My roommate recently asked me to pick up a few bottles of agave nectar for her at the store. She works at a restaurant and was using it for a signature cocktail. Not wanting to seem ignorant, I agreed. I had no idea what the stuff was. When I got to the store, I found it sitting innocently next to the honey. It looked pretty similar.
To start, an introduction: Agave nectar is a natural sweetener, sweeter than honey though thinner, that is derived from the agave plant. (The sweetest variety, the blue agave, is the plant from which tequila is born.) Agave is an important crop in the Mexican regions of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. The juice from the center of the plant is heated and processed to produce a syrup.
Agave nectar is being marketed as a healthy alternative to other sugars, and Americans are taking the bait. According to a 2009 Los Angeles Times article, sales of agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007.
Agave nectar is beloved by vegans in search of a replacement for honey. (The debate over whether or not honey is vegan has been going on for a long time.)
One selling point of agave nectar is the type of sugar molecule that gives it its sweetness. Table sugar, sucrose, breaks down into two simpler sugars, fructose and glucose. Agave nectar can be made of up to 90 percent fructose, although the percentage varies from producer to producer and can be as low as 55 percent. It's not clear that fructose is any healthier than glucose, though, or than the related and lately maligned high fructose corn syrup.
When it comes down to it, agave nectar is still sugar. To quote Kantha Shelke, a food chemist specializing in natural foods, from the Los Angeles Times article, "A sugar is a sugar is a sugar."