A walk down the baking aisle brings many options for sweeteners. There are so many choices, and navigating all of the offerings can be confusing.
Full Circle Agave Nectar is a USDA Organic natural sweetener with 60 calories per tablespoon, zero fat, zero sodium and 16 grams of sugar. It comes in light and amber, and looks similar to honey or maple syrup. However, the flavor is sweeter, clean and more like sugar.
What is agave nectar? How does it compare to other sweeteners? How do you use it in recipes that call for sugar?
While agave is best-recognized as the plant from which tequila is made, it has also been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in food. The nectar made from the plant is known in Mexico as aguamiel, or “honey water.”
It is most often produced from the Blue Agaves that thrive in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. The plant comes in many sizes and colors — well over 100 species. Blue Agave is preferred because of its high carbohydrate content, which results in a high percentage of fructose in the final nectar.
When the agave has grown to 7 to 10 years old, the leaves of the plant are cut off, revealing the core. When harvested, the core resembles a giant pineapple, and can weigh in at 50 to 150 pounds.
To make the agave nectar, sap is extracted from the core, filtered and heated at a low temperature, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Lighter and darker varieties of agave nectar are made from the same plants.
Health Benefits of Agave Nectar
Agave Nectar has been used for centuries as a flavoring, though native populations also used it medicinally. The Aztecs used a mixture of agave nectar and salt as a dressing for wounds and a balm for skin infections. Agave’s use as a folk remedy persists today.
In recent years, refined sweeteners, such as granulated sugar and corn syrup, have dominated the modern diet. The problem with these substances is their high glycemic index – a measure of the impact foods have on our blood sugar. Foods that raise blood sugar quickly trigger the release of insulin. Excessive releases of insulin can lead to Type 2 diabetes, weight gain and obesity.
One of the most health-promoting properties of agave nectar is its favorable glycemic profile. Its sweetness comes primarily from a complex form of fructose called inulin. Fructose is the sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. The carbohydrate in agave nectar has a low glycemic index, which provides sweetness without the unpleasant “sugar rush” and unhealthful blood sugar spike caused by many other sugars.
Though agave nectar is more calorie-dense than brown or white sugar, it is about 40% sweeter, so the amount of agave can be reduced. It may take some recipe adjustments recipes to substitute agave for other sugars. It also provides the same variety of functions in cooking, including browning, moisture retention, softening and food preservation.
Using Agave Nectar in Recipes
It is most easily substituted for liquid sugars like honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup and corn syrup. Using it in drinks, salad dressings, sauces and many desserts are among the easiest substitutions. More experimentation may be necessary when substituting for sugars in recipes containing precise chemistry. (For example, cooked candies and some baked goods.) If replacing all the sugar in a recipe with agave nectar does not produce good results, try replacing only half.
Here are some general guidelines from manufacturers:
Honey: Replace each cup of honey with one cup of agave nectar.
Maple Syrup: Replace each cup of maple syrup with one cup of agave nectar.
Brown Rice Syrup: When replacing a cup of brown rice syrup, use 1/2 to 1/3 as much agave, and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to 1/2 cup.
Corn Syrup: When replacing a cup of light corn syrup, use 1/2 as much agave, and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to 1/3 cup. Like corn syrup, agave nectar will not crystallize.
White Sugar: For each cup of white sugar replaced, use 2/3 of a cup of agave, and reduce other liquids by 1/4 to 1/3 cup. This substitution will also work for Demerara Sugar, Turbinado Sugar, Evaporated Cane Juice or Sucanat.
Brown Sugar: For each cup of brown sugar replaced, use 2/3 cup of agave, and reduce other liquids by 1/4 cup. Because the moisture content of brown sugar is higher than that of white sugar, liquids may not have to be reduced as much when substituting agave nectar.
Other Considerations: agave nectar may cause baked items to brown more quickly, so reduce oven temperature by 25° F and increase baking time slightly.