Dear D.Y.: While agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) 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 agave nectar (also called agave syrup or honey water) is a sweeter commercially produced in South Africa and Mexico from several species of agave, including the Blue Agave Americana and Salmiana Agave. Agave nectar is sweeter than honey, though less viscous.
The Aztecs prized the agave as a gift from the gods and used the liquid from its core to flavor foods and drinks. Now, due to American’s increasing appetite for less refined sugar, agave nectar is becoming the preferred sweetener of health conscious consumers, fine dining restaurants, doctors, and natural foods cooks alike.
In the last century, the western diet has become increasingly dominated by refined sweeteners such as granulated sugar and corn syrup. The health issue with these substances is their high glycemic index and glycemic load – both measures of the relative impact that foods have on our blood sugar.
Foods that raise blood sugar quickly trigger the release of the hormone insulin. Excessive releases of insulin and, more specifically, chronically high blood sugar and insulin levels are linked to Metabolic Syndrome (also called Syndrome X), which is a complex of health disorders. Associated ailments include insulin resistance and type II diabetes, abdominal weight gain and obesity, problems with blood lipids (raised triglycerides and cholesterol) and high blood pressure.
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 (not to be confused with high fructose made from corn syrup) 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. Agave nectar is a natural sweetener that can be used moderately – by dieters, some diabetics, and health conscious cooks – to replace high-glycemic and refined sugars.