11/02/2011 09:48 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

What the Heck Is ... Agave Nectar?

Most people recognize agave as the spiky aloe-like plant that is used to make tequila. But this plant has more uses than just the drink that gave rise to college parties with tequila shots. Agave, which is native to Mexico, has been used since Aztec times. They considered it a gift from the gods and used the blue plant in their food and drink.

The agave plant takes seven to ten years to come to full maturity, before it can be harvested. All the leaves are removed to reveal the core called the pina, which looks like a giant pineapple. The sap is extracted from the pina. With minimal processing it's turned into a thick syrup that can be used as a sweetener.

Agave nectar or syrup comes in two varieties, light and amber. Light agave nectar is processed less but filtered more. Its taste and color are similar to honey. (Interestingly, agave nectar is called agua miel -- honey water -- in Spanish.) It makes a great addition to coffee, tea, or desserts. Amber agave is unfiltered and has a taste reminiscent of maple syrup. Use it in place of pancake syrup or maple syrup.

Over the years, the awareness of agave's many health benefits has made it popular among health conscious foodies. The syrup has a high fructose content, which is low on the glycemic index, making it suitable for diabetic diets. Unlike table sugar (sucrose), fructose does not trigger the production of insulin, which means it doesn't spike your blood sugar, keeps you from getting intense cravings, and doesn't set you up for an energy drop. Also since fructose is much sweeter than sucrose, you only need to use a little bit.

Next time when you're in the market, pick up a bottle of agave nectar. Give it a try in your morning cup of coffee. You might find yourself adding it to your diet.

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Watch the video from chef Michel Nischan as he explains the different types of natural sugar replacements for diabetics, including his favorite, agave nectar.