How sweet it is: Cooking with agave

Published: Wednesday, May 13 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Agave, left, has been used in Mexico for thousands of years. At right, triple-berry topping is made using agave as a sweetener.

Betterbody Food & Nutrition

Move over, sugar and honey. Make room, NutraSweet and Splenda.

Much of the latest sweetener buzz centers on agave, a syrup that comes from a plant in Mexico.

"Nectar-like agave syrup is one of the hottest of the new sweeteners, used in baked goods and drinks, and available in squeeze bottles in natural-food stores," writes commercial baker Mani Niall in "Sweet!" (Lifelong Books, $18.95), his new primer on cooking with natural sugars and sweeteners.

Utahn Steven Richards is capitalizing on that interest with his agave product called Xagave. To help people get better acquainted with it, he wrote a cookbook titled "Delicious Meets Nutritious" (BetterBody Foods, $29.95), and he has given cooking demonstrations at venues such as Orson Gygi and Bosch kitchen centers.

"It's the only sweetener that's natural and organic and is as versatile as sugar," Richards said.

"It's the only sweetener I know of that has health benefits associated with it. It can be used for cooking, canning and baking, without leaving any aftertaste."

Richards, a graduate of Provo High and Brigham Young University law school, practiced law and worked in investment banking in Los Angeles for more than a decade. About five years ago he moved to Utah and bought Graywhale Entertainment.

"But I always had this passion with cooking," he said. "My family has a long history of diabetes, and I learned that a lot of type 2 diabetes can be avoided through diet and exercise."

After he began cooking with agave, he traveled to Mexico, spent time with the farmers and hired medical doctors to verify its health benefits before getting into the business.

Agave has been used in Mexico for thousands of years, as the blue variety is fermented into tequila. The plant looks similar to a cactus, but it's part of the lily family.

Richards' product is a blend of both blue and white agave varieties, to combine the best flavor, cooking qualities and health benefits of the two, he said.

His company, BetterBody Foods, buys from a co-op of 700 farmers with certified organic fields. The product is bottled in Salt Lake City. He's also developing an organic maple-flavored agave syrup that can be used on pancakes and waffles.

He outlines some of the advantages:

It's low on the glycemic index, the bible of low-carb dieters. This means it has a less dramatic effect on blood-sugar levels than refined sugars, such as white sugar and corn syrup. High glycemic-index foods cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, followed by a drop that can leave a person feeling lethargic and hungry.

A teaspoon of agave is 20 calories, and regular sugar is 16 calories per teaspoon. But agave is 1.4 to 1.5 times sweeter, so you don't need as much to get the same sweetening power. Also, because of its moistness and other cooking properties, you can reduce the amount of butter, oil or other fats in your recipe, resulting in more calorie savings.

The proprietary Xagave blend includes inulin, a prebiotic fiber that helps maintain a healthful intestinal system, boosts your immune system and promotes regularity. Some studies have shown that inulin improves calcium and magnesium absorption.

Inulin is found in trace amounts in all fruits and vegetables, but the highest concentrations are found in chicory, agave and Jerusalem artichokes. Inulin also enhances the texture and mouthfeel of foods, an important factor in baking and cooking.

Agave contains calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals.

It is minimally processed and popular among vegans, who consider agave an ethically better choice than honey.

But the sweetener also carries some disadvantages and unknowns: