What is Agave Nectar?
Written by Sofia Layarda, MPH, RD
Published in March 2009
(HealthCastle.com) While preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the other day, I noticed an unusual ingredient on the peanut butter jar: agave nectar. A search for the lowdown on this sweetener turned up some interesting information we thought we should share with you.
What Is Agave Nectar?
Pronounced ah-GAH-vay, it is a sweetener produced from certain varieties of the agave plant, which grow in some parts of Mexico. A plant is ready for harvesting when it is between 7 and 10 years old. For harvesting, a bowl-shaped opening is created in the core of the plant and the milky juice collecting in the core (called piňa) is removed. Each plant continues to produce juice for about 6 to 8 months. This juice undergoes processing involving several steps that vary depending on the producer, but that generally include filtration, enzymatic hydrolysis (using an enzyme to break down the carbohydrates into sugars) and some sort of heating to concentrate the liquid into syrup. The consistency of agave nectar is similar to, but thinner than, honey. Depending on the degree of processing, you can buy light, amber, dark, or raw varieties of agave nectar. The raw variety is produced with temperatures not exceeding 118F.
What Are Its Effects?
Agave nectar is considered a sweetener with a low glycemic index (below 55). As a result, it does not affect blood glucose as dramatically as table sugar. Its composition is often inaccurately described as mostly fructose. According to Dr. Roger Clemens, IFT spokesperson, agave nectar contains only two-thirds the amount of fructose found in high-fructose corn syrup (which has 55% fructose); the main form of fructose in agave nectar is in inulin format. In our gut, inulin, considered a prebiotic, is digested by certain types of bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids that have been shown to fight colon cancer. Parts of the agave plant are also shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. However, there is some concern that the fructose content of agave nectar affects the body's metabolism of it, leading to fructose intolerance or diabetes-like symptoms without an increase in blood glucose.
Using Agave Nectar at Home
According to Dr. Clemens, who is also a professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, there are no standards defining how agave nectar is used in a home setting. Fructose tastes sweeter than table sugar, which means you need less fructose in recipes to achieve the same level of sweetness. When substituting agave nectar for sugar, Ania Catalano, author of the cookbook Baking with Agave Nectar, suggests using 75% of the amount specified in the recipe (for honey, the ratio is 1 to 1). Catalano also suggests reducing the oven temperature by 25F because browning takes place more quickly. Agave nectar does not crystallize when cold, so it dissolves easily in cold drinks.
The Bottom Line
Agave nectar is one of many sweeteners that is available to those seeking an alternative to table sugar. It is too early to tell whether it has specific health effects, so avoid using it in excess. What's interesting about the increasing popularity of alternative sweeteners is that it seems to be symptomatic of our national collective "sweet tooth." If you are craving something sweet, rely on fruits first before reaching for a sweetened treat - even a treat sweetened with an alternative sweetener. Treats are called that because they are supposed to be eaten only on occasion.