A $4 billion global market, sweeteners for foods and beverages increasingly include products from exotic plants with high-sugar content, offering some consumers a seemingly healthier alternate to plain table sugar. Agave in particular enjoys the aura of “natural” goodness. Its horticultural heritage lends allure, deriving from Mexico’s blue agave plant, the same succulent that yields tequila. Agave adherents tout health benefits ranging from immunity to wound healing to weight loss. But is agave syrup (ahem, “nectar”) truly better for you than sugar derived from other plants — be they beets, cane or corn?

Current science would say ‘no.’ Not only is there scant scientific evidence backing any of the inflated health claims, agave has one of the highest concentrations of fructose — with 50% more fructose than the much reviled high fructose corn syrup. This may be why one clinical trial of agave use in diabetics was halted when subjects experienced sharp increases in blood glucose levels, resulting in cognitive difficulty and even fainting. With such results, whether or not agave qualifies as “low-glycemic” would seem academic at best.

While some consumers favor agave’s amber color, rich taste, and nutty aroma, these would hardly seem to justify the price premium — as much as $8.99 per 25 oz. bottle. Its liquid solubility could easily lead you to believe agave sweetener comes from the plant’s sap when in fact it’s the starchy root that is processed with a raft of not-so-natural-sounding chemicals and acids to produce highly refined syrup. While the root also contains prebiotic fiber, which helps support gastrointestinal health, many other far less caloric whole food sources such as bananas, artichokes, leeks and asparagus do, too.

Bonus: Did you know that sugar is possibly even more addictive than cocaine, according to one animal study? If calories are a concern, read our review of low-calorie sweeteners.

Published August 1, 2010