(See my update at the bottom of the article which explains why I no longer use agave nectar. It is NOT a "healthy food"!))
As I have stated in several of my previous posts, I prefer not to add any sweetener to my dishes, preferring fruit such as raisins instead. If a sweetener must be added, I will suggest the use of honey or the herb stevia. However, I do keep agave nectar on hand. A wonderful chilled lavender lemonade I like to share in the summer time does need just a little sweetening, and agave nectar does a perfect job - not over powering, but enhancing the taste of the lavender and lemon.
There are currently only two manufactures of agave nectar - Volcanic Agave and Netkutli. Other companies that sell agave nectar put their label on the product from one of these manufacturers. Volcanic Agave produces agave nectar from the blue agave plant and Netkutli produces agave nectar from the agave salmiana plant. These two manufacturers produce agave nectar differently.
Volcanic Agave produces agave nectar by expressing the juice from the core of the blue agave plant, called the piña. The juice is filtered using mesh screens, then heated at a low temperature of 118 degrees, to hydrolyze carbohydrates into sugars. The main carbohydrate is a complex form of fructose called inulin or fructosan. The filtered, hydrolyzed juice is concentrated to a syrup-like liquid a little thinner than honey and ranges in color from light to dark depending on the degree of processing.
Netkutli produces agave nectar by expressing the juice from the core of the agave salmiana plant by hand twice a day. It is immediately brought to the facility to remove the excess water as it will ferment rapidly if left standing. It is during the removal of the moisture that the only heat is applied. The juice is evaporated and moisture removed in a vacuum evaporator. The vacuum enables the moisture to be withdrawn at low temperatures. The temperature is closely controlled at approximately 138 degrees. A natural non genetically modified (GM) organic vegan enzyme is introduced to convert the complex sugars into their simple sugar components. Inulin is a fructan which is hydrolyzed into the simple sugars composing agave nectar, fructose and glucose. The sugars in agave nectar come from the breakdown of the inulin molecule through the introduction of the enzyme to break apart that molecule.
Neither manufacturer has chemicals involved in any part of their production or packaging process. Nor do either add other sugars to their finished product. However there were other manufacturers who did. The last of these were closed down in the summer of 2008.
I personally prefer using the blue agave nectar, since the manufacturing process uses very low temperature (118 degrees) and no additional enzymes. But it is my personal preference only. The other manufacturing process uses a natural enzyme, much the same as bees do to make honey. I just feel that the evaporation process at 138 degrees may be removing some of the natural nutrients, even though I have no evidence that this is true.
Agave nectar IS a sugar. It has been touted as safer for diabetics because a higher fructose composition typically doesn't cause dangerous spikes in blood glucose. However recent clinical trials were halted by the Glycemic Research Institute in Washington D. C. because of severe side effects in diabetics.
Update October 24, 2013: I no longer use agave nectar personally and have removed the product from home and shop supplies. Why? Because agave nectar is 55% fructose! As the Health Ranger from EWG (Environmental Work Group) explains so well what I have read in articles and books from medical researchers:
"Glucose (derived from carbohydrates and 'normal' sugar) is used as fuel by the cells in our body. In contrast, the fructose derived from HFCS can only be metabolized by the liver. As a result, when consuming fructose in HFCS, 30% of it is stored as fat! In addition, fructose, in contrast to glucose, has no effect on appetite, which results in overeating and obesity."
Fructose also drives up uric acid, which is a direct pathway toward hypertension, insulin resistance, diabetes, kidney and liver disease. So in this sense agave nectar with 55% (sometimes even 90%!) fructose is as detrimental to health as HFCS.
Now we know why there were such severe side effects in the clinical trials!