Health Myth: Is Agave Nectar the Best Sugar Substitute?

Your shot glass and sugar substitute have something in common: agave.

The same succulent that's long been credited with giving tequila its smooth finish is also what makes it such a popular sugar substitute—not to mention that it's one and a half times sweeter than table sugar.

But therein lies the not-so-sweet dilemma. "The process by which agave is converted to nectar is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into high fructose corn syrup," says Sarah Hallenberger, R.D., a registered dietician for bistroMD. "Refined agave sweeteners, like what we purchase at the store, aren't healthier than sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other sweetener for that matter. It actually has a more concentrated fructose content than high fructose corn syrup, which makes agave one of the most damaging forms of sugar when used as a commercial sweetener."

The reason: More fructose in your coffee is a shortcut to weight gain. The Journal of Clinical Investigation found that fructose-sweetened drinks increase visceral fat and lipids and decrease insulin sensitivity in people even more than glucose-sweetened drinks do.

While agave syrup ranks lower than many sweeteners on the glycemic index (the scale of how much certain foods raise blood pressure) it contains about the same amount of calories as many other sweeteners—minus the health-boosting antioxidants. While content varies depending on the type and brand, agave nectar generally contains between 20 and 70 times fewer antioxidants than maple syrup, brown sugar, honey, and molasses, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

That's why nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of The One One One Diet, suggests sweetening your drinks with honey. In addition to having minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphate, sodium chlorine, potassium, and magnesium, honey also contains a slightly acidic pH, giving it natural anti-bacterial properties. The key to its powers: Don't go overboard. Try using a little less each time you add in the sweetener and your taste buds will naturally adjust. "Over time you'll find that foods taste perfectly sweet with a little less sugar," she says.

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