Is Agave Syrup Healthy?

is agave syrup healthy factor 75

Agave nectar is the health industry’s desert gold.

It’s sweeter than sugar! All natural! Low on the GI scale!

But there’s a lot the label isn’t telling you. So, is agave syrup healthy?

Here’s what you need to know before pouring it on your pancakes.

Where it comes from:


The agave plant is a desert succulent indigenous to the southwestern U.S. through the northern part of South America. It’s also the same plant used to make tequila.


The rundown:

  • 1.5 times sweeter than sugar
  • 60 calories per tablespoon (compared to 40 calories for the same amount of white sugar)
  • High in fructose
  • Low on the glycemic index

How it’s made:

Agave must be highly processed in order to extract and refine the sugary syrup.

Why it’s (wrongly) considered low-GI:

Agave nectar is touted as a low-glycemic sugar alternative. This sounds great, but it’s highly misleading.

Glycemic index measures the amount of blood sugar (glucose) in the body. [What the heck is the GI scale?]

Because agave nectar is super high in fructose (not glucose), it doesn’t rank high on the gylcemic scale. Fructose is not absorbed into the bloodstream (thus escaping the GI’s blood sugar measurement), it’s metabolized in the liver.

What is fructose, anyway?

“Sugar” is actually comprised of two different compounds: fructose and glucose.

sugar molecule

The breakdown:

  • Sucrose: a.k.a. white sugar
    This molecule is composed of equal parts glucose and fructose.
  • Glucose: blood sugar
    Glucose is a simple sugar, and the most important carbohydrate in human metabolism. Also known as “dextrose,” it’s absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion.
  • Fructose: fruit sugar
    Another form of simple sugar, different from glucose in it’s number of carbon molecules. Frequently derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn. Fructose is poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract; it is metabolized in the liver instead.


What’s so bad about fructose?

Nutritionist Dr. Jonny Bowden explains, “Fructose—the sugar found naturally in fruit—is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7 percent fructose)—it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it exacts a considerable metabolic price.”

How agave compares:

Table sugar is composed of an even 50 percent glucose, 50 percent fructose ratio, and the infamous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is 55 glucose /45 percent fructose.

Get this: Agave nectar ranks the highest (90 percent!) on the fructose scale. 

Glucose fructose bar chart
image courtesy of Precision Nutrition


The danger:

Because agave nectar is highly processed, its fructose content is purified, rendering it extra potent.

Studies are finding high levels of fructose in the body can raise insulin resistance, increasing the risk of diabetes and promoting obesity.

Curiously, fructose doesn’t suppress ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone, meaning foods high in fructose don’t make you feel as satiated (leading you to overeat).

Dr. Bowden puts it like this:

jonny-bowden.jpg“Agave nectar syrup is a triumph of marketing over science. True, it has a low-glycemic index, but so does gasoline — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”


Some alternatives:


  • Honey
    It contains vitamin B-6 and vitamin C, riboflavin, and antioxidants. It’s also a natural antiseptic and contains many helpful bacteria.
  • Maple syrup
    This natural sweeter has a super low fructose content, and is a natural source of iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium.


infographic courtesy of Pure Maple Canada
infographic source


While developing our buckwheat buttermilk pancakes, Factor considered different syrup options. In the end, we nixed syrup altogether and whipped up a fresh fruit compote.


What syrup alternative do you use?

Nerd out on more info about fructose and sucrose here.

Featured image source

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