Also called a “century plant,” agave (ah-GAH-vay) is a succulent grown primarily in Mexico. Its juice gained commercial value when Spanish Conquistadores learned to ferment it to make tequila, but its growing popularity as a sweetener is what’s generating a buzz in the food world.
Agave nectar (also called agave syrup) has a low Glycemic Index, meaning it’s slow to be absorbed by the body, so it’s gaining traction with diabetics and others who want to avoid a sugar rush. Since it’s produced at low temperatures, it’s becoming the sweetener of choice for advocates of a raw foods diet, and because it’s a plant product, vegans are embracing it as a substitute for honey. On the other hand, agave nectar is 90 percent fructose, so nutritionists recommend moderation for those with fructose sensitivities.
Agave nectar comes in light and dark forms, has the viscosity of maple syrup, and has a subtle taste with mild molasses tones. By volume, it’s slightly more potent than sugar. To try it in recipes calling for sugar, substitute about 3/4 cup nectar per one cup sugar, and reduce liquid by about one-third. One tablespoon of granulated sugar has about 75 calories; an equal amount of agave nectar has 60. If you happen across an agave plant, fight the urge to crack it open for a sip—agave juice is poisonous when raw. Agave nectar is available online and at natural food stores.
—Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.