Is Agave Nectar Healthy for People With Diabetes?

Agave syrup

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Agave nectar (or syrup) is an all-natural, plant-derived sugar alternative made from the agave plant, a succulent native to Mexico. Agave nectar is sometimes recommended for people with diabetes as it's lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, although agave nectar is higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. Excess fructose may not be the safest choice for those hoping to keep blood sugar balanced, due to how fructose is metabolized by the body.

About Agave

Agave nectar is made from heating or hydrolyzing extracts of the Agave salmiana plant (the process of hydrolysis involves breaking down the plant by adding water). The resulting liquid is then processed with enzymes derived from a mold (Aspergillus niger) in a process "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA.

When making raw versions of nectar, the heat is lower and slower than in the processing of regular nectar or syrup, but it's still considered a processed food.

Calories

One teaspoon of agave nectar contains 20 calories, 5g carbohydrates, and 4.7g sugar, 90% of which is derived from fructose. In comparison, one teaspoon of table sugar contains 16 calories, 4g carbohydrates, and 4g sugar, 50% of which is derived from fructose. Fructose is often lauded for not raising blood glucose (blood sugar).

Agave is technically considered an added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that men limit their daily intake of added sugars to 150 calories (about 37 grams), and women limit their daily intake of added sugars to about 100 calories per day (about 25 grams). 

Glycemic Index

Agave nectar saw a surge in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to its low ranking on the glycemic index (GI) as compared to other sweeteners. Agave's GI ranks between 20 to 30, versus table sugar which has a GI of 60 to 65. A lower GI means that the food should raise blood sugars at a slower pace, and are thought to be better choices for people who are working to manage their blood sugar.

However, it's now well-known that the glycemic index value is misleading: The ranking system doesn't take into account the healthfulness of a food or the quantity of food eaten (for example ice cream and chocolate have lower GIs than pineapple and watermelon!).

Fructose

Fructose is a simple sugar (monosaccharide) naturally found in fruits and vegetables. It is known to have a low glycemic index. However, when fructose is highly processed to create sweeteners such as agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup, it can become problematic if consumed in excessive amounts. 

Fructose Metabolism

The reason that high-fructose corn syrup gets such a bad rap is that it is metabolized differently than glucose. Fructose is metabolized by the liver: When the liver gets overloaded with fructose, it turns excess fructose into fat. Some of the fat can get trapped in the liver, contributing to a condition called fatty liver.

Large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup have been linked to chronic diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Some researchers believe that it is easy to eat too much fructose as it seems to bypass the body's satiety or fullness signals. This may lead to weight gain and the development of insulin resistance (which may cause blood sugars to increase and is a contributing risk factor for type 2 diabetes).

Agave contains even more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. Here's how agave compares to other fructose-containing foods:

Food Fructose Percentage  
Agave Nectar 90%  
High Fructose Corn Syrup 55%  
Table Sugar 50%  
Whole, Fresh Fruit 5 to 6%  

  

Pros and Cons

Agave nectar is often considered a smart sugar alternative for people with diabetes, though it is not without its own risks:

Pros
  • Agave nectar has a neutral flavor that can blend in nicely when cooking and baking.

  • Agave is 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), meaning you may be able to decrease the amount of sweetener you add to foods/drinks.

Cons
  • Using any sweetener equates to additional calories, which may result in weight gain, an independent risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.


  • Although fructose (as found in agave) may not raise blood sugars as quickly as glucose, increased intake of fructose can elevate triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood that is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.

  • Too much sugar, regardless of the form, has been linked to a host of medical conditions, including obesity, pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

A Word From Verywell

Agave nectar isn't necessarily a better alternative to table sugar and other sweeteners. Instead, you may want to try honey or maple syrup, which have a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals, or no- or low-calorie natural alternatives, such as stevia or monk fruit.

If you have diabetes and are looking to best manage your condition, it is best to reduce your calories from sugar as much as possible, including sugary beverages and condiments, like agave, table sugar, and maple syrup. Studies have shown that reducing the consumption of added sugars (which lowers calorie intake and promotes weight loss) can improve your blood sugar and weight control, helping you prevent disease and simply feel good, too.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Medical News Today. Is agave syrup the best sweetener for diabetes?

  2. Parkers Real Maple. The Sugar Wars: Maple syrup vs. agave nectar.

  3. Chung, et. al. Fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or indexes of liver health: a systematic review and meta-analysisAm J Clin Nutr. 2014 Sep; 100(3): 833–849. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.086314

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