Learn if Agave Nectar Can Be Good for Your Low-Carb Diet

Detail of Agave plant
Cavan Images/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is a sweet syrup made from the filtered juice of the agave plant native to Mexico. It is typically made from a different agave species (Agave salmania) than is used to make tequila (Agave tequilina).

To make the syrup, the agave juice would first be extracted by pulping and pressing the harvested leaves. The filtered juices would then be heated in a tank to evaporate the water and break down the complex sugars into simple sugars.

Another method of production uses enzymes derived from the Aspergillus fungus to break the bonds that hold together the complex sugar molecules.

This results in a concentrated, sweetened nectar comprised of 90 percent fructose which has a lower glycemic index (GI) than most other sweeteners, including sugar. While this may suggest that agave syrup is a good option for a low-carb diet, the facts don't necessarily bear up to those assumptions.

Agave Nectar and Carbohydrates

While agave nectar is natural and has a lower GI than other sweeteners, that shouldn't suggest that it's a "healthier" option if you are a low-carb eater.

From a nutritional standpoint, a teaspoon of agave nectar has between four and five grams of net carbohydrates and a total of 20 calories. In terms of carbohydrates alone, that places more or less in the same league as table sugar, corn syrup, molasses, or sugar in any other guise.

To place this into context, four to five grams of net carb would be roughly equivalent to:

  • 1/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese with 1/4 cup raspberries
  • A half portion of tuna walnut salad
  • 1/4 cup of spinach dip wrapped in two slices of luncheon meat
  • Eight hard-boiled eggs (although you never eat this many)

With a single teaspoon of agave nectar, you would the same amount of carbs as the above-listed foods but without the added benefit of fiber, protein, fat, or minerals.

Agave Nectar and Glycemic Index

While it is true that agave nectar is primarily fructose and that fructose is less glycemic than glucose, that doesn't mean it won't affect your blood sugar.

Unlike glucose, fructose is almost entirely metabolized in the liver in a process known as fructolysis. During fructolysis, fructose will be converted by the liver into four different things:

  • Around half will be converted into glucose to be used for energy.
  • Around 25 percent will be converted into lactic acid.
  • Around 15 percent to 20 percent will be converted into the stored form of glucose, known as glycogen, and warehoused in the liver for future use.
  • The rest will be converted into triglycerides, a type of fat associated with an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. 

It is this last issue—triglycerides—that makes agave nectar especially unsuitable if you have a pre-existing cardiovascular condition, metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance.  

Whichever sweetener you ultimately choose, it is important to remember that additional calories of any sort can cause weight gain, which is an independent risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.

Agave Nectar and Dental Health

Fructose, like sucrose, can be detrimental to your oral health. When you eat fructose, the bacteria on tooth surfaces will metabolize the sugar to form acid. This lowers the pH of tooth plaque below 5.5, causing the enamel of the tooth to demineralize.

When the pH is restored above 5.5, usually within 20 to 30 minutes of eating fructose, the enamel can be repaired, at least in part, by calcium and phosphate released from the saliva.

Using Agave Nectar

While agave nectar cannot be considered an improvement over any other type of sugar in a low-carb diet, that shouldn't suggest that it is without its benefits.

For a usability standpoint, agave syrup is around one and a half times sweeter than table sugar, meaning that you can use less to sweeten beverages of food. If you are looking for a neutral flavor, you can opt a light agave nectar which has a slightly golden color. Darker versions have a more caramel-like taste and can be poured directly on pancakes or waffles as a substitute for maple syrup.

Agave nectar will not crystallize, is stable even at different temperatures, and has a shelf life of approximately two years.

While agave nectar offers little in the way a substantive nutrition, a teaspoon does deliver around 17 grams of vitamin C or 20 percent of the recommended daily value.

For people who make an effort to eat naturally, agave nectar can be an attractive option if it is not refined and free from additives. It is important to check labels as some that are commercially processed may contain preservatives and artificial colorings. Always look for brands that are labeled "100% organic" and have been certified by an agency authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

View Article Sources