What is agave?

Oct 3, 2011 at 2:45 p.m. ET

Maligned as dietary poison by many, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are taking a back seat to more natural sweeteners. Agave nectar (or agave syrup) has been increasing in popularity since the '90s and is now one of the most sought after natural sweeteners by the health-conscious. But what is agave and is it any healthier than other sweeteners? Here's more on agave and a few tasty agave recipes.

Agave nectar

What is agave?

Agave nectar is made from the agave plant which is the same plant used to make tequila. Though commercial agave nectar is relatively new on the scene, the Aztecs extolled this sweet substance for its medicinal value. The difference is that the Aztecs extracted the "honey water" directly from the agave plant to apply it to skin infections and wounds, and the agave nectar that you get off the market shelf has been processed into syrup.

Sweetening with agave

Agave may fall into the "natural sweetener" realm, but it shouldn't be consumed with abandon. Agave, like all natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup, should be used in moderation. Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, which is more than sugar, but has a stronger sweetness, so you can use less of it. Agave can be used in both sweet and savory food and drink recipes and even used as an alternative to syrup on your breakfast foods. Commercially, agave (which has functional properties similar to high fructose corn syrup) is used to sweeten nutrition bars, health drinks and more.

Is agave good for you?

Keep in mind that no sweetener in excess is healthy, but there are some sweeteners that have a nutritional edge. Compared to sugar, agave shines in that it contains small amounts of minerals, such as calcium, potassium and magnesium and has a lower glycemic index value. The glycemic index indicates the impact foods have on blood sugar levels. The lower the glycemic index value, the less a food raises blood sugar levels, which is favorable, especially for people with diabetes. Yet, a lower value does not mean "green light" for any food.

Fructose controversy

All agave nectars are not created equally. According to comparisons at BlueAgaveNectar.com, some can be as high as 85 percent or as low as 45 percent fructose. Some health experts say that fructose sweeteners may not offer any health advantages over glucose, which is present in most dietary carbohydrates. A study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests that fructose may lead to a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes and promote the gain of visceral (unhealthy) fat.

Bottom line: Regardless of the sweetener you choose, use it only in moderation. No sweetener, whether it is natural or not, should be consumed in excess. If you've got a sweet tooth, rather than relying on desserts, opt to satisfy it even more naturally with fresh fruit.

Cooking with agave

You can seamlessly substitute agave for other sweeteners in your favorite recipes. Substitute equal amounts of agave for honey and maple syrup and half of the amount of agave for brown rice syrup. When it comes to granular or dry sugars, such as granulated or brown sugars, you will use 2/3 cup agave for every cup of sugar. In recipes calling for white sugar, reduce the liquid by 1/4 cup (for every 1 cup of sugar substituted by agave) and in recipes calling for brown sugar, reduce the liquid by 2 tablespoons (for every 1 cup sugar substituted with agave).

For baked goods, you may also have to reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F. to keep the baked goods from overbrowning. As you venture into baking with agave, consider replacing only part of the sugar in your favorite recipes to get familiar with the taste and baking qualities of this sweetener, and then gradually replace all of the sugar, if desired.

For sauces and drinks, add agave according to your taste preferences.

Up next: Agave recipes >>

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