Agave nectar: Alternative sweetener goes mainstream

Made from the juice of a native Mexican plant, agave nectar adds sweetness to this recipe for agave-barbecue roasted chicken. Enlarge photo

Matthew Mead/Associated Press

Made from the juice of a native Mexican plant, agave nectar adds sweetness to this recipe for agave-barbecue roasted chicken.

Finally ... A way to enjoy agave without the hangover!

That’s right, agave nectar – the current darling of the alternative sweetener world – is made from the same plant that is used to produce tequila. And it goes down so much easier (squeeze of lime and dash of salt are optional).

But let’s start with some basics. Agave nectar (sometimes called agave syrup) is an amber liquid that resembles honey, but has a cleaner, sweeter, even fruitier flavor. Not long ago it was mostly unheard of in the U.S., existing primarily in the backwaters of the natural foods world.

In recent years, it has evolved into a booming $200 million industry. Suddenly, it’s being used in everything from ketchup and barbecue sauce to baked goods and ice cream. And don’t even get me started about the cocktail scene.

Why all this attention to what amounts to the juice of a large cactus-looking plant native to Mexico?

It helps that agave syrup is sweeter than conventional sugar. So while it has the same calories as white sugar, you can use less of it without sacrificing flavor. When substituting, aim to use about 25 percent less than you would with refined sugar.

Many consumers also have latched on to agave’s glycemic appeal. That is a fancy way of saying that agave syrup is believed to have a less-intense effect on blood sugar levels.

When shopping for agave, check the grocer’s baking or honey sections, as well as the natural foods aisle. It usually is sold in squirt bottles. While some companies offer flavored varieties, the most common choices are light and amber.

Light agave syrup is highly filtered and lightly heated. Amber syrups are less filtered and heated slightly more. The latter also has a more robust flavor. Think of it this way – light agave is to amber agave as honey is to maple syrup.

Now that we’ve had our SAT moment, what should you do with agave? In general terms, light agave works well with light, fruity desserts. Heavily seasoned items, such as pumpkin pie, call for amber. The darker agave also makes a fine pancake or waffle topping on its own.