Although there are hundreds of species of agave, blue agave plants, or Agave tequiliana, are the most widely cultivated, with an estimated 200 million of the plants grown in 2007. Blue agave is a common source of agave nectar, a low-glycemic-index sweetener popular among health food enthusiasts, but is also the only species of agave certified for tequila production, a distinction that has this succulent on the verge of crowding out other traditionally cultivated agave plants.
Agave in Traditional Medicine
Agave plants are of significant value to traditional farming communities in Mexico and the southern United States. In a 2009 article published in the American Journal of Botany, authors Vargas-Ponce et al explain that traditional farmers normally cultivate a variety of agave species under conditions similar to the plants' natural habitat, growing as many as 24 varieties in a single plot and regularly cross-breeding agricultural plants with wild plants. This system of agriculture, in place for an estimated 9000 years, ensures genetic diversity and sustainability among agave species.
While you may quite naturally think of agave as only a source of sweetener or tequila, to these traditional farmers agave plants are a source of food, fiber, and medicine. Most parts of the agave plant can be harvested and roasted, offering a naturally sweet staple food. The tough, fibrous stalk of the agave's flower is a source of fiber for clothing and other textiles. While the medicinal properties of agave are only beginning to be explored by Western medicine, traditional Mexican medicine makes use of agave for a number of purposes, including antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory medicines.
Modern science tends to back up these centuries-old traditions. Recent research has found that agave nectar contains compounds with potent medicinal properties:
- A 2000 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology examined the anti-inflammatory properties of agave extracts and found it to be an effective treatment for swelling and inflammation in laboratory animals.
- A later study, published in 2006 by the American Society for Microbiology found agave substances known as C-27 steroidal saponins to be effective antifungal agents against a number of potentially harmful pathogens.
- A review published in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research cited one species of agave for its ability to lower blood pressure and stop bacterial overgrowth in the digestive tract. Agave nectar also contains inulin, a form of fructose that acts as food for the beneficial bacteria in your intestine.
To traditional rural farmers, a diversity of agave plants ensures a well-stocked pharmacy and pantry. Unfortunately, with global demand for certain varieties of agave increasing, the natural diversity that exists in traditional agave cultivation may suffer.
Cultivation of Blue Agave Plants
Like all agave plants, the blue agave only flowers once in its lifetime, eventually yielding a pineapple-like fruit at its center, from which the agave nectar is derived. Because of this quirk of nature, propagation of this plant on a large scale can be difficult if farmers rely on seeds alone. Instead, most of these plants are propagated by cloning, a practice which has led to a very low genetic diversity among blue agave plants, according to Vargas-Ponce et al. A 2007 report in the journal Agriculture and Human Values reports that this form of agriculture often involves a system known as reverse leasing, in which farmers lease land and services to large corporations while giving up control over management practices.
Given the cultural and medicinal importance of agave plants, many have expressed concern of the potential for blue agave monocultures to obliterate existing crops of medicinally significant agave plants, some which may not even be fully understood at the moment. Furthermore, a loss of genetic diversity can leave plant populations vulnerable to pathogens such as the bacterial disease that has affected agave crops in recent years.
Agave nectar may be a healthful alternative to table sugar or artificial sweeteners. As a medicinal herb, blue agave has promise for a number of applications and is an important form of primary healthcare for many people. If you are thinking of trying agave nectar either as a sweetener or as a botanical medicine, consider looking for organic agave nectar that contains nectar not only from blue agave, but from a variety of other types of agave as well.