Agave nectar – Golden, mild, and sweet. As a natural, vegan alternative to refined sugars, it’s become a trendy topping to granola, acai bowls, and a variety of dishes, boosting sales at most eateries that boast healthy options for their patrons.
As a nation with declining health, battling obesity and associated health risks such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, sugar substitutes are a powerful piece of knowledge to which your average person can have access.
Long before it was trendy, agave nectar was viewed as a gift from the gods by the Aztec4
They were some of the first to start using Agave for health and wellness, and its legitimacy has stood the test of time. We may think of it as a sugar substitute, but the true magic of agave is not to simply replace sugar. Instead, it’s meant to be used in combination with a healthy diet to regulate sugar intake in a way that avoids dependency and restores balance to the body in several ways, having remarkable results.
Agave has been used for centuries, possibly even thousands of years, by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations for a variety of health benefits. It was most notably used by the Aztecs for a naturally fermented ceremonial beverage, Pulque, which is still popular in modern-day Mexico.
The blue agave plant nectar also has antibacterial properties that, when mixed with salt, would be used to treat burns and wounds3. The Aztec also used it to treat diabetes and regulate blood sugar, one of its most common uses in modern-day American culture1. It was said to have powers that aided infertility as well.
Today, we know that blood sugar affects stress levels, energy, and the balance of hormones2
These are all factors that affect fertility in both men and women2, in which case there may have been a substantial reason to rely on agave for reproductive health in their time period. On the topic of fertility, it’s notable to include that the Aztecs had one of the densest populations of the region6.
This isn’t to say there is a definite connection between fertility and agave, but perhaps it can be, at the very least, a testament to the overall health of the population and medicinal knowledge. For the Aztecs, health was about balance and restoring the body to a natural state.
Most Americans associate Agave with one of two things- Tequila or nectar. Agave nectar, in particular, grew popular because of its low glycemic index1,5, an attribute caused by high fructose levels that are secreted slowly into the blood stream5 as opposed to peaking quickly as do refined sugars.
This allows the body to receive energy without the crash and overall dependency we experience with cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or caffeine. The fructans (long chains of carbohydrates) that are processed into fructose1, are also evidence of a plant product called inulin, found in agave and a few other unique fruits and vegetables5.
One might find this fibrous substance concentrated as a powder in some health food stores next to vitamins and dietary supplements. Inulin is not only good for regulating blood sugar, but it promotes gut and colon health as well. This is important for people who have or are at risk of having, diabetes8.
Before you go out and purchase agave to replace sugar in all your recipes, consider that it is in fact still a processed sweetener, and thus sourcing will matter
Overall, agave ought to come from an organic source7.
Blue agave plant nectar that we purchase is specific to certain regions in Mexico and takes a minimum of seven years of growth to reach optimal sweetness7. It’s then cultivated and treated in ideal conditions without pesticides or harmful chemicals, and nectar is processed slowly, below 118o F, to preserve its nutritional properties and maintain its high fructose levels5. Some argue that agave nectar isn’t better than refined sugar, however, it’s all in the way you use it7.
The Aztec didn’t have huge processing plants, and thus a product such as agave was only used in small amounts. For example, the Aztec didn’t eat pancakes smothered in syrup for breakfast. That type of meal wasn’t a part of their dietary vocabulary. Even today, a plate of pancakes smothered in syrup is oh so sweet, but still oh so unhealthy.
A plate of pancakes smothered in agave nectar is still going to be loaded with sugar, calories, and is ultimately a no-go for someone watching their blood sugar. The agave instead of syrup won’t make it healthy. Agave instead of sugar in a cake won’t make the cake that much healthier. Instead of a sugar “replacement”, consider agave a guilt-free addition to a healthy diet.
Healthy alternative usage of Agave
For instance, drizzle it on multigrain toast, or make a homemade dressing with raw agave nectar for your salad to help make those nutritious choices more flavorful and pleasurable, without adding any sugar or fatty condiments. Instead of drinking a large coffee loaded with cream, sugar, and flavored syrups, drink an herbal tea with agave nectar for a little pick me up without the caffeine crash.
Because it’s sweeter than refined sugar, you need less of it to satisfy your sweet tooth. Any sweetener is meant to be used in moderation, but organic agave is by far one of the best options when trying to kick a habit or add a little love to a nutrient-dense meal.
Agave also has a wild side, hiding out in bars across the world. As mentioned earlier, agave is also known as the main ingredient in tequila and mezcal. On the beloved Taco Tuesdays, Mexican holidays, and at any establishment selling Mexican food, one might feel pressured to indulge in a few shots of tequila with salt and lime or to go for the cheap house margaritas with their meal.
If agave is so healthy, does that make agave-based liquor healthy? The answer is that it’s okay in moderation. If you’re on a diet or watching your figure, the tequila may do less damage than vodka if you’re only taking a couple of shots. It might even aid in the digestion of a meal or boost your energy for the evening.
Too much of any spirit will make the nutrition facts negligible.
Even pulque, the predecessor to modern-day tequila, was meant to be consumed in moderation4.
Pulque was once called by a different name- metoctli, or “agave wine”, in the Nahuatl language associated with the Aztec empire4. It’s sour and created during the natural fermentation of agave nectar, similar to homemade wine4. The Aztecs considered the agave plant a gift from the gods. It grew from the resting place of Mayahuel, a goddess of nurturing and fertility.
In Aztec mythology, the pulque drink was invented in Temoanchan, a lost paradise. This is the same realm from which the believed humans were created4. In reality, it’s likely that pulque was created by civilizations that came before the Aztecs4. Given that they were originally nomadic, the combination of cultures, unified by the Nahuatl language of the region, resulted in varied stories and the sharing of customs in the Aztec empire6.
Their stories explain their ethical beliefs around intoxication. Ometochtli, the god of drunkenness, watched over 400 rabbits, exhibiting different personalities that might arise when a human ingests alcohol4,6. A little bit of pulque caused hallucinations, happiness, and acted as an aphrodisiac. In these ways, it was a blessing for those suffering from depression or other symptoms of chemical imbalances4.
However, when one takes advantage of alcohol (what we know today as alcohol abuse), it can alter the personality in ways that are unpredictable and, in excess, it can be dangerous. For this reason, alcohol consumption was limited among the common folk of the Aztec empire.
Pulque was reserved for sacred and religious ceremonies, only consumed by priests and nobility.
Intoxication could be taken as a serious offense, punishable by death4. As we can see, there’s always been an understanding of the power of moderation versus indulgence. Our understandings are only now enforced by a deeper knowledge of the human psyche, and education on the responsible consumption of alcohol.
One cannot stress enough the importance of balance in the body. Addictions, whether it be to sugar or alcohol, are the result of imbalances that can be difficult to correct. The Aztec used agave to aid in the correction of imbalances in the body. This is a major lesson that we can take with us as we explore healthy options and experiment with new and exotic food choices to make the diet exciting and flavorful.
There is no easy answer to some of the health problems associated with sugar intake in America, but at least there are alternatives that are delicious, nutritious, and readily available to the public. Have fun with agave and remember that everything in life is about balance.
1. Barclay, Alan W., et al. The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners: Discover the Taste, Use, Nutrition, Science, and Lore of Everything from Agave Nectar to Xylitol. The Experiment, 2015.
2. Cornett, Kristin, and Ntp. “Three Ways To Balance Blood Sugar And Boost Fertility.” Tiny Feet – Natural Fertility Wellness, Tiny Feet – Natural Fertility Wellness, 4 Dec. 2018, https://tinyfeet.co/on-the-blog/blood-sugar.
3. Davidson, J R, and B R Ortiz de Montellano. “The Antibacterial Properties of an Aztec Wound Remedy.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 1983, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6645570/.
4. Escalante, Adelfo, et al. “Pulque, a Traditional Mexican Alcoholic Fermented Beverage: Historical, Microbiological, and Technical Aspects.” Frontiers in Microbiology, Frontiers Media S.A., 30 June 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4928461/
5. Goods, Global. “Manufacturing Agave Nectar.” Manufacturing Agave Nectar Step by Step, Global Goods Inc., http://www.globalgoods.com/manufacturingagavenectar.html
6. Murphy, John. Gods & Goddesses of the Inca, Maya, and Aztec Civilizations. Britannica Educational Publishing in Association with Rosen Educational Services, 2015.
7. Naturel. “What Makes Organic Agave Syrup Organic?: Naturel West Corp.” Naturel West Corp – Premium Avage Products, Naturel, 2 Feb. 2017, https://www.naturelwest.eu/makes-organic-agave-syrup-organic/
8. Watson, Kathryn. “Health Benefits of Inulin.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 5 Nov. 2017, https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/top-inulin-benefits