Many species from this genus are economically important as they are used to produce mescal liquors, which include blue agave used for tequila, sisal, henequen, and cantala. They are also essential sources for fiber and bioenergy crops. Blue agave and century plants are the primary sources of agave nectar, which is a syrupy sweetener that can be used as a sugar alternative. At the same time, other species are grown to serve as ornamentals in desert landscaping.
Some of its other species that are possessing a strong fibrous tissue in their leaves are useful to make ropes, brushes, sandals, nets, sleeping mats and other products similar to these. In its many other species, the leaves of the rosette can be extracted and reveal a thick stem or the “heart,” which can be roasted and eaten directly or can be ground and turn into edible patties.
In dealing with agave, though, you must have knowledge of the species as most of them have toxic raw saps. Therefore, it needs to be cooked first before consuming it.
Agaves can be described as a rosette of succulent or leathery leaves that vary in sizes depending on the species. Some can be a few centimeters, while others grow up to 8 ft. or 2.5 meters. Its leaves also vary in color, from pale green to blue-gray, and can be striped or variegated. Its flowers, made up of 6 petals, are pollinated by bats, birds, and insects like hawkmoths and bees depending on the species.
They reproduce in different ways, as well. Some reproduce vegetatively, others generate clonal rosettes at the base of the main stem or nearby underground rhizomes, and some produce bulbous or bulblike structures that can form new plants.
Most of the species do not live for more than 30 years. They are also monocarpic, which means that each rosette dies after fruiting or flowering.
Types of Agave
People who are into a raw food diet may get raw agave to make unique desserts as it maintains the enzymes of the living plant, which is an essential ingredient of the raw food diet. It is taken directly from the plant and is not subject to heat, nor is it pasteurized.
Blue agave has a similar taste to other agave nectars and can be used as food and drink sweetener. It comes from the blue agave plant, and its nectar’s color looks golden to amber.
This type of agave is used for most culinary purposes, and its taste is almost like the blue agave. Amber agave varies from light to dark and may contain blue agave or a mixture of sap from different species of agave.
People who are into organic food recommend that those with diabetes may substitute the natural sweeteners or table sugar with agave syrup. However, the latter has more calories as it is high in fructose.
Though agave syrup is natural and vegan- friendly, it is still not a good alternative sweetener for people with diabetes.
Agave and Diabetes
Though blue agave is used as an alternative sweetener by some people because it is natural and vegan- friendly, it contains high fructose as it is rich in carbohydrates. Another reason why it is used as an alternative for table sugar is because of its low glycemic index (GI), which means that it has a lesser chance of causing blood sugar spikes. But the glycemic index is not the only way to analyze the effect of a particular food for those with diabetes.
In a study conducted in 2014, 4 groups of participants were divided into four different diets, and the effects of the glycemic index were assessed. The groups were categorized into a high- carb diet, low- carb diet, pure carb diet with high GI ranking, and a pure carb diet with low GI ranking.
Those who were in the high GI diet had a drop in insulin sensitivity but had an increase in LDL cholesterol in the group that consumed more carbohydrates as compared to the low GI group.
Those in the low- carb group showed that the GI ranking did not make any difference in insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and other risk factors involving diabetes and cardiovascular disease, aside from the reduction of triglycerides by a small amount.
For those who are already in a diabetes-friendly diet, low GI foods did not offer improvements in cardiovascular risk factors in the blood.
The conclusion for this study was for people with diabetes to limit their overall intake of carbohydrates.
Since agave has higher levels of fructose compared to table sugars, the body releases less insulin as a response to this. As a result, the blood sugar may remain high after eating agave than other forms of sugar.
Although agave may be considered a better alternative to table sugars, especially for people with conditions, it is still not a healthful option as it is high in fructose, which is another type of sugar.
A High-Calorie Alternative to Table Sugar
Replacing table sugar with agave syrup is not recommended for those with diabetes because it contains high calories. Agave syrup has 21 calories, while table sugar only has 16 calories per teaspoon.
Some say that because agave is much sweeter, you only need to use a smaller quantity to achieve the same result as when using table sugar. However, the benefit is too little when you consider the negative impact of agave syrup on health.
Because agave is high in fructose, and this type of sugar produces worse effects than sucrose, which is found in table sugar, agave may cause more risk to people with diabetes. Since the liver breaks down glucose, taking in too much of it can result in liver damage, and people with diabetes are already facing this risk.
In a study done on animals in 2013, high levels of fructose intake may influence metabolic concerns such as weight gain, unhealthy levels of fats around the waist, and oxidative stress. And a study in 2015 revealed that fructose might provide risk in developing high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and other cardiovascular problems.
Another study was conducted in 2017, still on animals, and it linked the consumption of fructose to fatty liver disease. The study maintains that this relationship only applies to humans when they consume 20% or more of caloric intake on foods with fructose.
This then suggests that sweeteners with fructose may be acceptable in moderation, but those with diabetes still should try to avoid them generally. Instead of using sweeteners, they may use fruits as a substitute for added sweetness.
Agave nectar is indeed said to be safe, all-natural, and a good substitute for table sugar. It does not raise blood glucose levels as much as high fructose corn syrup, sugar cane or honey and can be used in several recipes.
But users of agave nectar should be aware of its possible side effects, and it may include sudden allergic reactions such as trouble breathing, swollen lips or tongue, or rash.
If any of these allergic reactions occur, seek medical help.
Overview of Agave Nectar Side Effects
Agave nectar has been used for a very long time as a sweetener and has been promoted as an all-natural product, but even so, it does not mean that side effects cannot be experienced.
Some side effects that may occur with this product may range from mild to severe allergies and even death. If you are using agave nectar for the first time, start by using a little amount to check if you would experience some side effects or allergies.
Diabetic Side Effects
Human clinical trials performed by the Glycemic Research Institute is by far the most controversial and troubling study that has been made. This five-year clinical study regarding the use of agave as sweetener among people with diabetes was halted because of unforeseen complications in insulin levels among the participants.
The group then suggests that people with diabetes or those who have trouble regulating blood glucose levels, or individuals being at risk of metabolic syndrome or prediabetes should avoid agave syrup since it will not cause a better effect on the blood sugar just like the regular sugar.
People who have used agave as a laxative claimed to have experienced some negative side effects such as diarrhea and upset stomach.
Another harmful side effect of this product is the potential to cause miscarriage among pregnant women as agave has high amounts of saponins. These are naturally occurring chemicals that stimulate blood flow and can stimulate blood flow to the uterus.
Indication and dosage
People have been in search of a dietary sweetener that tastes great, has 0 calories, and safe to use. Unfortunately, it has not been found. Though agave is relatively safe, it still comes with possible side effects, including allergic reactions and health risks to those with some medical condition or those who are sensitive.
If you need to use a sugar substitute and are not sure of your body’s reaction to agave, try stevia, which is another herbal sweetener.
Blue Agave Side Effects
Depending on the person’s reaction to blue agave, the side effects may range from mild to moderate. Though many have claimed that agave syrup is a great low glycemic sweetener and has some benefits, it is still best to know its side effects before using this product.
The most common side effect of agave are digestive complaints, and those who had overconsumption of the product have experienced nausea, cramps, and diarrhea.
Raises Blood Glucose Levels
The Glycemic Research Institute, which conducted human clinical trials using agave syrup on people with diabetes, discontinued the tests when the blood glucose levels of the participants rose significantly after taking agave products.
The sap that comes directly from the plant is low glycemic, but after it is processed, agave becomes 80-90% fructose and 10% glucose.
The Problem with Agave Products
If you are watching your blood sugar levels, it is better to use stevia as an alternative. It is also important to note that because there is a high demand for this product, some manufacturers blend agave with other sweeteners, so check the label carefully when buying agave products.
Considerations When Buying and Using Agave
People buy agave as a low glycemic sweetener but read the label carefully because cheaper brands mix agave with water and corn syrup sometimes. This combination does not give low- glycemic benefits as pure agave nectar.
When using it for your beverage, start with a minimal amount as it can be really sweet.