of how the inulin is converted to fructose, in order to reduce a thin nectar into a thicker syrup (so it is most certainly not a "raw"/"live" food product)
  • agave nectar is 56-92% fructose, with the rest mostly glucose
  • HFCS, vilified as much as agave nectar is worshipped, is 55% fructose, the rest glucose. Yes, almost the same exact composition as some agave syrup.

But HFCS is processed! So is agave nectar. But agave nectar has a lower glycemic index than sugar! So does HFCS. I mean, they're pretty much the exact same thing, except agave is made from a Mayan polysaccharide feedstock, and HFCS is made from an American one.

So, the biggest difference, except for the fact that agave nectar is imported from a much longer distance so as to incur a much larger carbon footprint, is that agave can have a higher percentage of fructose than glucose.

If you're a diabetic, that's good, because that means its glycemic index is lower.

If you're not a diabetic, its lower glycemic index is not nearly as important, and there's even greater cause for concern than with HFCS or table sugar. Fructose has a few problems over glucose:

  • it doesn't induce the same level of satiety as glucose, so people drink/eat more of foods that are sweetened with fructose
  • fructose creates more than double the advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), harmful chemical species that age (no pun intended) the human body, in the bloodstream than glucose
  • fructose raises blood triglyceride levels, a marker for heart disease, higher than glucose does
  • in mice, fructose induced obesity, and it has been suspected to do the same in humans, in addition to increasing the likelihood of metabolic syndrome

More here on the health effects of fructose.

Increasingly marketed as "evaporated cane juice" nowadays.

Increasingly marketed as "evaporated cane juice" nowadays.

What's more, sucrose, rebranded recently as "evaporated cane juice" (to somehow hide the fact that it's the same C&H stuff we've been consuming for decades), is almost identical to both the supposedly deadly HFCS and the purportedly salubrious agave nectar: it's a disaccharide (made of two sugars), composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Sound familiar?

What all this boils down to is that these 3 sugars - sucrose, HFCS, and agave - are almost identical from a health perspective. The fact that Mayans cultivate the agave does not make it a magically healthy alternative to table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, it's produced almost identically to the latter.

If you want something sweet, go ahead - just don't try to delude yourself that Mexican processed sugar is any healthier than the American variety, regardless of whether that American sugar comes from cane or corn.


danielabram on August 06, 2012:

I like the agave that comes in bottles at Whole Foods. Tastes like a combination of honey and maple syrup. Very liquidy.

Shasta Matova from USA on July 14, 2012:

This is good information to know. I recently bought some agave nectar on someone's recommendation - she might have been diabetic, but I am not, so I think I'll switch back to sugar or honey.

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BlissfulWriter on July 12, 2012:

Agave is not healthy due to its high fructose content. Some agave has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup -- making it worst.

Good info, voted up and shared.

Jason Menayan (author) from San Francisco on May 06, 2012:

Yeah, that switch back to honey was the healthier decision. Let bees do the processing - they're more trustworthy than us humans! ;)

Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on May 05, 2012:

Makes sense! I tried making the switch from honey to agave, then I realized it wasn't necessarily healthier, particularly since honey has some great nutritional benefits. Anywho, great Hub :)

P.S. I thought you were referring to 'insulin' when you wrote 'inulin'. I was wrong!

Jason Menayan (author) from San Francisco on May 04, 2012:

vespawoolf: It's true, there is no magical sweetener that we can eat tons of and expect to stay healthy. Everything in moderation, and favor natural foods - I like your thinking!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on May 04, 2012:

Aha! Just as I thought...sugar is sugar and everything should be enjoyed in moderation. Of course, processed foods should be avoided as much as possible. Thank you for your insight!

Jason Menayan (author) from San Francisco on May 03, 2012:

Thanks, Glenn. I agree on processed foods; natural, unprocessed ones tend to be far healthier.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on May 03, 2012:

I've been using Agave for over a year now since I thought it was healthier. I am so glad I read your Hub on the scientific explanation of what it is.

One thing that really stood out what that you explained Agave is processed. I know for a fact that processed foods are not healthy... one reason why Americans are so unhealthy, eating so many processed foods.

Thanks for the heads-up on Agave, Jason. Very useful information.

April Reynolds from Arizona on March 26, 2012:

Very interesting and informative. The stuff is way more expensive than regular sugar and I too was convinced that it was better for me than HFCS. Thank you for the info. Another reason to stick with plain old sugar.

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