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.