At roadshows, one of my favorite things to demonstrate with the Blendtec is its ability to make ice-cream. Of course, when it comes to ice-cream (made in a blender or not), there are options in textures and ingredients. But our true affinity for it is obviously because it tastes great. Several of the recipes I make in the Blendtec call for added sweetener. In these instances I’ll use a product that has been for the past few years building quite a reputation, both positive and not so: agave nectar. I use it at my shows for two main reasons. First, it contributes to making an unbelievably great-tasting ice-cream. Second, in exchange for offering it for sale at my booth, one particular manufacturer of agave nectar lets me use their product in my demonstrations. It’s a win-win-win situation for them, club members, and me.
Its taste notwithstanding, any actual nutritional benefits of the product assume agave nectar, itself, isn’t just a thinly-veiled reincarnation of the de facto devil of all sweeteners – High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – which is the exact claim many of its detractors make. Because I demonstrate with it I consider it my duty to familiarize my customers with agave nectar to the extent I can. Even though I don’t work for the manufacturer, I am technically selling their product at my shows. More importantly, I’m using it in the recipes that potential customers of my product are trying. And whether they buy my blender or not, if they’re trying my samples, I feel they have a right to know what’s in them. With all due consideration given to the assertions of its opponents, the following explains why I think agave nectar is, indeed, worthy of a spot in your pantry.
What It Is
In a word, agave nectar is sugar. The product itself is relatively new on the sweetener scene, having first appeared commercially in the mid-1990s. The sweetening properties of the agave plant, though, have been utilized for hundreds of years in Mexican cultures dating back to the Aztec civilization. The nectar is derived either solely or in combination from one of two species of the agave plant: Blue Agave (Agave Tequiliana) and White Agave (Agave Salmiana). Processing techniques vary and can have significant impact on final nutritional properties, but the end result is a fructose-based sweetener similar to honey in both flavor and color, though slightly less viscous. Extremely sweet, its flavor is also generally considered quite mild, adding to its appeal.
To produce a raw, organic agave nectar from the Blue Agave plant, the bulb, or root (called the piña) is ground down to a pulp using a water-injection process called hydrolysis to extract the naturally occurring fructans (chains of fructose molecules) called inulin. The inulin juice can then be either heated or injected with organic enzymes, effectively breaking it down to simple sugars – fructose and glucose. After evaporation, the juice develops a syrup-like consistency in its final form.
In the center of the White Agave plant grows a large stalk called a Quiote. The Quiote is essentially a flower. To nourish the flower, the plant produces a sweet liquid called aquamiel. If the Quiote is removed prior to maturation the plant will continue to produce aquamiel. This liquid is harvested daily and, again, organic enzymes are added to convert it to simple sugars, followed by a final evaporation which results in the bottled product. Though roughly equal in the percentage of fructose content as other popular sweeteners like table sugar and honey (pure Blue Agave nectar can be higher, depending on processing technique), the lower glucose levels result in a significantly lower overall sugar content and much lower ratings on the glycemic index as it is glucose, not fructose, which primarily contributes to short-term fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
What It Isn’t
The universal misconception in seemingly endless blog posts and articles condemning agave nectar is that processing techniques mirror those of HFCS and result in an altogether similar product. In a nutshell, HFCS is the result of starches from genetically modified corn which have been converted into simple sugars via chemical processes separating them from the corn’s insoluble fiber. The starch is then mixed with acids and filtration chemicals, and heated to form a glucose-based syrup. Ratios from 40% to 90% of this syrup is next further processed to convert the glucose into fructose, which is then added back to the original glucose-based syrup. The result is high-fructose corn syrup, so labeled because of added converted fructose to a glucose-based initial product.
The fructose levels of both HFCS and agave nectar can, again, depending on processing techniques, be similar. In no uncertain terms, however, does the processing of HFCS allow for any nutritive value from the original food (in this case, corn) to be preserved. Not so with organic, raw agave nectar, and this is the main difference in the two: the calories of HFCS are empty calories, meaning, they contain none of the nutritive properties of agave nectar: vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. This is in no way an assertion that agave nectar is actually health food. Again, as mentioned earlier, it is sugar. Ingesting excessive amounts of any sugar, agave nectar included, comes with consequences. This claim is not that agave nectar is good for you. Rather, that it is a better alternative than most sweeteners – all of which must be used in moderation.
Of course, not all agave nectars are created equal, and it is highly likely there are manufacturers producing it with very similar processing techniques as that of HFCS. An example would be grinding the piña to a pulp and boiling it, then processing it chemically to form syrup. It is also possible the addition of non-organic enzymes for sugar conversion takes place with some makers. In fact, any processing methods other than those mentioned earlier probably result in a product no more beneficial, health-wise, than HFCS. It is always wise to do your due-diligence before purchasing. Short of visiting the manufacturing plants, themselves, my advice is to look for “raw” and, of course, “organic” on your labels. I also tend to gravitate toward lighter-colored agave nectars.
Common Sense Prevails
With any true raw, organic agave nectar, its user is benefitting from a sweetener devoid of additives and fillers, yet also contains vitamins, nutrients, and even inulin – a beneficial fiber known to promote healthy, functional bacteria in the digestive tract. In general, it will contain a lower overall percentage of actual sugars on a gram-for-gram basis than other sweeteners, yet its higher fructose ratios make its sweetness more easily detectable, meaning less of it has to be used than other sugars to yield similar “sweetness” levels. It’s versatile – can be used in beverages, for cooking, baking, and canning, and is also suitable for those on gluten-free diets.
Once more, moderation must be exercised. Even agave nectar’s most ardent supporters acknowledge exercising a dietary option of no added sugar is the best course of action, health-wise. But if you’re going to use sugar (or want to make certain ice-creams in your blender), discretionary use of agave nectar offers a natural and delicious alternative with nutritional benefits not found in other forms.
For more detailed coverage of the nutritional science behind agave nectar, as well as differing opinions on it, I recommend the following sources, which were consulted for this article:
Why Agave Nectar Is Not Worse Than High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Caution: Contains Agave Nectar (More to the story)
Agave Nectar: Good or Bad?
Why I Use Agave Nectar: An Examination of Agave Facts and Fiction