Q: What's your take on agave nectar? - Joe N.
As many of you remember, last week, I responded to reader questions about stevia. As a result, this week, I received several questions about other sweeteners popular in the natural foods community, among them agave nectar (erythritol and xylitol, you're next).
How Agave Nectar is Made
When many of us think of agave nectar, we think of it as an uber-natural, traditional sweetener that's been used for hundreds of years. And while the sap from the agave plant has been used for hundreds of years, that's not quite what you're buying in the gleaming plastic bottles at your local natural foods co-op.
Traditionally, indigenous peoples gathered the sap from the agave plant and boiled it down to form a thick syrup. This process is similar to the process native American tribes of the northeast used to turn the sap from sugar maples into maple syrup.
Keep in mind that that's not what you're typically purchasing when you buy agave nectar. Remember how no one had really heard about agave until the 1990s and early 2000s, and then it exploded with popularity? Well, the reason behind that is because the processing that enabled agave nectar to become a ubiquitous part of the natural foods community wasn't invented until the 1990s.
The agave nectar that you purchase in health food stores and grocery stores has been produced in a fashion very similar to the processing of high fructose corn syrup. In order to turn agave from a spiky desert plant into a sweet syrup, it first must be crushed, with the juice extracted, and subject to hydrolysis which converts its inulin to sugar. This process can happen either thermally or enzymatically. And while "hydrolysis" sounds like a big scary word, it's not; rather it's the technical term for a process that happens in your own kitchen when you bake, for example, or when you sprout grains and seeds.
In modern manufacturing of agave nectar, developed and patented in the 1990s, liquid from the agave plant is put through multiple steps of manufacturing that include centrifuging to remove "impurities" and to improve clarity. After centrifuging, enzymes derived from aspergillus niger are introduced into the liquid, and through this enzymatic process agave's naturally occurring inulin is converted to fructose. (Incidentally, a similar enzymatic is also used to convert the starches in corn into high fructose corn syrup.) This converted liquid is then sent to a vacuum evaporation chamber to further concentrate the sugars, removing excess moisture.
(Don't believe me about the how it's produced? You can read more here about the thermal process and the enzymatic process from the agave nectar producers themselves).
Think that because you're buying "raw" agave nectar, you've somehow escaped this process? Nope, this enzymatic process keeps the syrup technically raw.
Agave Nectar's Culinary Applications
Both from a nutritional and a culinary perspective, agave nectar is similar to high fructose corn syrup. It's made through similar means, and it has a similar sugar profile. As they're very similar, it makes sense that they'd be used in similar ways which is why agave nectar is such a popular sweetener for processed foods within the natural foods communities: sodas and ice cream comes to mind.
Where natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and jaggery not only bring sweetness to the table, but also distinct flavor, agave simply offers a clean, clear, dimensionless sweetness. It's sweet without character.
For vegans, agave nectar can make a nice substitute for honey.
Agave Nectar and Nutrition
As agave nectar is comprised primarily of fructose, it is, like high fructose corn syrup, much sweeter than table sugar so if you intend to cook with it, plan to use less. Keep in mind that because agave nectar is comprised mostly of fructose, that makes it lower on the glycemic index that other sweeteners, and so isn't likely to raise the blood sugar in the same way as other sweeteners.
Fructose is primarily metabolized by the liver, and diets high in fructose have been implicated in cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol (read it here). High fructose diets are also implicated in leptin resistance (read it here and here). Leptin is a hormone involved in fat storage, and it, along with other hormones, helps our bodies to know when we are full. Fructose, compared with glucose, is also implicated in insulin resistance (read it here).
We hear "fructose" and think of fruit sugar, and so it seems benign. But it's worth remembering that when we consume the naturally occurring sugars in fruit, they come with a complement of other nutrients: fiber, pectin, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you don't otherwise consume when you use a concentrated sweetener like agave nectar.
How Do I Use Agave?
I don't use agave in my kitchen, preferring instead to use traditional sweeteners like honey, jaggery and maple syrup, and then with a careful hand and a mind for moderation. Sweet foods, in my home, are celebratory foods, not everyday foods. I use honey, jaggery and maple syrup because they not only contribute sweetness to desserts, but also multidimensional flavor. I don't care for sweetness just for sweetness' sake. I want my sweets to say something, to taste of something.
Occasionally, I'll buy a sweet for my family at my locally owned health food store that contains agave nectar. This might be an ice cream flavored with agave, or a soda sweetened by agave for my little boy when we're out to eat. From time to time, I'll also enjoy a margarita flavored by fresh lime and sweetened with agave nectar. I don't sweat it. Why? These are rare and occasional treats, not mainstays of my family's diet.
Remember the implications of diets high in fructose like leptin and insulin resistance and high cholesterol listed above? They come not from eating fructose-rich foods on occasion, but from eating too much, too often. So, again, we return to intelligence, mindful eating and moderation. A little is not an issue, a lot is.