Agave Nectar – Should you be using it?

A few years ago, Agave nectar was all the rage and touted as the sweetener to use. I have written about sweeteners in cooking/baking in prior Cooking Tips. Here is one on Liquid Sugars, of which agave is just one type. Here is another one – Sugars – more than just sweetness. In this current Cooking Tip, I will focus only on agave.

Agave nectar comes from the agave plant, also known as the “century plant”. It is used for its supposed healing properties and is the plant from which tequila is made. Agave nectar is a golden-colored liquid sweetener that comes from this same plant. There are different kinds.

  • Light agave nectar – This has undergone multiple processing steps including heating and filtering. This gives it a more neutral taste but it also leads to a loss of some of its nutrients.
  • Raw agave nectar – This is an unprocessed nectar. It is darker in color with a more distinctive taste. No nutrients are lost since it is not processed.
  • Agave sweet powder – With this product, all the liquid is removed, turning it into a granular form, which is then crushed into a powder.

Agave has been pushed by some by saying it is a more natural and healthier sweetener. It is touted as having a low glycemic index (GI) and thus, less impact on your blood sugar levels. However, the story doesn’t end there. The reason it is said to be low on the GI scale is that it is 85% fructose. Fructose will not raise short term blood sugar levels as rapidly as the glucose found in table sugar (table sugar, aka sucrose, is made up of 50/50 glucose and fructose). However, there are those who say because fructose is only processed by the liver, it can lead to other health concerns such as increased triglyceride levels, increased insulin resistance and others. So, as with so many wondrous “health finds”, there are two sides to the story.

Another benefit is said to be that since it is 1½ times sweeter than other sweeteners, you can use less. Another nice thing is that it doesn’t crystallize like honey.

If you wish to use it in your kitchen, there are some recommendations. It can easily be added to beverages, vinaigrettes, sauces and as a topping for things such as oatmeal. The biggest problem comes with baking.

If you have a recipe that was designed using agave, great. However, if you are trying to swap out other sweeteners in favor of agave, there are factors that you need to consider.

  • As mentioned above, it is sweeter. You will, therefore, need to reduce the amount you use by ½ to ⅓.
  • It is a liquid as opposed to granulated, brown or other sugars. This will need to be compensated for by decreasing other liquids.
  • Just as with honey, it can lead to excessive browning of items in the oven. Reduce the oven temp by 25° to prevent this.
  • Baked goods made with agave can be sticky and so the use of parchment is strongly advised.
  • It must first be combined with the liquids or fats in your recipe to prevent a crusty or oily layer on top.
  • If baking time is more than 40 minutes, reduce the cooking time by 5-10 minutes.
  • Sugar does more than just add sweetness. See my Sugar Cooking Tip for a further discussion on this. Be aware of this before simply swapping it out.

I found three tests of head-on comparisons of the same baked goods made with agave and sugar or honey.

  • Cook’s Country tested cornbread and honey-wheat rolls. They found light agave to work just as well as honey, but it lacked true honey flavor. The amber agave led to darker baked goods with an earthier flavor.
  • Cook’s Illustrated tested it in cookies and cakes as a substitute for sugar and found, even with recommended adjustments, the results were subpar.
  • Deseret substituted agave for sugar in brownies. Although the agave brownies were moist, they were more cake-like and lacked the caramelized sugary crust that the brownies made with sugar had.

I looked at multiple sources to come up with the following recommendations for you if you do want to try agave in place of another sweetener.

  • Honey – replace with equal amounts.
  • Maple Syrup – replace with equal amounts.
  • Brown Rice Syrup – use ½ to ⅓ as much agave and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ½ cup.
  • Corn Syrup – use ½ as much agave, and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ⅓ cup.
  • White Sugar – recommendations vary just a bit
    • Some sources recommend that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave, and reduce the liquid in the recipe by ¼ to ⅓ cup.
    • Another source recommends the “75% rule”, which means using only ¾ of the amount of agave by volume as granulated sugar. For every cup of sugar that the recipe calls for, reduce the liquid by 2-4 tablespoons.
  • Brown Sugar – again, there are some differences in recommendations
    • One guide is that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 2 tablespoons.
    • Another says to use ¾ cup of agave nectar for each cup of brown sugar the recipe calls for and reduce the liquid by no more than a tablespoon.

When it comes to reducing the liquids, you have choices. Some liquid ingredients (milk, eggs) are made up of water while others are liquid fats. Although both categories are liquid, water will evaporate as it heats whereas the fats will remain. Therefore, you are probably better off reducing the former rather than the latter.

Remember that it is not an all or none situation. You do not have to replace all the sweetener in a recipe with agave. In fact, it may be better to only swap out a portion.

One source recommends the following

  • Cakes & brownies – replace only ½ of the sugars with agave
  • Cookies –replace ⅓ of the sugars with agave
  • Bars containing fruit – replace ⅔of the sugars with agave or 100% if it is fresh fruit

If you use agave or have been thinking about it, I hope this Tip will give you some information to help you be successful with it!