Agave nectar and simple syrup show up in many cocktail recipes. Are they interchangeable? It depends. Let’s compare them in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does agave nectar differ from simple syrup?
Agave nectar and simple syrup come from very different sources. Agave nectar is made from the sap of an agave plant related to the agave used to make tequila.
While many believe that tequila and agave nectar come from the same kind of agave, the nectar comes from a type of agave plant called maguey plant or century plant. This is a different plant from the Agave tequilana genus that is used to make tequila.
The juice is extracted from the core of the plant then filtered before being heated. The liquid is then concentrated to turn it into syrup. Simple syrup is made from refined white sugar mixed with water in a 1:1 ratio. The sugar may be derived from sugarcane or sugar beets. The two ingredients may be combined at room temperature or heated for faster dissolution of the sugar crystals.
Simple syrup can sometimes be mixed in a 2:1 ratio with twice as much sugar as water. This kind of simple syrup is sometimes labeled as rich simple syrup.
Agave nectar and simple syrup have different flavor profiles. Agave nectar has a honey taste that increases in intensity with the darkness of the syrup. The darkest syrup has the strongest flavor, while the lightest one is the closest to matching the neutrality of simple syrup. It still has more flavor than simple syrup but is the closest agave nectar ever comes to being sweet with no other flavor notes. Because its flavor comes from the most flavorless form of sugar, simple syrup is simply sweet.
Agave nectar and simple syrup affect health differently. The difference comes from the fact that agave nectar gets most of its sweetness from its high percentage of fructose. The body does not deal with fructose in the same way that it deals with glucose.
Fructose is processed in the liver, so it does not cause spikes in blood sugar. Instead, the liver puts out fat in the form of triglycerides that circulate in the blood and result in clogged arteries, belly fat, and fatty liver disease. The refined white sugar used to make simple syrup consists of sucrose, which is made up of fructose and glucose in equal amounts. Glucose has a very high glycemic index rating because it is absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly.
Along with the spike in blood sugar, there is a spike in insulin. The more often these spikes occur, the greater your risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes.
Can you use agave nectar as a substitute for simple syrup and vice versa?
From a flavor standpoint, light agave nectar can work as a substitute for simple syrup in most cocktails. It won’t be ideal since there are differences in the flavors of the two, but it will provide sweetness. In lightly flavored cocktails, the difference between the two sweeteners may be more noticeable than in strongly flavored ones.
Simple syrup can work as a substitute for agave nectar in most applications. It will provide a clean sweetness that shouldn’t affect the flavors of other ingredients.
When should you use agave nectar, and when should you use simple syrup?
Use agave nectar in strongly flavored cocktails and other beverages as well as in baked goods and other foods. Simple syrup should be limited primarily to cocktails, where it provides a clean sweetness without any other flavors.