What’s the deal on agave?
Agave is a succulent that looks like a cactus but is actually related to lilies and amaryllis. It emits a sap know as aguamiel, which literally translates to honey-water. While other parts of the agave plant can be used as well, for example several plants yields a version of sisal hemp, is it this aguamiel that has taken the world by storm. (Source)
Aguamiel is better known to you and I as agave syrup or agave nectar. Agave, pronounced ah-gah-vay, has a lower glycemic index value than sugar or honey, making it a natural option for diabetics. For example, a tablespoon of sugar (sucrose) has a glycemix index of 65-69, and a honey has a glycemic index of 61-64 of pure, oganic blue agave has a glycemic index of 15-19. This means that agave marks as low-GI and sugar marks as the very high end of moderate GI. (In comparison, glucose, which is the sugar that our body creates by digesting sweets and starches has a GI value of 103 to 106) (Source).
Agave has also met the American Diabetic Association food exchange requirements for product labeling. Keep in mind that as the popularity of agave grows, some agave products are not pure agave, just like honey-flavored syrups and the like, so check the label carefully.
Agave does not crystallize or solidify like honey, and has a stable three-year shelf life. Because it is more expensive than other sweeteners, it isn’t a bad idea to purchase larger quantities of it at a time, especially if you plan on using it for baking and jam making and other recipes that call for more than a tablespoon or two.
When you are adapting a recipe to use agave keep the following things in mind:
· Agave nectar browns more quickly than sugar and honey so you want to lower your baking temperature by about 25 degrees and increase your baking time as needed. I usually start with the original baking time and then test for doneness every few minutes
· If you are using it as a replacement for honey, use a 1:1 ratio.
· If you are using it to replace sugar, use 25% less agave than the sugar called for. For example, use ¾ cup of agave for each cup of sugar in the recipe.
· Because agave is a liquid and table sugar is not, you will also want to reduce the amount of liquids in the recipe by one-third. So if you are making muffins that call for a cup of milk and a cup of sugar, you will change those ingredients to ¾ cup of agave and 2/3 a cup of milk. (Source)
Of course all recipes you see here will already have these adjustments made, and tested, for you!
Like all “miracle” foods, agave is not perfect. Agave is a fructose and studies of fructose (mostly studying high fructose corn syrup, not agave) has found that it metabolizes almost solely through the liver, which can cause higher triglycerides. These studies of high fructose corn syrup have shown that fructose can also cause insulin resistance and possibly even high blood pressure. Remember that these studies were based on HFCS, and the concern is based on the findings that between 1970 and 2003 our average consumption of fructose increased from less than half a pound per year to 56 pounds per year, almost entirely because of the huge addition of HFCS to our diets (Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food talk about this issue in more detail). Fructose is not only found in agave, but also in honey, fresh fruits, veggies, and even some meats such as corned beef and salami. Naturally occurring fructose, such as in the fresh fruit we eat, isn’t thought to be the problem, but the HFCS that is in so many foods now, even foods not meant to be sweet. So there is some concern that large amounts of agave could have the same effect. (Source)
Although I use agave as a sweetener, I have also greatly reduced the amount of HFCS in my diet by eating “whole” foods and processing foods myself to control what goes in them. Therefore, my total fructose intake is down. I also watch my blood work for signs of issues with my blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. My blood work doesn’t lie — when I am not eating properly it shows (my diabetes is not controlled by medications alone). But using agave has not caused any problems. However, if you have concerns discuss them with your doctor or your nutritionist, and monitor your own blood work for changes.
You will also notice that my recipes that use agave as a sugar replacement will often have an option for using an artificial sweetener such as Splenda along with adjustments in the recipe necessary to make it work so you can use this option instead of the agave. If the agave is used as a replacement for honey, that is also noted and you can use honey instead. Just keep in mind that honey has a much higher glycemic index than agave and is also up to 50% fructose. Even recipes that seem to call for a substantial amount of agave, have very little per serving. For example, 1 tablespoon is considered a serving size of agave or honey, however even in the freezer jam recipe, one tablespoon of jam only has about a teaspoon to a teaspoon and a half of agave in it.