The agave plant has been part of human culture almost since the continent was first colonized and is still used for its fibre. Human remains dating back 9,000 years show the early uses of agave for food and fibre.
The Century Plant or Maguey (Agave Americana) is an agave originally from Mexico but cultivated worldwide.
It has a spreading rosette (up to 9 m wide) of gray-green leaves up to 2 meters (6 ft) long, each with a spiny margin and a heavy spike at the tip. Its common name derives from its habit of only occasionally flowering, but when it does, the spike with a cyme of big yellow flowers, may reach up to 8 meters (25 ft) in height. The plant dies after flowering. The average life span is around 25 years.
If the flower stem is cut without flowering, a sweet liquid called agua miel (“honey water”) gathers in the heart of the plant. This may be fermented to produce the drink called pulque, which may then be distilled to produce mezcal. The leaves also yield fibers, known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, coarse cloth and are used for embroidery of leather in a technique known as piteado. Both pulque and maguey fibre were incredibly important to the economy of Mexico.
The agave plant has long been cultivated in hilly, semi-arid soils of Mexico. Its fleshy leaves cover the pineapple-shaped heart of the plant, which contains a sweet sticky juice. Ancient Mexicans considered the plant to be sacred. They believed the liquid from this plant purified the body and soul. When the Spaniards arrived, they took the juices from the agave and fermented them; leading to the drink we now call tequila.
But there is a more interesting use for this historic plant. Agave syrup (or nectar) is about 90% fructose. Only recently has it come in use as a sweetener. It has a low glycemic level and is a delicious and safe alternative to table sugar. Unlike the crystalline form of fructose, which is refined primarily from corn, agave syrup is fructose in its natural form. This nectar does not contain processing chemicals. Even better, because fructose is sweeter than table sugar, less is needed in your recipes. It can be most useful for people who are diabetic, have insulin resistance (Syndrome X), or are simply watching their carbohydrate intake.
Fructose has a low glycemic value. However, according to some experts, if fructose is consumed after eating a large meal that overly raises the blood sugar or with high glycemic foods, it no longer has a low glycemic value. Strangely enough, it will take on the value of the higher glycemic food. So exercise restraint, even with this wonderful sweetener. It is a good policy to eat fructose-based desserts on an empty stomach, in between meals or with other low-glycemic foods. Use it for an occasional treat or for a light touch of sweetness in your dishes.
Information on Agave
- This sweetener is sometimes called “nectar” and sometimes called “syrup”. It is the same food.
- The light syrup has a more neutral flavor.
- In recipes, use about 25% less of this nectar than you would use of table sugar. 6oz of agave nectar should equal 8oz of table sugar. For most recipes this rule works well.
- When substituting this sweetener in recipes, reduce your liquid slightly, sometimes as much as 1/3 less.
- Reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees.
- The glycemic index of agave nectar is low.
- As a food exchange, a one-teaspoon serving of agave nectar equals a free food. Two servings or two teaspoons equals ½ carbohydrate exchange.
Agave Syrup Uses:
- Use to sweeten beverages like iced or hot tea or coffee
- Pour over freshly cut fruit
- Use in salad dressing recipes
- Substitute refined sugar for agave syrup in baked goods recipes
- Make homemade jams & jellies using agave syrup to sweeten your fruit preserves
- Sweeten fresh fruit smoothies