Agave is the newest of the wonder foods found in Central America. Much like the acai berry and mangosteen fruit, agave has been used by natives to the Central American region for hundreds of years. People living in these areas have used the leaves of the agave to make string and thread, sewing needles and more. The fluid inside the leaves even lathers up like soap when immersed in water and can be used for cleaning. Many animals foraging in the desert, such as bighorn sheep, rely upon the agave for moisture and food.
Although most Westerners only recently started hearing of Agave, it has been used in Mexico for hundreds of years. Back in the day, the Mexicans used it for various purposes and believed it to have medicinal properties. The Mexicans also used to boil the sap (sugary circulating plant fluid) to produce a sweetener known as miel de agave.
But the most common use of the Agave plant is fermenting the sugars in it to produce the alcoholic beverage called tequila. In fact, tequila is the most common commercial use of Agave today and one of Mexico’s best known export products.
The word “Agave” comes from the Greek word for noble. The blue agave species is considered the best for the making agave nectar as it flourishes in rich volcanic soil— (it’s also the only variety permitted to be used for the making of tequila). And extracts from the agave plant have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Unfortunately there’s zero evidence that any of those compounds are present in the commercially-made agave syrup.
Agave Plant Overview
Agave plants look something like cactus or aloe vera. They have thick, fleshy leaves which store water against the hot dry desert conditions. Inside the leaves, agaves produce a thick fluid or sap which can be harvested as nectar. Some types are consumed by animals, while others are harvested by humans. The sweet, thick syrup can be brewed into alcoholic beverages such as tequila and mezcal liquor.
Origins of Agave Nectar
Agave was developed in the 1990’s and is made primarily in Mexico. There is really no such thing as agave nectar. The sweetener is made from the starchy part of the yucca or agave plant — the roots. Inulin, also a complex carbohydrate, makes up about 50% of the carbohydrate content of agave.
The Benefits of Agave
Agave ranks fairly low on the glycemic load scale, a small amount of the nectar provides a larger amount of sweetness than common sugar, and thus, a little goes a long way. The agave plant also contains saponins and fructans, phytochemicals associated with many beneficial and immune-boosting capabilities. (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 1996; 52:175-7).
One of these fructans is known as inulin, a natural plant sweetener with an extremely low impact on blood sugar and cholesterol levels. The ancient Aztecs even used the nectar as a healing salve for wounds. Compounds derived from blue agave have been studied for their potential utility for treating colon diseases like ulcerative colitis,irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Agave also holds high amounts of protein-building amino acids and alkaloids (Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2007; 62:133-8). Research indicates that minimally-processed agave does provide nutrients to the human body, and may even prevent chronic disease (Nutr Rev 2004; 62: 439-42).
Medicinal Uses of Agave
Herbalists recommend agave, like aloe vera juice, to treat stomach problems, constipation and gas. A little agave taken by mouth is said to stimulate digestion to end constipation. Agave should not be used externally, however, even though traditional people used it for soap. Agave can produce blisters and rashes on many people if it’s left too long on the skin. Agave plants can also cause a painful itchy rash similar to a poison ivy rash that takes a very long time to heal. Use commercial agave syrup or nectar as a cooking herb or a bit for medicinal purposes, but do not try to pick or use wild agave.
How Agave is Processed?
When the agave has grown to 7-10 years old, the leaves of the plant are cut off, revealing the core of the plant (called the pina). When harvested, the pina resembles a giant pineapple and can weigh in at 50 to 150 pounds.
Agave plants are crushed, and the sap collected into tanks. The sap is then heated to about 140°F for about 36 hours not only to concentrate the liquid into a syrup, but to develop the sweetness. When the agave sap is heated, the complex fructosans are hydrolyzed, or broken into their constituent fructose units. The fructose-rich solution is then filtered to obtain the desired products that range from dark syrup with a characteristic vanilla aroma, to a light amber liquid with more neutral characteristics.
In modern manufacturing of agave nectar, developed and patented in the 1990s, liquid from the agave plant is put through multiple steps of manufacturing that include centrifuging to remove impurities and to improve clarity. After centrifuging, enzymes derived from aspergillus niger are introduced into the liquid, and through this enzymatic process agave’s naturally occurring inulin is converted to fructose. (Incidentally, a similar enzymatic is also used to convert the starches in corn into high fructose corn syrup.) This converted liquid is then sent to a vacuum evaporation chamber to further concentrate the sugars, removing excess moisture.
The Dangers of Fructose In Agave
The reason agave ranks relatively low on the glycemic index (G.I) is because it has a high content of fructose. Fructose does not readily raise blood sugar (glucose) levels because the body doesn’t metabolize it well. New research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity. The less fructose you consume, the better.
Americans consume much too much fructose, an average of 55 grams per day (compared to about 15 grams 100 years ago, mostly from fruits and vegetables).
But Fructose Is Found In Fruits Too, Right?
Fructose- the sugar found naturally in fruit- is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7% fructose) as it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it exacts a considerable metabolic price.
Chemically, fructose is a hexose that is just the mirror image of glucose (an isomer) that is active levo-rotatory, hence the name levulose. In fruit (also known as fruit sugar) levulose is naturally occurring and contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin which all help to digest and assimilate the levulose in the intestine.
In contrast, refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber and is metabolized in the liver where it may be a burden. High fructose corn syrup contains free (unbound), chemically refined fructose. Research indicates that free refined fructose interferes with the heart’s use of key minerals like magnesium.
Side Effects of Agave
1. Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
Fructose is a major culprit in the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes. It reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors. This raises insulin levels and contributes to metabolic syndrome. Fructose causes insulin resisitance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease).
In a human clinical trial conducted by the Glycemic Research Institute, the group halted a five-year clinical study on the use of agave as a sweetener among diabetics due to unforeseen complications in insulin levels among diabetics taking agave syrup. It appeared that the agave syrup stimulated an insulin response despite the many claims to the contrary. The group advises diabetics, people who have trouble regulating blood glucose levels, and anyone who may be at risk from metabolic syndrome or prediabetes to avoid agave syrup since it has no better affect on blood sugar levels than plain old sugar. Fructose, compared with glucose, is also implicated in insulin resistance. Read the research here.
2. Liver Disease
Fructose has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease. Rats given high fructose diets develop a number of undesirable metabolic abnormalities including elevated triglycerides, weight gain and extra abdominal fat. Research suggests that fructose actually promotes disease more readily than glucose. This is because glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body, but fructose must be metabolized by the liver. Animals studies show that the livers of animals fed large amounts of fructose develop fatty deposits and cirrhosis of the liver. This is similar to the livers of alcoholics.
Fructose is primarily metabolized by the liver, and diets high in fructose have been implicated in cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. Read the research here.
3. Heart Disease
It may also increase risks of heart disease and cancer. Consumption of fructose causes a significant increase in the concentration of uric acid. An increase in uric acid can be an indicator of heart disease.
4. Stomach Problems
Many users reporting on various forums and bulletin boards claim that agave produced unpleasant side effects. The traditional herbal use for agave as a laxative may explain why some people experience stomach problems ranging from diarrhea to upset stomach. If stomach problems are an issue, use less agave or discontinue use.
Another dangerous side effect of agave is the potential for miscarriage in pregnant women. Agave contains high amounts of saponins, a naturally occurring chemical that can stimulate blood flow. It has the potential to stimulate blood flow to the uterus and cause miscarriages.
6. Increases Weight
Fructose also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome. High fructose diets are also implicated in leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone involved in fat storage, and it, along with other hormones, helps our bodies to know when we are full. Read the research here and here.
7. Bone Loss
Studies indicate that dietary fructose adversely affects macromineral homeostasis in humans. They suggest further studies are needed to see if a high fructose diet coupled with low dietary magnesium and marginal calcium leads to bone loss.
Fructose appears to interfere with copper metabolism. This causes collagen and elastin being unable to form. Collagen and elastin are connective tissue which essentially hold the body together. A deficiency in copper can also lead to bone fragility, anemia, defects of the arteries and bone, infertility, high cholesterol levels, heart attacks and ironically enough an inability to control blood sugar levels.2
8. Fructose and cancer
Many researchers believe that sugar in the modern diet that provokes cancer. Current studies have shown that having insulin resistance actually promotes tumor growth, because in this condition the body has to secrete more and more insulin and/or insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and these chronically elevated insulin levels support malignancy.
Everyone is searching for the magic dietary sweetener that tastes great, contains zero calories and is perfectly safe to use. Unfortunately, such a sweetener doesn’t exist for now. While agave is relatively safe it comes with certain potential side effects and health risks. Like all foods, agave has the potential to cause an allergic reaction, and can cause side effects among sensitive people or if taken in excess.