Agave is a genus of a perennial, succulent plant in the Agavaceae family and is native to semi-arid regions of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America. Its nectar, or aguamiel, has been used for hundreds of years in traditional medicine particularly as an antibacterial and gastrointestinal tonic. It has a low glycemic index, and some diabetics find that it makes a good substitute for sugar. The nectar that is pressed from the plant and heated until it achieves a honey-like consistency may be available at health food stores, markets, or online.
This drought-tolerant succulent can reach a height of 6-10 feet (1.8-4.3 meters). It grows best in U.S. Hardiness Zones 9-11, which means that the plant will survive in temperatures as low as 20° Fahrenheit (-6.6° Celsius). Agave prefers full sunlight and soil with a pH level between 6.1-8.5, which is mildly acidic to alkaline. In late winter and early spring, the Agave plant produces bright yellow blooms. This plant has very sharp spines or edges, so anyone handling it should wear gloves and use caution.
Anthropologists think that aguamiel may have been used by the Aztecs in Central America during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Artifacts suggest that the Aztecs used the nectar to sweeten food. It may have also been mixed with salt and used as a poultice to speed healing.
Pus-producing skin bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, as well as bacteria in the intestinal tract, appear to die off in the presence of the phytochemical components of aguamiel. The antibacterial action of aguamiel seems to increase when it is mixed with salt, thus lending some credence to the Aztec's medicinal use of the nectar. Aguamiel derived from the blue agave species may be useful in treating irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis; more research needs to be done to verify these hypotheses, however.
Keeping blood sugar stable is a primary concern for diabetics. To help them make better food choices, many diabetics rely on the glycemic index, which is a measurement of how fast carbohydrates raise blood sugar. The lower the glycemic index score, the better the food is for keeping blood sugar relatively consistent. Aguamiel has a glycemic index of 20, which is about 50 points lower than table sugar. This means that it will break down slowly and the user will not experience a sugar rush or crash.
Aguamiel is usually sold in powder or syrup form from which a tincture or tea may be made. The syrup may be available with amaretto, hazelnut or other flavors added. Consumers may purchase it from local grocers, health food stores, ethnic food markets, or on the Internet.