- ACHES & CLAIMS
- OCTOBER 27, 2009
Agave Syrup May Not Be So Simple
Agave is not just for tequila anymore. The sap from the Mexican plant is now increasingly being sold as a natural sweetener called agave nectar. Companies that sell it say it saves calories and raises blood sugar less than conventional sugar. Doctors are skeptical that it is healthier, and a major testing lab issued a warning that it is not safe for diabetics.
Agave (pronounced ah gav ee), sometimes mistaken for a cactus because of its spiky, sword-shaped leaves, is a flowering plant in the lily family. Its nectar is popping up in beverages, baked goods and on restaurant menus; it is also gaining popularity as an all-purpose sweetener, often next to honey in supermarket aisles.
Marketing to Diabetics
Agave-nectar composition varies, but typically is primarily fructose. It has about the same amount of calories as sugar, or slightly more, but companies say its sweeter flavor allows you to cut the amount, saving calories. Agave's other claim to healthfulness is that it has a low glycemic index, meaning it breaks down more slowly creating less of a sugar rush. At least two companies have marketed their products as a good alternative for diabetics.
But the Glycemic Research Institute, a Washington, D.C., laboratory, issued a warning Friday that diabetics experienced "severe and dangerous side effects" during testing of an agave nectar. "The diabetics passed out on the floor and had to be taken to the hospital," says Ann de Wees Allen, chief of biomedical research at the lab. She declined to say how much of the product the diabetics consumed during the test, saying that would be disclosed after a complete analysis of the results.
The product tested was a maple-flavored version of the Volcanic Nectar brand agave, sold by Global Goods Inc., of Highland, Utah. Company President Brian Oaks said the product, which has never been sold, had a significant amount of maple syrup in it, which likely caused the problems. Dr. Allen says the nectar had an extremely small amount of maple syrup in it and is almost identical to the company's flagship agave product. Previous tests, in which diabetics consumed a small amount of Volcanic Nectar agave, had resulted in the lab awarding a "diabetic friendly" seal to the Volcanic Nectar product, which it has since rescinded.
The lab has stopped testing agave on humans amid safety concerns. Also, Dr. Allen says the lab refused to test four other agave products after a chemical analysis it commissioned from another lab found they were mixed with high-fructose corn syrup, which was not disclosed on the label. She declined to name the brands.
If you're hoping to use agave to lose weight, nutritionists warn it has as many, or more, calories as sugar. "I worry that people may get confused and start thinking it is a free-for-all food," says Gillian Arathuzik, a dietician at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
Agave is 1.4 to 1.6 times as sweet as sugar, says Sabra Van Dolsen, president of Colibree Co., an Aspen, Colo., company that sells Nekutli brand agave nectar. Calories vary from brand to brand, but are typically more than sugar. Nekutli, for example, has 60 calories per tablespoon. A tablespoon of white sugar has 45 calories.
Since agave is sweeter, you can use less, proponents say. Stephen Richards, chief executive of BetterBody Foods & Nutrition LLC of Salt Lake City and author of a self-published agave cookbook, says each cup of sugar can be replaced by one-half to two-thirds cup of agave.
The Flavor Issue
But depending on how refined the product is, agave can have little or no flavor—or taste like honey or maple syrup, according to the companies and our subjective tests. Unscientific testing by a Wall Street Journal reporter found agave to be pleasant in tea, but it imparted a brownish tinge and odd taste to lemonade.
When baking, oil can be reduced because agave is liquid, says Mr. Richards. Agave makes baked goods rise slightly faster, which can result in a "cakier" texture, he adds. In our test, blueberry bran muffins made with BetterBody's Xagave brand nectar were identical in flavor to a batch made with brown sugar, though the test muffins rose slightly more. The agave version was nine fewer calories a muffin, a 7% saving.
Write to Laura Johannes at firstname.lastname@example.org