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Is agave sugar healthier than white sugar? What's the best sugar alternative?

My most health-conscious clients and friends often use agave nectar instead of sugar. But is agave nectar really healthier than white sugar?

Agave nectar is one of those foods that has a 'health halo around it. A health halo is the perception that a food is good for you. Even when there is little evidence to confirm this.

Yes, 'agave' sounds sophisticated. And it's expensive. And perhaps you have heard it has a lower glycemic index than sugar. That’s true.

And even though agave nectar has the same number of calories as sugar, it is 1.5 x sweeter than sugar. So you shouldn’t need to use as much. Which is good too.

So, why don't I love agave then?!

While there's a perception that it contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. No. Certainly not enough to count, at the quantities you would normally consume.

But the main reason, is that agave nectar contains more fructose than even high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Sources vary, but agave can be up to 90% fructose, whereas HFCS is 55%.

So, what's wrong with fructose? Maybe nothing. And I certainly wouldn't worry about the natural fructose found in fruit. It comes along with a host of other nutrients and fibre, to slow down the sugar absorption.

But fructose has been associated with unhealthy changes of blood cholesterols and decreased insulin sensitivity in humans.  And far more in rats (like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure) - but it's still just theory in humans.

Even regular sugar is 50% fructose. So the overall concern may be high sugar intakes overall.

And if you eat a little bit of agave here and there, I wouldn't worry about it. But if you substitute all sugar for agave, I would re-think your choice. At least for your pocketbook ;)

Is there a healthier alternative to white sugar?

This video compares the nutritional value of sweeteners like brown rice syrup (at the very bottom of the pile) with honey, brown sugar (white sugar with molasses), white sugar, maple syrup and agave.

The only two sweeteners with much nutritional value are date sugar (ground up dates) and molasses (this is high in minerals like iron).

And I talk more about date sugar, coconut palm sugar and xylitol plus a taste test on this blog.

Date sugar is an easy substitute for brown sugar, although hard to find. I also use white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup and xylitol. Variety is the spice of life after-all. Just beware of health halos!

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