A Closer Look at Agave


This post springs from a certain preoccupation I've had lately, and is more of a topic for discussion than the usual recipe share and experiment, though there are a few recipes included at the end. Recently I've been finding myself repeating one of life's most basic lessons and catch phrases in odd contexts: what comes up surely must come down. It makes sense when talking gravity, or evaporation. But lately I keep running into new ways of applying it to reputation, at least where trends are concerned, including nutritional ones. Agave nectar comes from juice produced by various species of  agave, desert plant native to the Americas and the very same plant from which we process tequila. The product we purchase has been extracted from the agave core, filtered, heated into syrup and treated with enzymes to convert inulin into  sugars.  Boasting a lower glycemic impact than other natural sweetener alternatives, agave has been somewhat lionized for its potential to be suitable to diabetics in small quantities. It seems, though, any trend that gets built up becomes an open invitation to be bashed thereafter, and agave has been taking its fair share of beating.  Over the holidays, I began noticing cooling references becoming more commonplace. When my friend Lisa, who embodies a dynamic sort of attention-grabbing directness, brought up the topic at work, I decided to do some renewed digging on the viscous amber liquid, as well as taking an objective look at sweeteners as they work in specific recipes. One of the latest, most condemning write-ups on agave I came across was "Debunking the Agave Myth" by Johnny Bowden, an author, nutritionist, and weight loss coach. In it, Bowden shares compelling information to underline the premise that agave nectar is basically high fructose corn syrup masquerading as health food. The actual article is little more than a page and a worthwhile read. One essential point is,  agave's low glycemic label owes to the fact that it is primarily fructose. When contained in whole foods like fruits, fructose comes nicely encased in healthful nutrients, antioxidants and fiber. When extracted such as in highly processed in agave, Bowden says, fructose can cause a metabolic nightmare.

Still, there's plenty of good stuff floating around out there, not out-of-date, that holds higher regard for agave. Even the esteemed Dr. Andrew Weil has stated on his blog, "I like the taste of agave nectar and have started using it in my kitchen, as well as trying products that contain it." This week, I asked a couple of my favorite nutritionists to weigh in on agave, sending them the link to Bowden's article.

"Agave nectar is certainly a mixed bag when it comes to science and perception," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a physician and nutritionist in Sarasota, Florida. Gerbstadt commented that while the article was written in a sensational style, and very editorialized, the facts were essentially accurate. The take home message, however, is that a small amount of agave is alright; just don't buy into the idea that you can replace high fructose corn syrup or plain sugar on a 1-1 basis without similar consequences. For instance, she says, it's certainly not calorie free. One teaspoon contains approximately 20 calories, about the same as plain old sugar. Addressing one of Bowden's points, which explained how commercial processing typically converts all inulin, a natural sweetener with  some health value, into fructose, Gerbstadt notes that there are inulin-based sweeteners available, something which may be worth looking into another time.

Lisa Lanzano, RD, a Boulder-based nutritionist who conducts personal grocery shopping tours for her clients, emphasizes that quantity makes all the difference. She points out that agave is one and a half times sweeter than sugar, and so you can achieve desired taste with fewer calories in the long run. Lanzano also stresses how key the bigger picture is, in this case a person's overall lifestyle,  to the impact of something like an ingredient. "A single dose of either [agave or even high fructose corn syreup] won't cause insulin resistance--it develops over time with repeated exposure," she says. Lanzano also offers up that most products made with agave are targeted at consumers focused natural health, and likely include superior, natural ingredients like whole grains, nuts, and dried fruits.

The bottom line, Lanzano emphasizes, we over-consume sweeteners. In fact, the average American consumes 350-475 calories per day just from added sugars. Our sugar intake in America has risen over the past 30 years by 20%. "We are up to 22-30 teaspoons a day, Lanzano says. "The daily sugar goal for children and adults is to keep added sugars between 5-7 calories (1.25-1.75 teaspoons) per 100 calories for females and males, respectively." In other words, regardless of its form, less sugar is better.

Long story short: as with just about everything, it seems moderation wins. I'm not going to drown recipes in agave, or write off its calories as naturally nutritious. Nevertheless, revisiting some recipes in the quest to uncover the truth about agave, I realized there are times when it's my preferred sweetener. In baking, I like that I can often go with less, and its moisture-retaining properties means I can cut back on a little fat, too. I also like the how it changes the texture to baked goods, making them a little less dense. A little agave has a delicate and lovely flavor when added to teas and light drinks, and it's superb in chocolate and caramel sauces (in other words, indulgences that also need moderation, much like agave and other sugars themselves), or recipes with sauce-like qualities. Here are a few that have gone over especially well:

Easy chocolate orange sauce

Chocolate orange sauce

4 servings

½ cup cocoa powder

½ cup agave nectar

1 tablespoon corn starch

1 cup evaporated skim milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

*Optional: 2 ounces plain dark chocolate

1. Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, mixing well. Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously until thickened and bubbly. Serve over ice cream or fruit.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups: Lisa Smith, who is really the reason for this post int he first place, shared these over the holidays and they were great! The recipe comes from The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone, with a few minor adaptations.

½ Cup  Smart Balance Butter

½ Cup Organic Creamy Peanut Butter

¾ Cup Graham Cracker Crumbs or 10 Graham Cracker Squares

¼  cup Agave

1 Cup Carob Chips or Dark Chocolate Chips

¼ Cup Soy Milk

¼ Cup Pecans

Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Melt butter over medium heat; stir in peanut butter, graham crackers, and agave and mix well.

Remove from heat and evenly divide mixture, approximately two tablespoons per cup, into muffin cups.

Combine chocolate and milk in another pan.  Stir over medium heat until chocolate is melted.  Spoon chocolate evenly over peanut butter mixture.  Top with chopped pecans.

Place in refrigerate and chill 2 hours prior to serving.

Yields 12 cups.

Chocolate Banana Pudding Cake

This last recipe I can't yet personally vouch for, but I trust friends Jesse and Erin's palates, and they raved about it, so it's definitely worth a try.  Go to the link below and scroll about mid-way down the page.


Photo credit: Flikr user elana's pantry