Avoiding sugar while following the ketogenic lifestyle is a no-brainer but it can be tough to completely ward off sweets in the name of maintaining ketosis.
Luckily, there are plenty of sugar substitutes available that help keep blood glucose levels at bay while still providing a certain level of sweetness.
Many of these sweeteners are free of calories and carbs and are low on the glycemic index, making them ideal for the keto diet.
But some sweeteners still hide a lot of carbs, making it a challenge for keto dieters to decipher which sugar substitutes to use and which ones to avoid.
Among the many sugar substitutes out there include agave, a sweetener naturally found in many different types of health foods.
The question is, is agave keto-friendly? And further, is it a safe and healthy alternative to traditional sugar?
What is Agave?
Agave is a plant that’s native to southern parts of the US and South America and has actually been used for hundreds of years in Mexico, mainly for its medicinal properties and its sweetness after boiling the plant’s sap.
Today, agave is widely used as a sugar substitute and sweetener because of its relatively low glycemic index (GI), a ranking of how food impacts blood sugar levels. Agave’s GI is 17, compared to regular sugar’s GI of 68.
Agave is produced by extracting the nectar from the agave plant, which is then heated and processed to make a syrupy substance.
It is much sweeter than honey or sugar, so less of it is needed to achieve the same level of sweetness.
But because of this, using agave in place of sugar in recipes can be tricky because of the viscosity of agave.
Macros and Carbs In Agave
One teaspoon of agave nectar has the following nutritional value:
Compare these macros to sugar:
While there are actually more carbs in agave nectar in the same serving size as sugar, you would use a lot less of it because it is so much sweeter.
Generally, agave is about 1.5 to 2 times sweeter than sugar. As such, you would only need to use half a teaspoon to achieve the same level of sweetness as regular sugar.
Pros and Cons of Agave
As already mentioned, agave has a low glycemic index, which is a measure of how fast sugar enters the bloodstream.
Foods with a higher GI cause blood sugar levels to spike and are generally considered to be more detrimental to a person’s health.
When agave is processed into a syrup, the fructans are metabolized into fructose when the sap is exposed to heat.
Fructose has a low GI and doesn’t suddenly raise blood sugar or insulin levels the way glucose does. As such, it is often marketed as a “healthy” sweetener.
But high amounts of fructose can have negative health effects, despite its low GI ranking.
When agave is heated to extract a syrupy substance, the process destroys all the potentially beneficial health effects of agave. The end result is an unhealthy, heavily-refined syrup.
In fact, agave syrup can actually be compared to high-fructose corn syrup.
Consuming too much fructose can be detrimental to metabolic health because the liver – which is the organ that metabolizes high amounts of fructose – can get overloaded.
Once that happens, the fructose will start turning into fat, which increases levels of blood triglycerides and causes fatty liver disease (1).
Further, high levels of fructose can lead to insulin resistance (2). Since agave nectar is approximately 85% fructose – which is a lot higher than sugar – it’s important to consume agave in conservative amounts.
Is Agave Keto-Friendly?
At first glance, agave may seem like a great alternative to sugar because of its low GI ranking. But it’s actually not the best sugar substitute that keto dieters should be focusing on.
Because agave nectar is about 85% fructose, it can lower the body’s insulin sensitivity and potentially lead to metabolic syndrome (3).
In turn, this can make it more difficult for the body to regulate blood glucose levels, which is the last thing that keto dieters want.
Agave manufacturers do a great job at marketing their products as healthy, low-calorie and low-carb alternatives to sugar.
But it can be damaging to the liver and end up causing more problems, especially when used in high amounts.
Keto-Friendly Alternatives to Agave
Rather than opting for agave as a sugar substitute to maintain a state of ketosis, keto dieters have plenty of other alternatives to choose from, including the following:
While not a natural sweetener, sucralose is an artificial sweetener that has no calories or carbs because it passes through the body undigested.
While not necessarily ideal for baking with, sucralose is better suited for sweetening drinks and foods by just adding it to the mix.
A natural sweetener, stevia is much sweeter than sugar and has very few calories and carbs.
It’s considered a healthy sugar substitute because it may actually help lower blood sugar levels.
This is a type of sugar alcohol that’s almost as sweet as sugar but only has a fraction of the calories.
Research has shown that the carbs in erythritol don’t impact blood sugar levels the way that regular sugar does, making it a sound keto-friendly sugar substitute (4).
Another type of sugar alcohol, xylitol only has 4 grams of carbs per teaspoon, but they don’t actually count as net carbs because they don’t increase blood sugar or insulin levels like sugar does (5).
Derived from the monk fruit, this natural sweetener is anywhere between 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories or carbs, making it a great alternative for the keto diet (6).
While agave may be low on the glycemic index, it can still negatively impact blood sugar levels by contributing to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
Further, it’s not without its calories or carbs, especially when compared to other sugar substitutes.
To stay true to your keto diet while maintaining optimal health, it’s advised to stick with other sugar alternatives aside from agave.