Ask the Expert: What’s the Deal with Agave Nectar?

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We’re proud to introduce the first member of the Nourish Network Advisory Board: Rebecca Katz, M.S. We profiled Rebecca as a Nourishing Hero, thanks to her smart, delicious approach to nutrition. She’s the author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery and One Bite at a Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends (both published by Celestial Arts).

I first heard about agave nectar about five years ago. It’s the the liquid sweetener made from the agave plant–the same plant that gives us that other sweet nectar: tequila. And what could be wrong with that? When agave nectar first emerged in the 1990s, it was heralded as a low-glycemic alternative to sugar. Since then, questions about agave’s nutritional credibility have cropped up, so I asked Nourish Network adviser Rebecca Katz, M.S., to help clear up the confusion.

“I use it in the cookbook [The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen] extremely sparingly,” says Katz. “But I wrote the cookbook before a lot of the more controversial information about agave came out.”

Agave nectar is comprised mostly of fructose. That means it has a low glycemic index, which means it doesn’t raise blood glucose as dramatically as, say, table sugar. Sounds good, especially if you’re diabetic, right? It’s also thought to have potential anti-inflammatory properties.

Not quite, says Katz. “It is a sweetener, and like any sweetener, it will interfere with metabolism in some way and can leave you feeling hungry,” she says. “Don’t pick it up thinking it’s a ‘healthy’ magic bullet.” According to the Glycemic Research Institute, a testing lab in Washington, D.C., large amounts of agave nectar can cause metabolic reactions in diabetics who eat too much of the stuff. The American Diabetes Association considers it like any other sweetener–table sugar, maple syrup, molasses and the like.

As with any sweetener, you should use agave nectar sparingly. “You have to look at agave like you would look at honey, or sugar or any other sweetener,” says Katz. “Used in moderation, it’s fine.” Agave nectar is about 1.5 times sweeter than cane sugar, so you can use less.

But not all agave nectars are created equal. Some are as processed and refined as high fructose corn syrup. “Look at the label very carefully because some of the big commercial brands can be cut with other ingredients,” Katz warns. Your best bet: raw, organic, blue agave nectar.

From a culinary perspective, agave is nice to include among your repertoire of sweeteners. It also works well as an inert sugar instead of corn syrup in candy-making, as we’ve used it in this Salted Pistachio Brittle. It has a more neutral taste and thinner consistency than honey, so you can use it in place of simple syrup in cocktails.

“It would make a great mojito!” says Katz.

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Salted Pistachio Brittle

Traditional brittle recipes call for corn syrup, but we’re not exactly fans of the stuff. Agave nectar makes a good substitute. Since it’s twice as sweet as corn syrup, you can use half as much in this recipe, adapted from Chef Guy Reuge of Three Village Inn in Stony Brook, New York. You can use different nuts or seeds and add a dash of spice (Reuge’s original version uses pumpkinseeds and cumin with delicious results). Here’s your chemistry lesson for the day: baking soda is the key ingredient that gives brittle its characteristic snap. Our version uses pistachios and coarse sea salt for a salty-sweet treat that’s delicious on its own or crumbled over ice cream or our Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding.

Salted Pistachio Brittle


Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Yield: 7 ounces

Salted Pistachio Brittle


  1. 2/3 cup sugar
  2. 2 tablespoons water
  3. 1 tablespoon light agave nectar
  4. 1 tablespoon butter
  5. 1-1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
  6. 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  7. 2/3 cup chopped pistachios


Combine the first 4 ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook 8 minutes or until golden-brown. (Keep an eye on it–this puppy can go from just right to burned in no time. Hint: as the bubbling slows down, you’re getting close.)

While the sugar mixture cooks, place a silicone baking mat on a work surface. Have a large piece of parchment paper and a rolling pin handy.

When sugar mixture is done, working quickly, remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the salt and baking soda. Stir in nuts. Pour mixture onto baking mat. Cover with parchment paper, and roll it as thin as possible (about 1/8 inch). Don’t worry if the parchment paper sticks to the warm brittle–you’ll be able to peel it away once the brittle cools.

Cool, break into pieces, and store in an airtight container.


(Cleaning tip: The caramel leaves a sticky mess in your saucepan. Just boil some water in the pan so the sugar melts.)