Agave Syrup in Natural Foods

Posted on August 15th, 2010 by Gavin | Posted in Newsletter Articles

Agave plantAgave syrup is a sweetener that is rapidly gaining popularity among natural food enthusiasts. Native to the state of Jalisco in Mexico , the agave plant grows slowly but abundantly with no need for pest control or artificial fertilizer. It is a naturally organic crop from which a useful sweetener is derived.

Agave syrup, also known as agave nectar, is the concentrated sap of the agave plant. Agave has been grown and used historically both as a fiber and a medicine. Agave is also fermented into a traditional Mesoamerican beverage Pulque, and distilled into mezcal. Tequila, a popular form of mescal, is produced from the blue agave plant, Agave tequiliana. Several species including Agave americana, Agave salimiana, and Agave tequiliana are used in agave syrup production.

Agave plants store their energy in the form of inulin, a dietary fiber consisting of long chains of fructose molecules bound together. Humans lack enzymes to break these bonds and digest inulin, but with minimal heating, inulin breaks into fructose molecules, which are sweeter than table sugar.

There has been some concern among health professionals about the use of agave syrup in a healthy natural diet. It is a simple sugar and should be consumed in moderation, but most of the concerns relate to cheaply produced, non-organic mixes of agave and other sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. In this article I will explore some of the facts and concerns about pure agaves yrup, and suggest common sense guidelines for its use.

Production of agave syrup begins with collection of the raw sap. An agave plant greatly increases production of its inulin-rich sap right before it flowers at the end of its life. Historically, the sap is collected from a hole in the thick stem of the plant or by chopping off the top and ladling sap from the interior. Up to eight quarts of sap can be harvested per plant each day. The plant continues to make a large amount of sap but eventually dies after flowering. On farms, agave plants are harvested just prior to flowering and the sap-rich central portion (pina) of the mature plant is pulverized and the remaining sugars are collected.

As soon as the sap is collected, it is slowly heated while the inulin fibers break into sugars. The water in the sap evaporates until a dark, viscous syrup remains. The syrup becomes shelf-stable because the concentration of sugars prevents fermentation. After minimal filtering, this mineral-rich concentrate is sold as the dark grade of agave syrup. The darker syrup contains the most flavor, minerals and nutritional fibers. Lighter grades can also be produced through more filtration.

Raw agave syrup can be produced by carrying out these processes in a vacuum so the water evaporates at lower temperatures (under 118degrees Fahrenheit). It takes longer to make raw agave syrup so the raw syrup usually costs more. Raw syrup also contains more active enzymes so it must be carefully pH controlled so it is shelf stable.

It is in this processing where the differences between quality organic agave syrup and lesser quality agave products occur. Some manufacturers use a quick and cheap method that results in poor-quality syrup—which is then mixed with corn sweetener (high-fructose corn syrup) and sold as “agave-sweetener.” A wise consumer should avoid using anything but certified organic pure agave syrup.

Recently, an article strongly suggested agave syrup is the same as high-fructose corn syrup. Fortunately, the comparison is false: the two sweeteners are similar only in fructose content.

Agave syrup is sweet because it contains about 50% fructose, a natural sugar found in most plants. Fructose is metabolized slowly and does not raise blood sugar levels rapidly. In the human diet, fructose is usually accompanied by fiber, which slows its release and metabolism. It is important to note that agave syrup contains little fiber so the fructose within is released more quickly into the body.

Too much fructose in the diet can lead to obesity and insulin resistance, among other health concerns, so be sure to use only moderate amounts of agave syrup by itself. Ideally, agave syrup should be used to sweeten other foods that contain fats and fiber. Used this way, the fructose in agave presents less of a metabolic challengeto the body. A good example of this is the use of agave syrup to sweeten energy bars or cereals, and in frozen confectionary like Coconut Bliss. In these examples, the fats and fibers slow the metabolism of fructose and signal the brain that the body is satisfied long before excess fructose is consumed.

Agave syrup is about 1.4 times sweeter than sugar so much less quantity can be used for the same sweetness. This is a great advantageof agave syrup: it doesn’t take much syrup for a lot of sweetness. As with any sugar, moderate use is best for a healthy diet. Luckily the extra sweetness of agave syrup means it’s easier to use moderately.

Agave syrup contains some inulin fiber along with other polysaccharides (long chain sugars). Inulin is a soluble fiber that passes undigested into the intestines where it feeds beneficial intestinal bacteria. These “good” bacteria thrive and can out-compete unwanted bacteria in the intestine. Inulin has been shown to help humans digest food and absorb minerals like calcium and magnesium.

Another thing to note when comparing agave syrup to high fructose corn syrup is that there is a significant difference in sustainability and the resources required to produce each one. Corn sweeteners are produced from genetically-modified monocrop corn fields which require huge investment of petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides and fuel. Corn starch is produced, which is then subjected to bioengineered enzymatic hydrolysis to create high fructose corn syrup. Without huge agricultural subsidies, this high fructose corn syrup would not even be profitable to make. The prevalence of this sweetener is due to your tax dollars.

Agave clearly has the advantage since it is native to the environment it is grown in, requires no pesticide or chemical applications, is fertilized naturally by the leaves that are chopped off during harvest, grows naturally in abundance and brings a good income to the native people who collect the sap. Since agave plants are created by nature and there are no artificial changes totheir genetics, they can be certified as an organic crop. The same cannot be said of Monsanto corporation’s GMO corn, which is not allowed under USDA rules for organic certification.

There is such an abundance of agave plants that new products are being developed to use this resource.

Collecting agave sap, or farming agave is economically beneficial to the indigenous people of Mexico. The agave industry provides a steady income to the local economy, which allows investment in education, health and sustains local communities. Organic production also means no exposure from pesticides or toxins to farm workers. The level of skill required for agave harvest leaves little room for exploitation of child labor. Skilled labor also means a living wage for the workers. Some agave companies have even started working toward fair-trade certification programs within the communities they buy from.

Because agave syrup is considered to have a low glycemic index, the measure of how fast blood sugar rises, it has been offered as an alternative sweetener for diabetics. Some studies have shown fructose to cause trouble for diabetics because it can reduce insulin efficiency. But, in agave syrup, fructose occurs together with inulin fiber which may positively affect blood sugar-related conditions. Anyone under care for diabetes should consult their health care provider before using agave sweeteners. The glycemic index is only one measure of how sugars affect on your body and there may be several other factors to consider when choosing your sweetener. Also, since fructose metabolism mainly takes place in the liver, it is wise to limit excess fructose consumption if you have compromised liver function or other metabolic disorders.

Not all agave products on the market are equal, so don’t be fooled by price. Inspect labels carefully and look for only pure certified-organic agave syrup. LifeSource carries only organic and naturally produced agave sweeteners from inspected farms and producers in Mexico. There are no added corn sweeteners or anything other than natural ingredients in the products we carry. Aunt Patty’s, Madhava, and Wholesome Foods are all respected names in the natural foods industry and they use only certified organic agave syrup in their products.

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