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Expert Vegan Cooking Tips

Agave Nectar—Sweet and Natural
by Ricki Heller


There's no doubt that we North Americans love our desserts. Unfortunately, when we opt for sweets, what we get—nutritionally, at least—is more like "sweet nothings." Refined sugar, the primary sweetener most of us consume, is basically a non-food; it adds virtually no nutritional content to what we eat.

Happily, there are more natural, and more nourishing, alternatives. The latest addition to this list of healthier, natural sweeteners is agave nectar.

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What is Agave?
Agave nectar (or agave syrup, as it's sometimes called) is a plant-based sweetener derived from the agave cactus, native to Mexico. Used for centuries to make tequila, agave juice produces a light golden syrup with a sweetness 1-1/2 times that of sugar, so you can use less in cooking. The light variety (there are also amber and dark grades) has a mild taste that won't alter the existing balance of flavors in your recipe as honey or maple syrup might do. It also won't crystallize with age. And it's got only 20 calories per teaspoon!

As with maple syrup, agave juice is extracted from the plant by tapping into it, pouring it off, then putting it through a filtering and heating process. The slight heat allows excess water to evaporate and activate enzymes that convert the existing carbohydrates into fructose, resulting in a sweet taste.

Why Is Agave Good for Me?
Like honey or maple syrup, agave is considered a "natural" sweetener because it doesn't contain any added chemicals as part of processing. This means that agave is a great, safe sweetener for children.

Many brands of agave are also considered to be "raw", or virtually unprocessed. The raw label benefits those on living foods diets, which require that foods are never heated above 118 degrees F. Anything higher and the natural enzymes in food (which help you digest the food and also provide immune system and other benefits) are denatured and begin to deteriorate. Another bonus: many kinds of agave are available in organic varieties, too.

Finally, agave is considered to be a low-glycemic sweetener, which means it doesn't spike blood sugar levels the way refined cane sugar does. The syrup is about 90% fructose, the same natural sweetener found in most fruits. Fructose is processed more slowly in the body than is glucose (sugar), providing a gradual, steady supply of energy to the body.

Agave's GI, considered low, ranges from 28-32 (honey's is 58). This also means that agave is suitable for type II diabetics, the only all-natural sweetener besides stevia, an herbal sweetener, to gain this privilege. It's also often recommended for anti-candida yeast diets. Some brands even bear the Glycemic Research Institute's "low glycemic" label as well.

How Can I Use Agave in My Own Cooking?
Agave is delicious on its own, as a syrup wherever you'd use honey or maple syrup. A huge advantage, though, is agave's lighter texture. It's less sticky than either honey or maple syrup, so it pours easily out of the jar (even those last few drops!).

Drizzle agave directly onto pancakes or waffles, onto frozen desserts or into smoothies, cereals, coffee or tea, or use the darker grades when you wish to add a touch of sweetness to a savory dish, such as some curries, baked tofu, or Thai foods. In baking, agave is a suitable substitute for sugar, with a few small adjustments. And unlike honey, agave is 100% vegan.

If you substitute agave for sugar in a recipe, use 2/3-3/4 the original amount of sweetener since agave is sweeter than sugar. Also, be sure to decrease the original liquid in the recipe by about 25 per cent and up to one third (so if a recipe calls for one cup of sugar and one cup soymilk, add only 2/3-3/4 cup agave and only 3/4 cup soymilk). Note also that agave, like honey, will burn more easily than sugar, so decrease the oven temperature by about 25 degrees.

Feel free to experiment with your existing recipes, and you'll find that it doesn't take long to determine just the right amount of agave to produce a delicious end product. With agave nectar, you can still enjoy your sweets—and good nutrition, too.

If you're new to this delectable sweetener, here's a great recipe to try.

Blueberry Coffee Cake This easy, delicious cake is a perfect light dessert that's not too sweet, yet it's also substantial enough to serve at brunch. Feel free to substitute other berries if you prefer.

Topping:
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1/4 cup whole spelt flour
  • 1/4 cup whole rolled oats
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. light agave nectar
  • 1 T. extra virgin olive oil or high oleic sunflower oil

Batter:
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil or high oleic sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup light agave nectar
  • 1/2 cup soymilk
  • 2 tbsp. ground flax seed or flax meal
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup whole spelt flour
  • 3/4 cup light spelt flour
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen, drained

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9x9" square baking pan or spray with nonstick spray.

Prepare topping: in a small bowl, blend the nuts, flour, oats, and cinnamon. In another small bowl, mix together the oil and agave nectar. Pour the agave mixture over the dry ingredients and toss until crumbly. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the 1/3 cup oil, 1/2 cup agave nectar, soymilk, flaxseed, lemon rind and vanilla. Set aside while you prepare the dry ingredients, or at least 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and baking powder. Pour wet ingredients over dry in bowl and stir just to blend (it's okay if a few small lumps remain). Gently fold one cup of the blueberries into batter. Spread batter in pan.

Sprinkle the top of the cake with the topping mixture, then sprinkle the remaining blueberries over all.

Bake for 45-50 minutes until a cake tester inserted in centre comes out clean. Lovely warm or at room temperature. Makes 9 large or 16 small squares.

Ricki Heller, PhD, RHN, is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and freelance writer who owns and operates Ricki's Kitchen Cooking Classes and Bake It Healthy, devoted to producing delicious baked treats free of wheat, dairy, eggs, or refined sweeteners. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and lab-border collie cross. Visit her on the web at www.rickiskitchen.com.

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