The sweeter side of cactus
By Brandi Cowen
Agave nectar (pronounced uh-gah-vay) has developed quite the reputation
in recent years. In a March 2009 Los Angeles Times article, health
columnist Elena Conis summed agave’s many applications up quite nicely:
“It imparts a subtle sweetness to desserts and can be used to balance
the saltiness of meat dishes. Its delicate flavour has made it an
increasingly popular ingredient in bottled teas and health drinks.
Agave nectar (pronounced uh-gah-vay) has developed quite the reputation in recent years. In a March 2009 Los Angeles Times article, health columnist Elena Conis summed agave’s many applications up quite nicely: “It imparts a subtle sweetness to desserts and can be used to balance the saltiness of meat dishes. Its delicate flavour has made it an increasingly popular ingredient in bottled teas and health drinks. Its chemical composition lends itself to making moist, pliable nutrition bars. The longer chains of fructose that it contains, called fructans, are a type of fiber – which food manufactures can advertise on their labels.” In short, this nectar from a hearty plant that loves the beating sun and nutrient-rich volcanic soil of Mexico and parts of the United States boasts an impressive resumé.
In The Dictionary of Wholesome Foods: A Passionate A-to-Z Guide to the Earth’s Healthy Offerings, authors Embree De Persiis Vona, Anstice Carroll and Gianna De Persiis Vona write: “The ancients considered the agave to be a sacred plant with properties to purify the body and soul. The Spaniards, who apparently had their own ideas with regard to self-purification, took this same juice, fermented it, and created what we now call tequila.”
Proving that everything old is new again, agave has become a buzzword in the food and beverage industries as companies compete to capture the growing market share of health-conscious consumers. Rest easy though –
despite increasing demand for agave nectar, the tequila market isn’t in danger of disappearing any time soon.
There are more than 100 varieties of agave plants, which, when fully grown, can range from five to eight feet tall, and seven to 12 feet in diameter. Their appearance is similar to that of cacti and yuccas, and they come in a variety of colours. Agave nectar (also known as agave syrup) is usually gathered from the Agave tequiliana. As mentioned, this is the same plant that gives us tequila. Agave nectar can also be collected from the Agave salmiana, and the thorny, rainbow, blue, green and grey varieties. All of these agaves are native to Mexico and parts of the southern and western United States.
The way the nectar is collected depends on the variety of agave it is being harvested from, and the company doing the harvesting.
“Agave nectar (and tequila) is made from the sap from hearts (piñas) of the plant,” states the website for Volcanic Nectar, one of the many brands available. “The leaves are removed from the plant, which bares the base of the plant half above and half below ground. The agave base is then removed and taken to a facility to where it is heated to no more than 118F to get the juices flowing.”
The plant base is then chopped, filtered, and run through a centrifuge before being bottled.
Madhava, a company based in Lyons, Colo., takes a different approach. According to the company website, workers, “slice off the top of the plant and hollow out its core. Then the plant is capped with a stone. The pineapple shaped agave plant secretes its nectar into the centre of the plant, rather than into the flowers like most plants do. It collects in the hollow centre for several days, after which the milky white ‘juice’ is removed by ladle, one plant at a time.”
This liquid is then boiled down in much the same way maple sap is when making maple syrup.
Agave nectar is available in light, amber and dark varieties. The colour of the nectar depends on the amount of heat it’s exposed to during processing. Regardless of how they are produced, all varieties of nectar from all species of these plants contain some measure of calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. The mineral content varies from one variety to the next.
THE GREAT AGAVE DEBATE
This syrup has stirred up its fair share of debate since making its way into the consumer consciousness. Agave nectar is by turns held up as the very model of wholesome, healthful eating, and vilified as an imposter, merely masquerading as a good-for-you sweetener.
In her 2009 LA Times column, Conis wrote: “Agave offers no advantage in terms of caloric content: about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as table sugar.” In other words, unlike artificial sweeteners (aspartame, for example), agave nectar doesn’t do a dedicated calorie counter any favours. Conis noted, however, “the syrup’s chemical makeup can differ significantly from that of other sweeteners. Whereas table sugar is composed of sucrose, which is broken down to yield half fructose and half glucose, agave can contain up to 90 per cent fructose.” That difference can be an important one if you’re baking for people with certain medical conditions, including diabetes, as explained below.
In Sweet! From Agave to Turbinado, Home Baking with Every Kind of Natural Sugar and Sweetener, Mäni Niall notes that because of this high fructose content, agave nectar has a low glycemic index (GI) value. That means the body absorbs the sugars in agave nectar slowly. Sugar, on the other hand, has a higher GI value; it is absorbed quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar.
“Using natural low-GI sweeteners such as agave allows people with certain types of diabetes or hypoglycemia to still enjoy sweet foods without playing havoc on their blood sugar, and is far preferable to substituting artificial sweeteners, or shunning sweets altogether,” Niall writes.
But in other respects, agave nectar may be similar to or even on par with some artificial sweeteners. In a study published in the January 2009 edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers studied the antioxidant capacity of 12 different types of sweeteners, as well as refined white sugar and corn syrup. The study looked at major brand products available at retail outlets in the United States. Agave nectar was found to have a similar antioxidant capacity to that of refined sweeteners, including refined sugar and corn syrup. Other sweeteners, including maple syrup, brown sugar and honey, demonstrated higher antioxidant capacities than various types of agave nectars. The best performers in the study were dark and blackstrap molasses, which outperformed the agave syrups tested by a wide margin.
The Dictionary of Wholesome Foods advises that because the nectar is sweeter than sugar, one cup of sugar can be substituted for a three-quarter cup of agave. The book also recommends reducing the liquid in a formulation by approximately one-half, as agave nectar will add moisture to your product.
When baking goods made with agave, also bear in mind that the nectar browns faster than sugar. Set your baking temperature approximately 4 C (25 F) below the temperature your formulation calls for. If you don’t lower your temperature, your products will brown too quickly, becoming overly dark on the outside though they remain undercooked on the inside.
Agave nectar keeps best when it is stored in a sterile, airtight container. Keep that container in a cool dry place, or in the refrigerator. Like honey, agave nectar will keep for more than a year if it’s stored properly. Unlike honey, however, it will not crystallize over time.
Agave nectar has a lot to offer, whether you’re interested in giving customers healthier choices, cleaning up your labels or simply expanding your baking repertoire, but it may not be right for every bakery. As you would with any other aspect of your business, do your homework and evaluate whether the benefits of working with agave are consistent with your company’s goals, brand and bottom line.