Agave has a gentle, lilting sweetness.

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read all her mission reports here.

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Photograph from Kenn Wilson on Flickr

In my all-girl middle school in Asia, the cool girls were either naturally blessed with willowy figures or were striving (and darn close) to attaining the "ideal" BMI of 17. During this "I will fit into a size zero or die trying" period in my life, I completely cut out all added sugar (and fat) from my diet. This, of course, didn't mean I lost my sweet tooth. I simply replaced all the natural sugars in my diet with artificial sweeteners.

I promptly lost weight. But I also lost my sense of taste.

Let me explain. People who use sugar substitutes like aspartame—and I don't just mean the casual user, but the hardcore ones who walk around with a dispenser in their pocket—they're addicted, not to the taste of these substitutes (because frankly, they leave the vilest of aftertastes), but to the illusion of freedom these substitutes provide: Freedom to indulge in giant diet sodas or in countless cups of sweet tea, without having to pay for it afterward in the gym. This smoke and mirrors of "free calories" is so enticing that it's not long before your taste buds forget how real sweetness ought to taste, and get used to (even becoming oblivious) to the horrid, vaguely licorice-like aftertaste in foods sweetened with sugar substitutes.

It was years before I allowed sugar in my diet again (I discovered running). But recently, I was considering carrying around my old dispenser, just to see if I could get away with running three times a week instead of four. I nudged the dispenser twice and watched two white tabs dissolve in my morning coffee, stirred, and took a sip. BLEARGH. I had to pour my coffee down the sink. After years of avoiding the fake stuff, my taste buds were no longer desensitized.

The good news is that new sweeteners have entered the market since my middle school years. Some of them, like stevia leaf extract, offer the same illusion of freedom, the same vile licorice aftertaste, but without the carcinogenic associations of aspartame. Others, like agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) nectar or syrup don't offer this illusion, but boast a low glycemic index (which means no sugar spikes or crashes), and no scary cancer threats.

Agave nectar is harvested from the agave plant, a succulent native to Mexico. The plant takes seven to ten years to mature, at which time it produces a flower stalk. Removing the flower leaves a bowl-shaped cavity, into which aguamiel or "honey water" is secreted by the plant. Collected aguamiel is then filtered and heated at a low temperature, or an enzyme is introduced that breaks down the natural carbohydrates into simple sugars.

Sweeter than honey but less viscous, agave syrup dissolves more readily in cold drinks. While honey often has a more complex flavor profile (floral notes and what have you) that may throw off the delicate balance of flavors in your food, agave has a gentle, lilting sweetness. I fell in love with its neutral taste when my awesome neighborhood coffee joint (Coffee Exchange in Providence, Rhode Island) started offering it at its condiment bar one hot summer. Imagine my disappointment when I moved to California—land of enlightened lifestyles and progressive attitudes—and could not find agave nectar at a condiment bar anywhere.

Since most cafes offer honey as a sweetener, is it the price that's keeping them from jumping on the agave nectar bandwagon? At about 22¢ an ounce, compared to honey's 33¢ an ounce on Amazon, it can't be the cost factor. So I'm guessing it must be the hippie factor—the fact that agave syrup is most often found in the organic, health-food section of supermarkets and not with the mainstream sweeteners—that's causing people to stay away. The vegans, of course, are all over it already—they finally have a natural, liquid sweetener that doesn't taste like maple syrup (because nobody wants maple syrup in their coffee). Even better, unlike honey, it doesn't harden at low temperatures, and it has a longer shelf life than maple syrup.

I've seen two varieties of agave nectar—the light, gold hued ones, and the darker, amber colored ones. Both are made from the same plant, with the darker ones having undergone more heating and less filtration. The darker ones have a stronger flavor profile that is more like maple syrup. I stick to the light colored one because its neutrality makes it a non-unitasker.

So, to quote the great Bart Simpson, we may not make friends with salad. But agave nectar? It's tasty, it's cheaper, and is well worth the venture into the hippie health-food section (especially when compared to the nastiness that is aspartame). And oh yeah, the Aztecs considered the agave a gift from the gods that would purify you—body and soul.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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