Extracted from the same large succulents that are used to produce Mexican tequila, agave nectar looks like honey, but pours like syrup and has a much richer flavor. It’s great in cold drinks — especially margaritas — because it doesn’t harden or crystallize like regular sugar. And it’s flavorful enough to squeeze straight from the bottle on pancakes or waffles. Available in light (neutral flavor), amber (tastes like maple syrup) and raw (processed at a lower temperature and has an even stronger taste than amber) versions, there’s a variety to suit every palate. And because it is 1.4 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it, if you can muster the willpower to do so.
But here’s the rub: unlike table sugar, which has equal ratios of fructose to glucose, agave is up to 90% fructose. That’s more than you’ll find in the much-villainized high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas, which is typically a mere 55% fructose (and 45% glucose).
But sugar is sugar, right? Yes. “Sugars are sugars no matter where they come from,” says NYU nutritional scientist Marion Nestle. And wherever they come from, excess calories will result in fat gain.
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Because of differences in molecular structure, however, fructose and glucose are processed differently in the body. Glucose is metabolized more quickly into the bloodstream, which can lead to dangerous blood-sugar spikes for diabetics. Fructose, on the other hand, is processed mainly in the liver and research suggests that people who consume it in excess, by downing sweetened soda, for instance, show unhealthy changes in liver function, insulin sensitivity and fat storage.
“Glucose is metabolized more easily than fructose, but excess sugar of any type is difficult for metabolism for handle,” says Nestle, noting that fructose is also the sugar found naturally in fruit. Eating the fructose in fruit — as opposed to sugary sodas — is not a problem, however, because it comes packaged with other nutrients and fiber.
A word to the wise: because agave nectar tastes so good and has more calories than white sugar (20 per teaspoon versus 15), it’s easy to overdo it. So be judicious.
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