We have been asked about the safety of using agave syrup as low glycemic substitute for cane sugar. Here is some useful information.
Of the several hundreds species of agave, commercial agave syrup is produced from Agave Americana, a desert succulent plant. The syrup, or nectar, is obtained from the sap. The sweet sticky sap is extracted from the base of the plant then boiled to produce the “syrup.” Cooking converts the sap’s natural sugar, inulin, into fructose. The resulting syrup is 90% fructose. Fructose is a sugar that is very low on the Glycemic Index, (around 20), meaning it does not trigger insulin release from the pancreas.
So, how safe is agave syrup? The answer, as usual, is “it depends.”
On the whole, sweeteners, even when natural, should be used sparingly. Our intestines normally absorb a limited quantity of simple sugars. Any overload will pass on to the colon, causing gas, and perhaps, loose bowels due to fermentation by colon bacteria.
It is known that the sap contains powerful estrogen-like steroids that can prevent conception and may act to abort the fetus after conception. Women of child-bearing years should be aware of this contraceptive effect.
In 1979, a study was published detailing the anti-fertility properties of agave. “Scientists from the People’s Republic of China have reported significant anti-fertility effects associated with 2 substances, anordin and dinordin, prepared with steroids derived from the sisal plants Agave sisilana and Agave americana. These agents, whose anti-fertility properties have been confirmed by scientists in Sweden and the United States, constitute a new family of contraceptives with the great advantage of having to be taken only once or twice instead of 20 times per month necessary with the ordinary pill.”
The sap is also a laxative. People with diarrhea must not use it.
On the other hand, agave sap is under investigation for a variety of medical applications involving its natural steroids. For example, one early animal study confirms an anti-inflammatory effect, another an anti-bleeding effect, and another shows an anti-cancer effect in selected agave species.
A study from Spain has shown anti-allergic effects on animal cells (in a petri dish) by a variety of agave called Cissus sicyoides L. (Bejuco caro) but not for another called Agave intermixta Trel. (Maguey). Both species are Caribbean plants from the Dominican Republic used locally in traditional popular medicine. The study showed an inhibition of the release of histamine from mast cells that might contribute to the anti-inflammatory activity shown by this one species.
We would like to see research on the syrup itself when used as a substitute in equal measure for cane sugar because there is a current flourish of recipes using agave syrup aimed at America’s sweet tooth. Too much of a good thing may present unforeseen problems…