Is agave better than sugar?

Our dietitian Rosalyn D’Angelo looks at the truth behind the agave trend and whether it’s a healthier alternative to sugar – and you might be surprised by the answer.  

Over that past few years, sugar has certainly developed a bad rap. ‘Poison’ and ‘toxic’ have both been used to describe this sweet molecule. As a result, people are looking for ‘healthier’ ways to sweeten their food. Enter agave.

Before we go any further, can I just put my two cents in and say that no one nutrient is the cause of all our health problems. It is a combination of MANY lifestyle factors including exercise, smoking, stress, fruit and vegetable intake, and everything else we put into our bodies. 

All these factors can increase or decrease our risk of developing chronic diseases. And I’ll go even further to say that not everything you read should be taken as gospel. 

What is sugar?

Table sugar is known as ‘sucrose’. It comes from the sugar cane or beet plant. To cut a long story short, the plant is squeezed of its natural juice. This is boiled until it thickens and sugar crystals form. These crystals are then dried and we’re left with sugar. This table sugar or ‘sucrose’ is made up of simple sugars called glucose and fructose. About 50/50.

What is agave?

Agave is actually the name of the plant - so really we should be talking about agave nectar or agave syrup. To produce the syrup, the juice (or sap) is extracted from the core of the agave plant. It’s heated and filtered and then a concentrated syrup is produced. 

Like normal sugar, it’s made up of glucose and fructose molecules - but unlike sugar, it’s mostly fructose (approximately 90%). Fructose is the sweetest sugar molecule, so agave nectar is a little sweeter than normal sugar. 

So the simple answer is no, agave is definitely not a healthier alternative to sugar. They’re both made up of simple sugars called glucose and fructose.
We know wholemeal brown bread is better than white bread, so is brown sugar better than white? I’m afraid not. Brown sugar is usually just white sugar with molasses added. 
Lollies and sweet foods
While we’re at it, what about honey? Honey is made by bees foraging nectar from flowers. Like normal sugar, honey is a mixture of mainly fructose and glucose. It may have trace amount of vitamins and minerals depending on how it’s been processed, but at the end of the day, it is just small molecules of sugar stuck together like normal table sugar.

The truth is, we live in a world saturated with sugar. Too much sugar has been linked obesity and tooth decay. It’s not that you should never have it, it’s about being aware of where the sugar is in your diet, and monitoring your intake.
At the end, it all comes down to portion sizes. Here are a few tips:

1)  A large percentage of our sugar intake comes from ‘discretionary foods’- chocolate, lollies, pastries, biscuits and cakes. These should be enjoyed occasionally - not daily. My tip is to choose your very favourite treat only, and enjoy a good quality version of this in small amounts.

2)  Each time we take a bite of something, our pleasure goes down. We get much less pleasure from the 10th bite compared to the first. So do we really need that 7th, 8th or 9th piece of chocolate? Or are we eating for the sake of it?

3)  When baking, use half the amount of sugar that the recipe calls for, you’ll barely notice.

4)  During the day, if you want to add sweetness to food, do so using whole fruit. This way you’re getting fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well! Forget those flavoured sachets of porridge and flavoured yoghurts, buy the plain varieties and add chopped banana and almonds. You can add sweetness in baking using apple sauce or dried fruit.

5)  Watch your hot drinks. 1 teaspoon of sugar in tea doesn’t seem like a big deal, and it’s not- but when we have them every day it adds up. If you have 2 cups of tea each day, that’s 14 teaspoons of sugar each week, and 728 in a year.

One last piece of advice, our taste buds are constantly regenerating, so if you want to reduce the amount of sugar in your coffee from 2 to 0, cut it out and wait 4 weeks. By the end of the month if you tried to have a sugary coffee again, it would be too sweet for your newly adapted taste buds. Same goes for salt.
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