Ask the Expert: What’s the Deal with Agave Nectar?

We’re proud to introduce the first member of the NOURISH Evolution Advisory Board: Rebecca Katz, M.S. We profiled Rebecca as a Nourishing Hero, thanks to her smart, delicious approach to nutrition. She’s the author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery and One Bite at a Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends (both published by Celestial Arts).

I first heard about agave nectar about five years ago. It’s the the liquid sweetener made from the agave plant–the same plant that gives us that other sweet nectar: tequila. And what could be wrong with that? When agave nectar first emerged in the 1990s, it was heralded as a low-glycemic alternative to sugar. Since then, questions about agave’s nutritional credibility have cropped up, so I asked NOURISH Evolution adviser Rebecca Katz, M.S., to help clear up the confusion.

“I use it in the cookbook [The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen] extremely sparingly,” says Katz. “But I wrote the cookbook before a lot of the more controversial information about agave came out.”

Agave nectar is comprised mostly of fructose. That means it has a low glycemic index, which means it doesn’t raise blood glucose as dramatically as, say, table sugar. Sounds good, especially if you’re diabetic, right? It’s also thought to have potential anti-inflammatory properties.

Not quite, says Katz. “It is a sweetener, and like any sweetener, it will interfere with metabolism in some way and can leave you feeling hungry,” she says. “Don’t pick it up thinking it’s a ‘healthy’ magic bullet.” According to the Glycemic Research Institute, a testing lab in Washington, D.C., large amounts of agave nectar can cause metabolic reactions in diabetics who eat too much of the stuff. The American Diabetes Association considers it like any other sweetener–table sugar, maple syrup, molasses and the like.

As with any sweetener, you should use agave nectar sparingly. “You have to look at agave like you would look at honey, or sugar or any other sweetener,” says Katz. “Used in moderation, it’s fine.” Agave nectar is about 1.5 times sweeter than cane sugar, so you can use less.

But not all agave nectars are created equal. Some are as processed and refined as high fructose corn syrup. “Look at the label very carefully because some of the big commercial brands can be cut with other ingredients,” Katz warns. Your best bet: raw, organic, blue agave nectar.

From a culinary perspective, agave is nice to include among your repertoire of sweeteners. It also works well as an inert sugar instead of corn syrup in candy-making, as we’ve used it in this Salted Pistachio Brittle. It has a more neutral taste and thinner consistency than honey, so you can use it in place of simple syrup in cocktails.

“It would make a great mojito!” says Katz.

Salted Pistachio Brittle

Traditional brittle recipes call for corn syrup, but we’re not exactly fans of the stuff. Agave nectar makes a good substitute. Since it’s twice as sweet as corn syrup, you can use half as much in this recipe, adapted from Chef Guy Reuge of Three Village Inn in Stony Brook, New York. You can use different nuts or seeds and add a dash of spice (Reuge’s original version uses pumpkinseeds and cumin with delicious results). Here’s your chemistry lesson for the day: baking soda is the key ingredient that gives brittle its characteristic snap. Our version uses pistachios and coarse sea salt for a salty-sweet treat that’s delicious on its own or crumbled over ice cream or our Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding.


Sweetness and Light: the Low Down on Natural Sweeteners

by Cheryl Sternman Rule

For some people, trying to choose a sweetener is like trying to pick a cereal: with so much variety, it’s tough to know which to buy.

Complicating matters is the fact that in recent years, the mainstream availability of once-fringe products has bloomed, so sweetening your morning coffee or tea, or your homemade brownies and fruit crisps, is less straightforward than ever. Given that we’re now knee-deep in the holiday baking season, it’s high time to provide some clarity.

sweeteners-postOften, finding the right sweetener for the job is simply a matter of taste. Other times it’s crucial to the success of a recipe.

Here’s a rundown of some of the natural sweeteners you might encounter at the market:

Agave nectar: Produced from the agave cactus plant, this natural liquid sweetener is hailed by vegans and those who watch their blood sugar levels, as agave is lower on the glycemic index than other sweeteners. While sweeter than sugar, agave is also more calorically dense; you’ll need less to sweeten your foods, but don’t mistake it for a “diet” food.

Stevia: Another natural, plant-based sweetener, stevia’s journey to the U.S. marketplace has been storied. In the 1980s, controversy surrounding potential fertility and reproductive concerns kept the FDA from awarding stevia GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status, but this status was awarded to the extract of stevia – called Reb A, rather than the whole leaf version – in 2008. Branded under names like Truvia and PureVia, stevia is sweeter than sugar and won’t raise blood sugar levels. Still, some groups continue to call for further research and testing to be completely convinced of its safety.

Honey: Varietal honeys, which come from the nectar of a single plant variety (much like single source wine varietals) are becoming more popular in this country, though most honey contains a mash-up of different plant nectars. Sweeter than sugar, honey’s color, intensity, and flavor are determined by the nectar of the plants from which it is produced.  (Some are herbaceous and floral, while others are dark and earthy.)  Taste different honeys to determine your favorite.

Maple syrup: Native to Canada and New England, maple syrup is made from tree sap that has been boiled until thick. Its grades are determined by when in the season it was produced, with light colored Grade A considered early season syrup and darker Grade B syrup produced later. Always seek out “pure” maple syrup to avoid additives.

Sugar: The granddaddy of sweeteners, sugar derives from either sugar beets or sugarcane, may be refined or unrefined, and can come in a spectrum of shades depending on the type.

Refined Sugar: Granulated white sugar is the most widely available, and most highly refined, sugar used in this country. As with refined flours, refined sugar has had the natural nutrients stripped from it during the refining process. The sugar we know as “brown sugar” in supermarkets is also refined white sugar, only it’s had molasses (a byproduct of the sugar refining process) added back in for color. Whether it’s labeled as “light” or “dark” only has to do with how much molasses is added. Powdered (confectioners) sugar is simply pulverized refined sugar, and is best used for frostings.

Unrefined Sugar: On the unrefined side, you’ll find natural brown sugar like turbinado (often called demerara in the Europe) with its large, dry, light brown crystals and muscavado, a very coarse, sticky, dark brown sugar. Turbinado can generally be subbed for refined white and light brown sugar. If you use muscavado in lieu of dark brown sugar, reduce the liquid content of the recipe by a bit to compensate for the sugar’s moisture—and be prepared for a strong molasses flavor. Jaggery, piloncillo and Sucanat™ are other types of unrefined sugar. In addition to having more complex flavor, unrefined sugars retain the minerals from the cane and beet plants they’re made from.

Whichever sweeteners you choose for any given application, you’ll want to consider the following factors: flavor, sweetness, caloric density (the number of calories per ounce), viscosity, level of refinement, impact on blood sugar, and the ability to cream, brown, or moisten your baked goods.

Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment.  With so many opportunities to bake this month, and to give homemade joy to your loved ones, it’s a great time to branch out and tinker.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.