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.

Nourishing Hero: Rebecca Katz

This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on NOURISH Evolution? Let us know who inspires you!

When my mom was dying from lung cancer, I responded like anyone who has a loved one battling a major illness. I cooked whatever I thought might tempt her to eat–oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, homemade pizza, soups of all kinds and anything with her favorite ingredient: bacon. One of my last memories is of her propped up in bed happily tucking into a bacon-wrapped scallop.

Of course, we all need nourishment every day. It’s even more crucial, more elemental when we’re sick and need food to bolster our bodies, lift our spirits and soothe our souls. But that can be tricky when someone is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer treatment.

“It’s like demolishing the whole house to renovate the bathroom,” says Rebecca Katz, M.S., author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery (Celestial Arts). The treatment weakens patients and kills appetites at a time when they most need the healing power of food. That’s why, she says, 80% of cancer patients are malnourished.

“The biggest issues, by far, are nausea and taste changes–those are the two culprits that keep people from experiencing food,” she says. “If they disconnect from food, they’re disconnecting from life.”

Katz is the senior chef-in-residence and nutritional educator at Commonweal Cancer Help Program, which offers weeklong retreats for cancer patients at its oceanfront facility in Bolinas, Calif. She’s also the executive chef for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Food as Medicine and CancerGuides® Professional Training Programs to train doctors and other health-care pros about nutrition.

Her journey learning about the healing power of food for cancer patients began when her father battled cancer. Although she’d trained as a chef at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, she says, “I didn’t have a clue how to cook for someone with cancer.” So she started doing some research, out of which came her first book, One Bite at Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends (Celestial Arts).

“That was the beginning of my exploration in this area,” she says. “The longer I was involved with it, the more studies that came out about how food can help us fight disease, particularly cancer.” She estimates that 5,000 new studies about the healing power of food were published between the time One Bite was first released in 2004 and when The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen was published last year.

She offers advice for what to eat before, during and after chemotherapy, as well as suggests specific recipes to counteract common side effects like anemia, nausea, fatigue and weight loss. Since cancer treatment often messes with a patient’s taste buds, she has tips for how to balance flavors accordingly. Everything tastes like cardboard? Add a dash of sea salt or a spritz of lemon juice–both enhance flavor and move it forward to the front of the mouth. Food tastes metallic? Balance it with maple syrup or agave nectar for sweetness or a touch of fat from nut butter.

Her “culinary pharmacy” is stocked with healthy, whole foods–all manner of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, organic poultry, sustainable fish, spices, oils and nuts. Although The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen focuses on the healing aspects of these foods–what Katz calls the “culinary Rx”–it’s anything but medicinal. Colorful, tantalizing recipes like Triple-Citrus Black Cod, Shredded Carrot and Beet Salad, and Emerald Greens with Orange leap off the page.

That’s the key, she explains. “The nutrition is great, but the taste is what’s really going to make the difference between whether someone is going to eat or not. Great taste and great nutrition have to sit together on the same side of the table.”

Meet our other Nourishing Heroes:

Creamy Millet with Blueberry Compote

If you haven’t tried millet, this recipe from Rebecca Katz’s The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen (Celestial Arts) is a great introduction. As she notes, it looks very similar to quinoa, and it’s also gluten-free and a good source of protein. Millet and orange have anti-inflammatory properties, while spices like allspice, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon aid digestion. Coconut oil has antibiotic properties (you can find it with the other oils in health-food stores), and blueberries are rich in cancer-fighting phytochemicals. This is a nice make-ahead breakfast–just stir in a little extra almond milk and warm it up in a saucepan over gentle heat. It’s a powerfully nourishing start to your day.