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Agave: Is this Healthy Sweetener all It's Cracked Up to Be?

In the Fire

Professional chefs, bakers, and home cooks alike have been pleased to discover agave nectar, a sweet and pleasantly mild syrup made from the root of the agave plant (which, when fermented, becomes tequila). Marketed as an all-natural sugar substitute, at 32 dollars a gallon agave is turning an extremely good profit globally, but is it all it's cracked up to be?

Natural and Mainstream Chefs Are Capitalizing on Agave

Produced mainly in the Guadalajara region in Mexico, bottles of this exotic golden syrup have been crowding the shelves of health food stores and can be found on the labels of many products from soda and ice cream to ketchup and granola. Now entering the mainstream culinary market, restaurants, cafes, bakeries and bars are serving agave in cocktails, smoothies, sauces, dressings, and baked goods.

The Debate That's Cooking about Agave

Those who sell agave syrup assert that it's healthier for you than any other sweetener. Some of these claims are based on agave's low glycemic index (GI), which translates to less of an impact on blood sugar levels. Compared to table sugar, honey, maple syrup, and date sugar, agave does indeed rank the lowest with a GI of around 30.

Some agave products also boast a unique kind of fiber called fructans. This news appeals to diabetics because according to a study in Mexico, a diet rich in fructans may stimulate production of a hormone called GLP-1 which encourages the release of insulin. But skeptics argue that there are other issues that make agave less than sweet for your health.

Because of the way most manufacturers process the agave plant to obtain syrup, the end product has as much or more fructose than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While our bodies depend on the glucose in complex carbohydrates for energy, fructose is a sugar that, if not used right away, gets stored as fat. HFCS has become the black sheep in the sugar industry because some believe that fructose is a leading cause of obesity in the United States.

Until agave syrup came along, HFCS had more fructose than any other sweetener and was found in countless foods consumed in great quantities by Americans like bread, soda, juice, breakfast cereal, protein bars, and yogurt. In addition to agave's high levels of fructose, some are concerned with the use of potentially harmful chemicals to process the syrup.

There are a few small companies that are striving to make an agave syrup that retains as much nutrition as possible. To this end, they either heat the crushed agave plant to extract and intensify the sweetness of the liquid, or use enzymes, which creates the only true raw agave. Since agave does not rely on any animals to produce it, it's been embraced by vegans.

Using Agave in Your Favorite Recipes

Since agave can be up to three times as sweet as table sugar, you can use less in your cooking and dessert recipes. Because it mixes easily and has a mild and versatile flavor, it goes especially well with soft and hard drinks like tea, lemonade, sports drinks, smoothies, mint juleps, and mojitos. Look for agave syrups in a range of flavors like maple, vanilla, blueberry, cappuccino, and hazelnut.

While it may not be the golden child some in the health food community were looking for, agave syrup holds a unique place in the culinary and business world of sweeteners.

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