Agave plant health benefit, nectar and syrup glycemic index
April 10 2016 by
Ray Sahelian, M.D.

Agave was cultivated for centuries by the native American population for fibers, food and drinks. Agave plants have been popular in many Mediterranean gardens in Europe since they were brought back from the Americas by the Spaniards and Portuguese in the 17th century. Agave syrup or agave nectar began appearing on health food store shelves in the early 2000s and are becoming more popular as consumers recognize the wonderful taste of this natural sweetener. Agave syrup has become one of my favorite naturally sweeteners since I find it to be delicious. Moderation of use is advised since agave syrup has a lot of calories. An alternative to high calorie sugars is the stevia plant which has no calories.

Availability and where it is found
The agave plant comes from Mexico. Its fleshy leaves cover the pineapple-shaped heart of the plant, which contains a sweet sticky juice called agave nectar which can be made into a syrup. This syrup is quite tasty and can substitute for honey as a sweetener. Agave is best known for its role in tequila.

Agave nectar sweetener taste
Agave syrup or nectar is a sweetener commonly produced in Mexico made from Agave americana plant (also called Century Plant). Agave syrup is similar to honey in color and texture, but it is not as thick and flows more easily. Agave nectar is available in light or dark colors, the light being filtered. If you have the option, buy organic.
   Agave nectar is a delicious sweetener and tastes similar to honey.

There are several hundreds species. A few of them include Agave asperrima, americana and striata.

Chemical composition
Agave has saponins and fructans. Inulin is a type of fructan that has many health benefits. Saponins are found in many plant roots, the most famous being ginseng.

Agave benefit
Compounds derived from the blue agave -- the fruit used to make tequila -- show promise as a new way to deliver drugs to the colon. A class of polysaccharides known as fructans, were used to create tiny microspheres that are able to carry drugs to treat colon diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease. Fructans aren't destroyed in the stomach and may be a delivery system for drugs to treat colon diseases. Researchers exposed fructan microspheres to hydrochloric acid for an hour. When they were taken out of the hydrochloric acid and examined, the microspheres appeared intact.

Agave glycemic index, is it high or low?
What is the glycemic index of agave syrup or nectar?
 Some web sites claim that it has a very low glycemic index.
    As of January 2015, I have not come across reliable studies regarding the glycemic index of agave syrup or nectar. As search on Medline did not reveal such studies. There are certain sites online that claim studies have been done but none have been published in peer reviewed journals that I know of. The sites claiming this sweetener has a low glycemic index seem to be selling the product hence their claims may not be reliable and it is possible they have fabricated the whole study just like some herbal weight loss sites fabricate before and after photos. Other sites may mention this natural plant to have a low glycemic index but do not back it up by any research paper references. I suspect the glycemic index of agave is probably similar to that of honey or maple syrup, but I am not sure. Bottom line is that it should be used in moderation.

Q. I am having a difficult time finding scientific data about agave nectar. I am writing an article on agave nectar and feel it is a good sweetener in moderation, however it is high in fructose which raises triglycerides. I realize it has a different composition than high fructose corn syrup but because of the high fructose concentration will it raise triglycerides and interfere with insulin levels? I do realize that it has a much lower glycemic index and it has saponins and fructans. Does the inulin play a role in not interfering with insulin levels and possibly not raising triglycerides?
   A. I am not aware of clinical trials with agave nectar in humans or animals to determine the blood sugar response to agave nectar ingestion or its influence on triglycerides. I have not seen studies regarding the glycemic index of agave nectar. As with any sweetener, it is best to use agave nectar in moderation. Agave nectar is much healthier than sugar since it has many beneficial components but nevertheless it should be used in reasonable amounts. It is tempting to overconsume agave nectar since it is so delicious.

Tequila information and distillation
Tequila is obtained from the distillation of fermented juice of agave plant, Agave tequilana, to which up to 50% of an adjunct sugar, mainly from cane or corn, could be added. Agave plants require from 8 to 12 years to mature and during all this time cleaning, pest control, and slacken of land are required to produce an initial raw material with the appropriate chemical composition for tequila production. Production process comprises four steps: cooking to hydrolyze inulin into fructose, milling to extract the sugars, fermentation with a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae to convert the sugars into ethanol and organoleptic compounds, and, finally, a two-step distillation process. Maturation, if needed, is carried out in white oak barrels to obtain rested or aged tequila in 2 or 12 months, respectively.

Agave Plant Research
Phytochemical analysis and anti-allergic study of Agave intermixta Trel. and Cissus sicyoides.
J Pharm Pharmacol. 2004.
Agave intermixta Trel. (Maguey) and Cissus sicyoides L. (Bejuco caro) are Caribbean plant species from the Dominican Republic used locally in traditional popular medicine that have shown an antiinflammatory effect in experimental animal models. A phytochemical analysis on these species allowed us the isolation and identification of the steroidal sapogenins hecogenin and diosgenin from Maguey and the hydroxystilbene resveratrol from Bejuco caro. The in-vitro anti-allergic activity towards the release of histamine from mast cells shown by the methanolic extract of C. sicyoides may be mediated by its constituent resveratrol and might contribute to the antiinflammatory activity shown by this species.

Wound healing - Aztec remedy
The antibacterial properties of an Aztec wound remedy.
J Ethnopharmacol. 1983.
Wound treatment practices of the Aztecs are discussed. The use of concentrated maguey sap (Agave ssp.) was widely dispersed and has persisted in folk medicine. A possible reason may be that it is effective. Laboratory analysis of maguey syrup indicates that its utilization as a remedy by ancient and modern Mesoamericans could contribute to the healing process of aerobic wound infections. Both pyogenic and enteric bacteria appear to be susceptible to maguey syrup. The traditional addition of salt to the remedy seems to enhance the effectiveness of the material in inhibiting the growth of one of the major causes of pus-forming or pyogenic infective processes, Staphylococcus aureus. This finding is additional proof of the effectiveness of pre-Hispanic medicine, and of the skills of pre-Hispanic physicians.

Agave for weight loss?
Scientists from Mexico's tequila producing region say juice extracted from the blue agave plant, best known when distilled into the fiery spirit, may help dieters shed pounds and cut cholesterol. Spiky agave plants have been cultivated on Mexico's arid central highlands for thousands of years. But more than anything the plant is known for what Spanish invaders called "tequila wine." Researchers from the University of Guadalajara, close to the town of Tequila, the cradle of Mexico's famous alcoholic export, are doing some of the studies. Agave contains, among other things, substances known as fructans, which are thought to reduce cholesterol (and) alter the absorption of fat in the intestine. Inulin, a type of fructan, is a carbohydrate found in many plants, including asparagus. Some scientists believe inulin helps weight loss.

Q. On your website someone asks you about the possible drawbacks of agave syrup's high fructose content (much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup -- it's produced in a similar manner.) I was disappointed to read your brief response dismissing concerns of the production of triglycerides by the liver after the ingestion of fructose (which is processed by the liver.) There is much suspicion and investigation surrounding the dubious health effects of fructose on the progression of heart disease and of it's possible contribution to the dramatic increase in rates of obesity in the US. Please tell me I was reading info that you were getting around to updating. A simple google search will tell you all you need to know about Agave syrup.
   A. Some people have extreme viewpoints regarding diet where they do not accept even small amounts of sugar ingestion, including that from honey or agave nectar syrup. If that is the way a person wishes to go through life, not ingesting even small amounts of fructose or honey or agave syrup, that is their choice. Most people are not as strict about their diet and don't mind indulging in small amounts of sweeteners of their choice.  When centenarians are interviewed, you hardly find any that shunned fructose completely. Problems arise with fructose ingestion when large amounts are consumed. If you consume any fruit, you will be consuming fructose.

Bottom line secrets com claims that the Agave nectar does not contain many health benefits. "Spun Sugar, So, in the end, itís all spin. "Agave nectar syrup ends up being a triumph of marketing over science," said Bowden. Agave nectar is not poison -- itís okay to enjoy it from time to time, says Bowden. But donít believe the hype that itís a health food -- thatís just food-industry sweet talk." I have been using Madhava Raw Organic Agave Nectar. Now I do not know whether I have been mis-led once again by people in the "health food" industry. What is the truth and how can I verify either position?
    Small amounts of this natural sweetener are a good substitute for regular sugar or other high calorie sweeteners. However, just like honey, small amounts are beneficial but higher amounts provide too many calories and too much fructose.

Something Iíve noted over the last few years is that when I have a margarita, within about 20 minutes, the pain in my bad knee (one knee joint was replaced) is GONE. It canít be just the alcohol, as no other drink .. wine, or other cocktail .. has anywhere near the same numbing quality. I only have one alcoholic drink, whenever I have one. I wish and hope thereís some way you can let me know if there is scientific data to support that possibility of some compound in the plant that is a pain palliative. My bad knee is bone on bone, so my pain gets pretty bothersome and limits my activities. I donít feel up to getting it replaced, as I was struck with a pulmonary embolism the day after I got the other knee joint replaced. I feel blessed to have survived it and lucky to be alive. My son is an ER doc and is board certified as an Anti-Aging Physician.
   We could not find any studies on Medline regarding an association with pain reduction.

There is a very powerful reason why I believe agave americana plant cures all kinds of issues. I would love to email with you and ask you a few questions directly about it. I have been drinking the sap and I can not believe the results I have had. I do not buy the sap. My mom gives it to me as a home remedy. A friend of my mothers began drinking it and she had cancer in her uterus. Well the cancer is gone. I know a lot of people that have drank this sap it is in our culture (we are Mexican) and have had results that not even their doctors can believe.