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The health benefits of agave nectar

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Natural Sweetener: Agave Nectar

The newest sweet buzz in the health food realm is agave nectar, also called agave syrup. A natural sweetener similar to honey and derived from the plant that is used in making tequila, agave nectar can be used to sweeten both food and drink. This sweet syrup is an ideal alternative to sugar and offers health benefits -- beyond being a natural sweetener -- from weight loss to wound healing. Read on for more reasons to include agave in your diet.
Agave Plant

What is agave?

According to Dr Ray Sahelian, bestselling author of Mind Boosters and The Stevia Cookbook, there are several hundred species of the agave plant. Agave has been cultivated for centuries, first by the Native American population and then in Europe, when agave plants were brought back by the Spaniards and Portugese in the 17th century.

Agave is a succulent plant, related to the yucca and lily, that grows in the southern and western United States and in central and tropical South America. The agave plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves, each ending generally in a sharp point.

Each agave rosette grows slowly and flowers only once. When the agave is ready to flower, a tall stem grows from the center of the leaf rosette and produces a large number of short tubular flowers. After development of the fruit, the original plant dies, but shoots are frequently produced from the base of the stem which become new plants.

Four major parts of the agave plant have culinary uses. The flowers are edible and can be tossed in salads. The leaves are rich in sap and can be eaten. The stalks can be roasted before they flower and exude a distinctive sweet molasses-like flavor. Sap that is used in tequila or as sweetener comes from the flower shoots.

Agave syrup is a low-glycemic sweetener

What makes agave superior to sugar? Sugar is a processed sweetener that has no nutritive value, other than calories. And agave, as compared to other sweeteners, has a desirable low-glycemic index. This means that when consumed, it won't cause a sharp rise or fall in blood sugar.

Here is a list of sweeteners and corresponding glycemic values. The higher the value, the bigger the impact on blood sugar.

GLYCEMIC VALUES
Organic Agave Nectar 27
Fructose (fruit sugar) 32
Lactose (milk sugar) 65
Honey 83
High fructose corn syrup 89
Sucrose (sugar) 92
Glucose 137
Glucose tablets 146
Maltodextrin 150
Maltose 150

Source: BlueAgaveNectar.com

If you are diabetic and monitor your food exchanges, a one-teaspoon serving of agave nectar equals a "free food." Two servings or two teaspoons equals 1/2 carbohydrate exchange.

Replace sugar with agave

Take advantage of agave's low glycemic impact by using it to replace the sugar in your diet. Like many natural sweeteners, you can seamlessly substitute agave nectar for sugar in most recipes.

Use about 1/3 cup of agave nectar for every one cup of sugar called for in recipes.

Reduce the liquid ingredients in recipes by one-third, since agave nectar is liquid (and sugar is dry).

Reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees.

For recipes using agave, check out these savor-worthy recipes sweetened with agave.

Health benefits of agave nectar

Agave contains saponins and fructans. According to Dr. Sahelian, saponins, which are found on quinoa and many plant roots, including ginseng, have anti-inflammatory and immune system-boosting properties, including antimicrobial capability. In fact, the Aztecs used agave syrup to treat wounds because of its antibacterial properties.

Inulin is a type of fructan or fiber that has many health benefits. Studies suggest that inulin can be effective in weight loss because of its low impact on blood sugar and its ability to increase satiety and decrease appetite. Inulin is also associated with lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of certain cancers, and increasing the absorption of nutrients, such as isoflavones, calcium and magnesium. Inulin can also be found in some varieties of yogurt.

In addition, Dr Sahelian says fructans are not destroyed in the stomach and may be a delivery system for drugs to treat colon diseases such as ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease.

Where is agave nectar sold?

Agave nectar or agave syrup is sold in health food stores as well as in some supermarkets. It can be found next to the honey or in the health food section.

Agave nectar is also sold online at BlueAgaveNectar.com, SweetCactusFarms.com and VolcanicNectar.com. A (13-ounce) bottle costs around $7. Regardless of where you buy it, your best bet is to opt for organic varieties.

If you're looking for a new way to soothe a savage sweet tooth, give agave a try!

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