Earlier in this series: Why agave nectar isn’t a "natural" sweetener and Why it isn’t healthier than table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup
As promised, this entry addresses two final questions about the difference between agave nectar and sugar: 1) whether it tastes different and perhaps better in some applications and 2) whether it’s a good way to cut calories because it’s sweeter than sugar. The answer to both is yes in theory, but not really in practice.
The Claim: Agave Nectar tastes different/better
Agave nectar definitely tastes different than sugar, which is probably due mostly to the trace minerals that remain after the liquid harvested from the cactus is centrifuged, concentrated, filtered, coagulated, treated with activated charcoal, and then treated with heat or enzymes to hydrolyze the inulin into its constituent fructose molecules. However, the flavor is mild. Clotide of Chocolate & Zucchini used it as a substitute for honey in a recipe for marshmallows specifically because the flavor is less pronounced than honey:
I decided to use agave syrup, a more flavor-neutral sweetener that can be found in natural food stores.
However neutral, as long as it’s different, I’m willing to accept the possibility that it might taste better in some applications. But based on the Derby Day taste test, mint juleps aren’t one of them.
Part of the inspiration for the taste test was an entry on Cooking Issues about a blind taste test of margaritas sweetened with agave nectar or simple syrup, with the following results:
The consensus was that the agave nectar drink was deeper, more complex, had a longer finish, and was more tequila-y (in the sense of blanco tequila), than the simple syrup one. The simple syrup was deemed cleaner and fresher tasting. Three people said they outright preferred the agave nectar until Nils said, “It depends, during the daytime or at the beach I’d prefer the simple syrup, at night at a bar or with food I want the agave.” Everyone could agree to that.
They used a refractometer to make sure the amount of sugar in the two mixtures was the same, which required them to water down both the agave and simple syrups (4:1 water:syrup). Their mixes contained the same amount of tequila, lime juice, and ice, but the simple syrup one contained 22 g more water (about 3/4 oz) based on the refractometer’s measure of how much sweeter agave was. Not perfectly controlled, but I agree that you wouldn’t really expect 3/4 oz water distributed over multiple taster portions to affect the taste much.
“Deeper” was also how the friend who hosts the annual Derby Day party (and makes some of the best fried chicken I have ever had) described the agave-sweetened mint juleps he had had in the past. So my expectation—the hypothesis of this little experiment, I suppose—was that agave nectar is sufficiently different in taste from sugar to noticeably affect and perhaps improve the taste of cocktails.
In advance of the party, my friend made a simple syrup that was 1:1 white sugar:water and steeped a bunch of mint leaves in both that and about 12 oz. agave nectar. Neither of us has a refractometer, but the bottle of agave claimed that it should be substituted for sugar using a 3:4 ratio. Since it wasn’t diluted at all, it was substantially more viscous and sweeter than the simple syrup. There was some discussion of diluting the entire pitcher and then measuring out the cocktails very carefully with 3/4 as much diluted agave syrup as simple syrup and marking glasses randomly and having people fill out ballots. But in the end that seemed like too much effort and possibly still not completely controlled, so we decided just to let people mix their own drinks to taste.
I prepared a side-by-side test by pouring about 1/2 oz of simple syrup into one cup and about 1/4 oz of the agave syrup into the other, diluting the agave to about the same level as the simple syrup, topping both with about 3x as much Jim Beam as syrup, and trying to add about the same amount of ice to both cups. This was in no way a controlled experiment. However, once mixed, there was no visually-apparent difference between the two. I knew I had gotten a few more mint leaves in the agave-sweetened one, but to anyone else, it would have been basically impossible to distinguish.
I took a sip of each and couldn’t tell any difference at all. So I had two other people taste them, without telling them which was which—including the host who had claimed that agave made for a “deeper” drink, and they couldn’t tell any difference or identify which was which either. It was even almost a double-blind because I kept losing track of which one was in which hand and having to peer into the glasses to compare the number of mint leaves.
The syrups themselves definitely tasted different, although the difference is difficult to describe—the flavor of the agave is almost a little caramelly, not as different from white sugar as brown sugar is but comparable to turbinado or “raw” sugar. Also, the sweetness seems thinner or purer than the sweetness of sugar, although that may be entirely the product of my expectations for how fructose might taste different than sucrose. Still, the fact that we could taste the difference in the syrups despite the fact that both were steeped in mint suggests that what masked the taste difference in the cocktails was the bourbon, ice, and/or dilution of the sugars in water.
The results have made me question whether the taste difference in both the Cooking Issues margarita test and my friend’s previous agave-sweetened julep experiences really did have something to do with the amount of water in the cocktail. The Cooking Issues mixes were 445 g (simple syrup) and 423 g (agave) including the ice, 255 g and 233 g without. Perhaps 22 g water—which would have been between 5-10% of the mixture depending on how much the ice melted—really did affect the taste. That certainly might explain why the tequila was more prominent in the agave-sweetened drink, and why it tasted “deeper” and “more complex.”
Although agave is more viscous than simple syrup, it dissolves even in cold drinks much more easily than granulated sugar. That might be better grounds for a defense of its superiority than the difference in flavor: agave might be a way to make drinks sweet without diluting them as much as you do when you add simple syrup. However, if the issue is dilution, you should be able to get the same effect by making a less dilute simple syrup, if necessary, by cooking it down. Cooking it could also produce caramelization, which might mimic the flavor of agave for applications that might benefit from that; using turbinado sugar might have the same effect. And either of those options might be worth considering if you really think agave tastes better but you’re at all concerned about your liver. However, in general, I think the difference in flavor and concentration of sweetness is not likely to be significant enough to outweigh the potential health risks.
The Claim: Agave Nectar is sweeter so substituting it saves calories
Fructose is sweeter than any other naturally-occurring carbohydrate. According to Wikipedia, pure fructose is about 1.73 times sweeter than sucrose. That may call into question the Cooking Issues refractometer, or their use of it to control for sweetness, because it judged their agave nectar to be 1.77x sweeter than the simple syrup. Agave nectar is supposedly between 56-90% fructose and 8-20% glucose, so it should never be sweeter than fructose. Madhava says its agave has approximately 1.4x the sweetening power of sugar, which seems far more likely. I’m not super familiar with refractometers, but from what I can tell, they measure sugar content and not the type of sugar, so something with a lot of lactose could still get a high reading even though it wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet as something with the same concentration of glucose, sucrose, or fructose. So another possibility for the perceived difference in the Cooking Issues taste test might be that the agave-sweetened margaritas were less sweet and that’s why they tasted more like tequila, deeper, and more complex.
Anyhow, the caloric content of agave nectar varies based on the plant it comes from and the method used to hydrolyze the inulin, but in general, 1 Tablespoon contains 60 calories whereas 1 Tablespoon of sugar contains 45 kcal. That’s largely a difference of density—a tablespoon of agave is 21 g (part of that is moisture, but Madhava claims that 77% is solids, so that’s 16.17 g) and a tablespoon of sugar is only 12.5 g. Most of the suggested substitutions I’ve seen, including the one on the Madhava site and the back of the bottle we used for the mint juleps, call for 3/4 cup agave nectar for 1 cup of sugar or honey. 3/4 cup agave (252 g total; 194 g solids) @ 60 calories/T = 720 calories, which is exactly the same as 1 cup sucrose (200 g) @ 45 calories/T. So if you follow the manufacturer-recommended substitution, there are no caloric savings.
It’s possible that the 3/4 cup agave = 1 cup sugar is an incorrect substitution. Given that fructose is sweeter than glucose, you should be able to use less agave than sugar (based on the weight of the solids, not just volume) to achieve the same level of “sweetness.” However, the nutritional information of agave-sweetened products vs. their sugar and HFCS-sweetened alternatives also suggests that in practice, people end up using the caloric equivalent rather than the sweetness equivalent. Wholemato Ketchup, which is sweetened with agave, contains 15 calories per 17 g serving, which is 5g less than sugar-sweetened Hunts, but exactly the same as HFCS-sweetened Heinz. From what I remember, Hunts actually tastes sweeter than Heinz, which may account for the difference between the two “normal” brands; having never tasted Wholemato and being somewhat disinclined to buy it, I can’t say whether it’s sweeter than Heinz or not. Nonetheless, no real savings here either.
Just to give agave full benefit of the doubt, I decided to calculate how many calories you’d save if you substituted how much you should be able to use to achieve the same amount of sweetness, rather than how much people actually seem to use: if agave is 1.4x sweeter than sugar, you should only need 143 g (in solids) to achieve the same amount of sweetness as 200 g of sucrose. That would require 186 g agave nectar, or 8.9 Tablespoons for every cup of sugar, closer to 1/2 cup for every 1 cup of sugar than 3/4 cup. Those 8.9 Tablespoons would contain 531 kcal, or about 190 fewer calories than the cup of sugar. If a “serving” of whatever you’re making contains 1 Tablespoon of sugar, the agave-sweetened version would contain about 12 fewer calories per serving than the sugar-sweetened equivalent (for 2 T sugar, 24 fewer calories, for 3 T sugar, 36 fewer calories, etc.)
So yes, in theory you can save around 12 calories per serving (or more for very sweet drinks and desserts; 1 T is just the “serving size”) by using agave nectar instead of sucrose or HFCS. But in practice, it’s not clear that that actually happens, and you definitely shouldn’t be misled by the difference in the volume of the recommended substitution. 3/4 cup agave is calorically identical to 1 cup sugar. Also, none of that changes the fact that it’s probably nutritionally worse.