There are many types of agave, and given the rising popularity of this plant as a natural sweetener, it may be helpful to know and understand the various types. There are 136 types of agave, for example, in Mexico and the United States alone. Some are used to create the alcoholic beverage called tequila while others are useful to sweeten desserts and other foods naturally.
Agave is the newest of the wonder foods found in Central America. Like the acai berry and the mangosteen fruit, agave has been used by natives to the Central American region for hundreds of years. People living in these areas have used the leaves of the agave to make string and thread, sewing needles and more. The fluid inside the leaves even lathers up like soap when immersed in water and can be used for cleaning. Many animals foraging in the desert, such as bighorn sheep, rely upon the agave for moisture and food.
Agave Plant Overview
Agave plants look something like cactus or aloe vera. They have thick, fleshy leaves which store water against the hot dry desert conditions. Inside the leaves, agaves produce a thick fluid or sap which can be harvested as nectar. Some types are consumed by animals, while others are harvested by humans. The sweet, thick syrup can be brewed into alcoholic beverages such as tequila and mezcal liquor.
Recently, the sweet syrup has become popular as a raw food diet sweetener and natural, low calorie sweetener. Many nutritionists recommend agave nectar to their clients as an alternative to corn syrup, cane sugar and honey, because true raw agave in its natural, undiluted state produces a sweet and pleasant taste without creating blood glucose spikes. It is thought that because of its low glycemic impact, agave is an ideal sweetener for people sensitive to other sugars or who are trying to lose weight.
The Various Types of Agave
When you're standing in front of the shelves in the health food store or supermarket or browsing online among the many types of agave products, you may wonder what the differences are among them. Most recipes calling for agave can use any type, but there is a difference in the thickness, texture and taste among the different agave products on the market.
Raw agave is taken directly from the plant. It is not subject to heat and is not pasteurized. People following a raw food diet may seek raw agave to create special desserts since it maintains the enzymes of the living plant, an important component of the raw food diet.
Blue agave comes from the blue agave plant. The nectar looks golden to amber colored. It has a taste similar to other agave nectars and can be used to sweeten foods and beverages.
Amber agave ranges from light to dark. It may contain blue agave or a mixture of sap from different agave plants. It's taste is almost indistinguishable from blue agave and can also be used for most culinary purposes.
Considerations When Buying and Using Agave
If you're buying agave to use as a low glycemic sweetener, read the label very carefully. Many of the cheaper brands mix agave nectar with water and sometimes even corn syrup. This extends the expensive agave to make more profits for the manufacturer but such a mixture does not provide the same low-glycemic benefits as pure agave nectar.
Always use very little agave to start with in your beverages. It is quite sweet, and a little bit goes a long way. If you regularly take one teaspoon of sugar or honey in your tea, for example, you may only need a drop or two of pure agave nectar to sweeten the tea the same way. Begin with a tiny amount and work your way up to the desired sweetness level.
Herbalists recommend agave, like aloe vera juice, to treat stomach problems, constipation and gas. A little agave taken by mouth is said to stimulate digestion to end constipation. Agave should not be used externally, however, even though traditional people used it for soap. Agave can produce blisters and rashes on many people if it's left too long on the skin. Agave plants can also cause a painful itchy rash similar to a poison ivy rash that takes a very long time to heal. Use commercial agave syrup or nectar as a cooking herb or a bit for medicinal purposes, but do not try to pick or use wild agave.
Many agave plants take decades to grow large enough to harvest for commercial use. This is yet another reason not to disturb wild agave plants. Agave thickets must be managed carefully by commercial growers to prevent over harvesting.