Sugar is Sugar, By Any Other Name… Or Is It? (Part 3)

Well, we’re slowly but surely making our way through the sugar maze! Hopefully, you haven’t tired of reading about the many guises of sugar; personally, I think it’s pretty fascinating to learn about the intricate details and characteristics of something that has gotten such a bad rap for so long (but then, again, I am a dietitian…). Anyway, we’ll look at another, lesser known sweetener this week—agave syrup—and also take a peek at maple syrup.


Agave syrup. Agave syrup, or nectar, has become somewhat popular these days. You may not be all that familiar with agave, so here’s a little background: Agave syrup is derived from the Blue Weber species of agave (Agave tequilana), which is a succulent plant found in Mexico and southwestern United States (this plant isn’t a cactus, but it is used to make tequila!). Agave syrup is made by boiling down the liquid part of the agave plant, thereby concentrating it, and making it sweet (similar to how sap from maple trees is processed to make maple syrup). Fructose accounts for about 90% of the carbohydrate in this syrup, with the remainder coming from glucose. And because of the high fructose content, the glycemic index of agave syrup is relatively low (about 40 to 45). For this reason, many people with diabetes have started using agave syrup as a sweetener in hot and cold beverages and in cooking and baking. It’s also become a popular sweetener among vegans, who use it in place of honey.

You may be tempted to try agave syrup, or perhaps already have. It’s a fairly new sweetener in that it’s only been used as such since about the 1990’s. If you’re currently using this syrup, please share your experiences with this sweetener by leaving a comment. In the meantime, realize that there’s not a lot of “scientific” information available yet, although there are plenty of testimonials extolling its virtues on the Internet!

Keep in mind that agave syrup isn’t a free food; it contains calories and carbohydrate, which must be accounted for in your eating plan. According to one manufacturer, one tablespoon of agave syrup contains 60 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrate. Granted, it’s about 40% sweeter than table sugar, so if you decide to give it a go, you’ll likely end up using less of it. Three-quarters of a cup of agave syrup is equivalent in sweetness to one cup of sugar, by the way.

Agave syrup is somewhat like honey in its consistency, although a little less thick. It also comes in dark and light varieties. And since it apparently is digested and absorbed more slowly, thus having a lower glycemic index, you may notice that it has less of an impact on your blood glucose levels than other types of sweeteners.

Where can you get agave syrup? You might not see it in the aisles of your favorite grocery store just yet. Natural/health food stores will likely carry it, and you can also purchase it from retailers on the Internet.

Maple syrup. Another “natural” type of sweetener, maple syrup is famous for its distinct flavor and rich, amber color. Maple syrup comes from the sap of the sugar, black, or red maple tree. The sap is boiled until the liquid has evaporated. The boiling concentrates the sugar in the sap, rendering a sweet syrup that’s about 60% sucrose.

Maple syrup also has a few redeeming nutritional qualities: It’s a significant source of manganese, a mineral that is necessary for several enzyme systems in the body that are involved in energy metabolism; it also contains a fair amount of zinc, a trace mineral necessary for a healthy immune system, DNA synthesis, and wound healing.

Pure maple syrup is graded, based on its color and flavor. The higher the grade, the lighter the syrup. A syrup with an A or AA grade will have a less distinct flavor, whereas grade B syrup will give you a rich maple flavor. Beware of maple-flavored syrups; often called “pancake syrups,” these are less expensive syrups that contain primarily high-fructose corn syrup and are flavored with either a small amount of “real” maple syrup, or an artificial flavoring.

One tablespoon of maple syrup contains 52 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrate, similar to other types of sweeteners. Its glycemic index is about 50, putting this syrup into the “low GI” category.

Next week: high fructose corn syrup!

For previous entries on this topic, see the following:
“Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name…Or Is It? (Part 1)”
“Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name…Or Is It? (Part 2)”

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  • Chris

    I’m using agave syrup here and there. It tastes like natural sweetness, which is an advantage over splenda and aspartame (which I can barely tolerate). I’ve used agave on toast, and in tea. It has a bit of a after-taste but it pretty good. My blood-glucose doesn’t seem to respond too much to it, in moderation. My favourite sweetner at this time is xylitol, but agave makes good sense for toast.

  • JGG

    has anyone had experience with Stevia? It is a natural sweetner sold in the vitamin area of most health food stores since it is not approved as a food product. It does not raise my blood sugar but it only goes well with certain foods. I would be interested in feedback.

  • Judy


    I have been using Stevia powder and liquid for a while and like it very much. I can also tolerate Splenda so I use it in baking recipes. What I have found to be “bad” for me is Xylitol. It gives me terrible gas. Does anyone out there have this experience?

  • wkmmarfa

    I have used Agave nectar and loved it. However my blood sugars went out of sight. Might just be me. Gave it all away.

  • Nancy

    I really appreciate Amy’s columns. Although I haven’t tried agave, for me the worst sugar is the high fructose corn syrup. Corn anything sends my blood sugar soaring. I’m looking forward to what Amy has to say next week! On sweeteners, after reading negative things about the chemistry of Splenda, I switched to Stevia. I use it to sweeten plain yogurt and don’t notice the after taste that some people complain of. It would probably work pretty well in coffee and tea, too.

  • acampbell

    Hi Judy,
    Xylitol is a type of sweetener found naturally in plant foods. It’s used in many products, including gum, candy, cough drops, cough syrup, toothpaste and mouthwash. It apparently is protective against dental caries by preventing the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. However, one of the “downfalls” of xylitol is that, because it’s a sugar alcohol, it’s not completely digested in the human GI tract. That means that if you overdo it (and everyone has a different tolerance for sugar alcohols), you’ll likely experience gassiness, cramps and even diarrhea. Foods containing sorbitol, mannitol and other sugar alcohols can cause the same symptoms.

  • Senella

    Stevia’s OK, but sometimes I have problems dissolving it, say for instance in Ice Tea.

  • henrich

    Hi, please let me know how to bake and avoid all that sugar. I dont like splenda either.
    1. Cakes
    2. Pies

    Okay, so how can I use stevia or can I use equal? Can I use apple sauce or dates?

    Any good recipies out there?


  • acampbell

    hi henrich,
    You can usually decrease the amount of sugar in a recipe by up to 1/2. It’s not a good idea to cut out sugarly entirely, as sugar is needed for texture, leavening, moisture and flavor. To make up for the lacking sweetness, add spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, vanilla extract or some pureed fruit. You can bake with stevia, since it can withstand very high temperatures. Some people think that stevia has a licorice flavor, so you’ll have to experiment a little to find the amount that tastes best to you. Also, stevia can’t be used in place of sugar if you’re baking a yeast bread. The texture and flavor of cakes, cookies and pies made with stevia will likely be different, as well. For more information on cooking with stevia, go to

  • marsha

    Hi Amy,
    Would you please add palm sugar to the list of sweeteners you’re writing about? Thanks!