Agave: sweeter and healthier than sugar
Agave is a succulent that originates from Mexico and resembles a cactus in appearance, though it actually belongs to the botanical family Agavaceae and is closely related to the lily family. Agave plants are mainly cultivated in the hilly, semi-arid regions of Mexico, taking at least 7–10 years to mature.
There are more than 300 species of agave plants, but those most commonly harvested for their nectar are the Agave salmiana (century plant or maguey de pulque) or the Agave tequilana (blue agave or tequila plant). The nectar is used to produce that renowned spirit, tequila, the less well-known Mexican spirit pulque and the low-GI sweetener, agave syrup.
Agave: Nectar of the gods
Agave has been harvested for centuries in Mexico for a variety of uses including for food, housing materials, clothing and drinks. In ancient times, the thorns were used as needles and in blood-letting ceremonies. Traditionally, the Aztecs gathered the sweet juice aguamiel, or “honey water”, for use as a sweetener for special celebratory beverages. The Ancient Mexicans considered the plant to be sacred and believed the juice purified both body and soul, naming it “nectar of the gods”.
As well as a sweetener, they also used it as a topical antibacterial agent in wound care and for skin infections. Modern scientific study has recently confirmed these antibacterial properties with the nectar found to be effective against both enteric (intestinal) bacteria and pyogenic (pus-producing) bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph).
The agave plant contains inulin, which promotes the growth of friendly gut bacteria and is a type of soluble fibre; and saponins, a group of phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing, oestrogenic and progesterogenic actions within the body.
Agave syrup offers a low-GI (glycaemic index) alternative to sugar and a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. As with any sweetener, agave syrup can be used for a variety of purposes: as a sweetener in your tea, as a replacement for sugar in baking or instead of honey on your breakfast cereal.
Agave syrup is commercially derived by two different processes. In one process, the Agave salmiana plant is broken at the bottom of its stalk and the agave juice that is secreted into a well at the base of the plant is collected daily by a jimador (Mexican farmer) over a period of about eight months.
The second process uses agave pulp from the Agave tequilana species. The pineapple-shaped core (piña) is removed by a jimador after first stripping away the leaves using a coa, a specialised tool for harvesting agaves. The core is cut into smaller pieces, then pressed to extract the nectar within. This nectar is then processed into a sweet syrup, using either a natural enzymatic reaction or exposure to heat to break down the plant’s inulin fibre into fructose and glucose. The fructose component of the resulting syrup constitutes anywhere between 70 and 90 per cent, depending on the manufacturer.
Agave syrup is produced in different grades, varying in flavour and colour. The light syrup has undergone a fine filtration process and has a neutral taste that enables it to enhance the flavour of coffee, tea, fruit, baked goods, fresh fruits or smoothies without altering their flavour. The dark liquid is unfiltered and thus retains more vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and vitamin A. Raw agave syrup is produced at a low temperature, which ensures the syrup retains its natural enzymes.
Agave is low-GI
Agave syrup has the same amount of calories as table sugar, but is up to three times as sweet, so less is needed to sweeten your food and beverages. Agave syrup is higher in fructose than table sugar and has a lower glycaemic index, which means it doesn’t result in the same spikes in blood sugar levels, which are problematic for diabetics. Due to the fructose content, agave syrup has a GI ranking of less than 30 (this can vary depending on the manufacturer) compared with table sugar which has a GI of 68.
Research has revealed, though, that when fructose is consumed in excessive amounts, it can actually inactivate the insulin receptor, impairing insulin’s ability to transport glucose into the cell and therefore contributing to insulin resistance. Excessive consumption of fructose has also been shown to increase triglycerides and interfere with the metabolism of leptin (the anti-hunger hormone). This results in constant hunger and, over the long term, fatty liver, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These clinical studies, however, tend to use large doses of pure fructose rather than the moderate amounts of fructose gained from eating whole foods, which also usually contain a complexity of phytochemicals, nutrients and fibre.
It’s always best to avoid overconsumption of any sweetener, but if you are in need of a sweet treat, agave syrup when used in moderation offers you a tasty, low-GI alternative to refined sugars and artificial sweeteners.
Replace refined sugar with agave
- â…” cup of agave replaces 1 cup of sugar
- For coffee or tea, if you usually use 1 teaspoon of sugar, replace it with â…” teaspoon of agave syrup.
- In baking, reduce the quantity of other liquid ingredients in recipes by 30ml per â…” cup of agave to maintain the correct consistency.
- Reduce your oven temperature by 25ºC and increase baking time by 6 per cent.