I was aghast the other day when my wife took from the cupboard agave nectar as an ingredient for a dish we were making, to my mind honey would be the default ingredient and especially since we were beekeepers! The repost was that the recipe stated agave and it had a low Glycemic Index.
So after a little research here is my take of the differences and similarities of agave and honey.
Both agave nectar and honey have a long history going back thousands of years. There are depictions in the pyramids showing ancient Egyptians managing hives and collecting honey. Agave Nectar which is derived from the agave plant in Mexico (the same source as Tequila) was employed by the Aztecs as a sweetener.
Agave Nectar or honey water (called aguamiel in Mexico) is a golden in colour but the shade can differ even on the same plant. Agaves are large, spikey plants that resemble cactus or yuccas in both form and habitat, but they are actually succulents similar to the familiar Aloe Vera. When the agave has grown to 7-10 years old, the leaves of the plant are cut off, revealing the core of the plant (called the “pina”). When harvested, the pina resembles a giant pineapple and can weigh in at 50 to 150 pounds.
To make the agave nectar, sap is extracted from the pina, filtered, and heated at 48°C, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Agave nectar is high in fructose, with Blue Agave producing prized nectar.
The sugar content of the nectar is approximately 66% with a further 10% of carbohydrates and over 20% natural water content. As the nectar comes from a single source the Organic pedigree of the product can be assured. The liquid is runnier than most honey’s, I would put this down to the high fructose content, it lacks some of the stronger flavours of honey and therefore appeals to people who find honey unpalatable.
It does indeed have a Glycemic Index of 30 which is nearly half of that of honey, although the GI for honey will vary by nectar source. On most other measures such as sugars, carbohydrates and carlories agave and honey are similar. Agave contains a little fibre whereas honey does not, but honey contains potassium and agave nectar has none.
Honey comes from a variety of floral sources giving a great variation in taste consistency and content across the world and even within a single apiary. Honey is floral nectar is the result of nectar collected from plants within a 1.5 mile radius of a hive, these nectars will have different sucrose/fructose/glucose compositions. The sucrose is broken down to fructose and glucose naturally by the bee introducing an enzyme called invertase. Honey also has a whole host of minerals and proteins that come from the plants that the nectar is collected from. The reduction of water content is performed by the bees.
Commercial honey can be flash heated to 70°C and some local runny honey is heated for up to an hour at 62°C to extend the shelf life. Comb and Naturally Crystalised honey is not subject to heat.
Cost wise agave nectar from the supermarket is slightly more expensive than locally produced honey and significantly more expensive than supermarket honey.
So all in all it looks like the differences in are minimal and in the end of the day the choice is a matter of personal taste. However for me the key difference is that local honey is just that, produced locally from local fauna with a unique local flavour that can vary by season and by colony. As a beekeeper I would say that wouldn’t I!