People often ask me about agave nectar. They wonder if I use it, if I like it, and what I think of it. If they see me use honey in cooking classes, they wonder why I’m not using agave nectar. If they’ve seen my Ice Dream Cookbook they notice that the recipes list both honey and agave nectar as options. This usually leads to more questions.
Then vs. now
In the first edition of The Ice Dream Cookbook, I included agave nectar as an optional sweetener. Based on information that has since come to light, I can no longer endorse its use in my recipes.
Vendors tout agave nectar as a low-glycemic sweetener leading consumers to believe that it can be used freely without side effects. People like that agave syrup dissolves readily into hot and cold liquids and that it doesn’t crystallize over time (like honey), making it easier to pour and measure. Some people prefer the bland, indistinct, consistent flavor of agave compared to the more pronounced flavor of honey.
I was aware that agave’s low-glycemic index came from its high fructose (82%), low glucose (8%) composition and that consuming large amounts of any free (unbound) fructose isolated from its whole food components was undesirable. Still, I decided to suggest it as an alternative to honey for strict vegans who avoid honey because it is an animal (bee) product.
The glycemic index in context
The glycemic index measures how fast the sugars from a given food enter the blood stream. Agave nectar has been advertised as having a glycemic index between 11 and 32, depending on whether glucose or white bread is used as the standard. Honey usually has a glycemic index of 55 or 83, depending upon the reference used. However, the glycemic index of a sweetener has less relevance than the type and total load of carbohydrate you ingest. Agave’s high fructose content gives it a low glycemic index, but at a cost.
The new sweetener on the block
Like many people, I didn’t know enough about agave. It was relatively new and there wasn’t much third party information available about how it was made and how it differed from the rustic agave juice traditionally harvested on a small scale in Mexico.
Another name for high fructose corn syrup
It turns out that agave nectar (code name for agave syrup—nectar sounds so much more natural, doesn’t it?) and high-fructose corn syrup are made in a similar fashion. Agave syrup is produced from the starch of the agave plant just as high-fructose corn syrup is manufactured from the starch of corn. When the agave plant is 7 to 10 years old, the leaves are cut off revealing the core of the plant which is called the “pina”. When harvested, the pina resembles a giant pineapple and can weigh 50 to 100 pounds. To make nectar, the sap is extracted from the pina; it is filtered and then heated at a low temperature along with enzymes that reduce the carbohydrates into simple sugars—mostly fructose with a small amount of glucose.
The dark side of free fructose
The human body is unable to readily use isolated fructose for energy, so it rapidly transforms the fructose into triglycerides (fat in the blood). Consuming large amounts of isolated fructose can lead to high triglycerides and/or excess body fat. Modern agave nectar (syrup) contains higher levels of free synthetic fructose than most varieties of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
The downside of agave
Although agave nectar does not stimulate the pancrease to release insulin, over time, due it its high fructose content, it can lead to the same problems that a high carbohydrate and/or high sugar diet creates: insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, increased triglycerides, systemic inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and other diseases of modern civilization.
In revising The Ice Dream Cookbook in preparation for creating an e-book vand a reprint of the hard copy sometime in 2010, I have removed agave nectar from the recipes. If you follow a strict vegan diet, consider using sorghum syrup (lighter sorghum has a milder flavor than dark, molasses-flavored sorghum) or slightly more maple syrup. Sorghum syrup is widely available in the midwest. If you don’t live there, you’ll probably have to order it on line.
To learn more about agave's drawbacks
To read more about the problems with agave nectar, refer to an article on the The Weston A Price Website entitled “Worse Than We Thought: The Lowdown on High Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave ‘Nectar’”.
My editor, Marilyn Glidewell, and my dear friend, Don Matesz, helped me with the revisions of the agave text in preparation for the revised edition of my book and the forthcoming e-book.
Replacing agave with honey is easy
If a recipe calls for 1 cup of agave nectar, you can replace it with an equal amount ofmild flavor, use a light colored honey rather than a dark brown honey. Clover, citrus, and cat’s claw honey will taste more mild than buckwheat or mesquite honey.
In some recipes I cut the sweetener back for a less sugary, less sweet flavor. For example, in this amazing gluten-free, grain-free, flourless Chocolate Chip Brownie recipe from Elana’s pantry, the recipe called for 1 1/4 cups honey or agave nectar. My friend Heather sent me the recipe and said she made it using only 1 cup honey and it came out fabulous. I followed her suggestion, loved it, and have since made it a few times and shared it with people into natural foods, people into paleo diet, the Zone diet, and people accustomed to conventional brownies made with sugar and white flour and they all enjoyed the recipe.
Why I use two sweeteners together
My preference with most desserts is to use a combination of honey and stevia or honey, stevia, and dried dates to reduce the total amount of sugar calories. Although I think honey is preferable to and healthier than agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice or refined sugar, it still provides calories without significant amounts of macro or micronutrients; so I strive to use as little of it as possible while still creating a pleasant flavor, texture, and eating experience.
You can see a similar but lower sugar grain-free, gluten-free Flourless Brownie recipe from The Spunky Coconut blog that uses honey combined with stevia (the ideal). I made this recipe and thought it came out great! You’ll see dozens of examples of how to do this in my Ice Dream Cookbook along with the chart in the front of the book that walks you through converting recipes from sugar to stevia and from other liquid sweeteners to a mix of honey and stevia.