Agave

agave6From tequila to natural sweeteners and remedies, the plants from the genus Agave have been used in Mexico for centuries.

According to the newest classification, the genus Agave belongs to the Asparagaceae family and contains about 208 species. Predominantly Mexican, Agaves are also native to South America and southwestern parts of the United States. The most common species, Agave americana is used for commercial production of sugar and syrup. It is the most tolerant of all the agaves and therefore has wide distribution and can even grow in England.

Agaves are succulent and perennial plants with monocarpic rosette flowers that flower only once. Their thick and large leaves with sharp edges bear some resemblance to aloe leaves. They are crucial in storing water, preventing evaporation and discouraging predators such as butterflies and moths. Agaves are not to be confused with cacti even though they share the same ecosystems. Their root system is adapted to grow in deserts and soak up all available water. [1]

agave-snout-weevilThe biggest threat to Agave monocultures is the Agave Snout Weevil, a beetle-like insect that feeds on the sap. The female lays eggs on the plant and the larvae infest the roots and the starchy core leading to destruction of the plant. Using insecticide is not practical, since the plants cannot be used afterwards for consumption. [2]

One of the most important products of Mexico, tequila is made from Agave tequilana by removing the heart of the plant and using fermentation.

The Native American people of the Navajo tribe used plants of the genus Agave in many different ways. The head of the plant was usually baked or made into soup, the leaves were made into basketry awls and the fibers were used to make rope, clothing and rags. The native people of Mexico used the agave to make needles and pens, but also as diuretic and remedy for constipation. Agave nectar has been used by the Aztecs thousands of years ago to heal wounds and praised as a gift from God. Produced from the Blue Agaves in Southern Mexico by extracting the sap, the nectar tastes similar to honey and comes in different varieties. [3]

agave-syrup-honeyFor years, agave nectar known also as “honey water” has been advertised by the food industry as a healthy natural sweetener. When produced naturally by using low temperatures, agave has beneficial effects on carbohydrate metabolism. However, commercial manufacturers use heat and enzymes to break down fructans into fructose. Improper labeling of agave syrup as “healthy” or “diabetic friendly” creates misconceptions among buyers. Studies have shown that fructose does not elevate blood sugar levels or insulin levels, but contributes to insulin resistance. People who eat diet packed with high- carbs such as fructose, will not lose weight, on the contrary, they will gain more belly- fat. Since the liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose, overload will lead to increased levels of blood triglycerides. [4]

The health benefits of consuming Agave nectar come from saponins and fructans such as inulin. Saponins have antibacterial and anti inflammatory properties. Studies suggest that inulin helps in reducing the risk of some types of cancer and lowering cholesterol levels. [5]