The harmful effects of sugar are among the few things that most health experts agree upon.
Because many health-conscious people try to avoid sugar, many other sweeteners — both natural and artificial — have become popular.
One of those is agave nectar, which is often referred to as agave syrup. It’s found in various health foods and marketed as a natural, diabetic-friendly sweetener that doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels.
However, this article explains why agave nectar may be worse for your health than plain sugar.
The agave plant is native to the Southern United States and Latin America.
Although agave is a new phenomenon in the West, it has been used in Mexico for hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of years.
Traditionally, agave was believed to have medicinal properties. Its sap was also boiled to produce a sweetener known as miel de agave (1).
The sugars in agave are also fermented to make tequila.
In fact, tequila is the most common commercial use of agave today and one of Mexico’s best-known exports.
Like many plants, agave likely has some health benefits.
However, refining and processing tend to destroy some — or all — of these beneficial health effects. The refined agave sweetener that people consume today is no exception.
Agave is a desert plant harvested to make tequila and sweet syrup. It was traditionally believed to have healing properties.
The sweetener commonly sold as agave nectar would be more accurately labeled as agave syrup.
It has little in common with the traditional sweetener made historically by people in Mexico.
That said, the beginning of its production process is the same. The plant is first cut and pressed to extract the sugary sap.
While this sap is high in sugar, it also contains healthy fiber like fructans, which are linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin (
However, when processed into a syrup, the fructans are extracted and broken down into fructose by exposing the sap to heat and/or enzymes (3, 4).
This process — which is similar to how other unhealthy sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup are made — destroys all of the health-promoting properties of the agave plant.
The agave sweetener sold today is made by treating agave sugars with heat and enzymes, which destroys all of its potentially beneficial health effects. The end product is a highly refined, unhealthy syrup.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly the sugar in a food enters your bloodstream.
Generally speaking, foods with a higher GI cause greater blood sugar spikes and may affect your health more negatively (
Unlike glucose, fructose does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels in the short term.
This is why high fructose sweeteners are often marketed as “healthy” or “diabetes friendly.”
Agave nectar has a very low GI — primarily because almost all of the sugar in it is fructose. It has very little glucose, at least compared with regular sugar.
A study in mice compared the metabolic effects of agave nectar and sucrose, or plain sugar, after 34 days. The mice ingesting agave nectar gained less weight and had lower blood sugar and insulin levels (
In such a short-term study, the glucose in plain sugar elevated both blood sugar and insulin levels, whereas fructose did not.
That said, the GI is just one factor to consider when weighing the health effects of sweeteners.
The harmful effects of agave — and sugar in general — have very little to do with the glycemic index but everything to do with the large amounts of fructose — and agave nectar is very high in fructose.
Agave nectar is low in glucose and therefore doesn’t spike blood sugar levels much. This gives the sweetener a low glycemic index.
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain two simple sugars — glucose and fructose — at about 50% each.
Although glucose and fructose look similar, they have completely different effects on your body.
Glucose is an incredibly important molecule. It’s found in many healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and your body even produces it to make sure that you always have enough.
In fact, all living cells harbor glucose because this molecule is vital to life.
Whereas every cell in your body can metabolize glucose, your liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts (
Consuming excess added fructose can wreak havoc on your metabolic health and may contribute to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes (
This is because your liver gets overloaded and starts turning the fructose into fat, which raises blood triglycerides. Many researchers believe that some of this fat can become lodged in your liver and cause fatty liver disease (11, 12, 13).
This can cause major increases in long-term blood sugar and insulin levels, strongly raising your risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes (14,
What’s more, high fructose intake can increase your levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and oxidized LDL. It may also cause belly fat accumulation (
Keep in mind that agave nectar is about 85% fructose — a much higher percentage than that of plain sugar (17).
None of this applies to whole fruits, which are loaded with fiber and make you feel full quickly. Your body is well equipped to handle the small amounts of fructose found in fruit.
Because agave syrup is much higher in fructose than plain sugar, it has greater potential to cause adverse health effects, such as increased belly fat and fatty liver disease.
If you must add extra sweetness to your diet, agave nectar is likely not the way to go.
Several natural sweeteners — including stevia, erythritol, and xylitol — are much healthier choices.
In fact, agave nectar may be the least healthy sweetener in the world, making regular sugar look healthy in comparison.