Q: How likely is agave nectar to be contaminated with bacteria? I have a family member who has a weak immune system and needs to be careful. Can I use agave and be safe?
Answer: I spent some time searching for good information on this, and I couldn’t find much. Let me start with what I found. There is a research article available that found that if agave nectar is contaminated, bacteria will grow — specifically, salmonella, E. coli and listeria bacteria. So for someone with poor immunity, that is not good news.
Agave syrup is about 84 percent fructose. That’s higher than high fructose corn syrup, and almost double the amount in honey. But honey’s total sugar content is higher, and bacteria, at least those that make us sick, won’t grow in honey. However, there is no specific difference between nectar and syrup for labeling, so it’s hard to say how much sugar a particular product or brand has, or how safe it might be.
I couldn’t find anything specific regarding how likely it is for agave to be contaminated. But when you consider that true nectar comes from flowers that are pollinated by bees, bats, lizards, birds and other animals, it’s highly likely there is contamination. Then I stumbled into a raging controversy over how the agave syrup or nectar in our stores today is made. There are a lot of sources claiming that it’s not really from the flower or the sap, but being produced from starch in the root of the plants. If so, it’s even more like corn syrup than honey. And there were lots of claims that the production process and facilities may not be very clean or sanitary. Who knows?!
If I were feeding someone with low immunity, I would prefer plain, dry white sugar, or an artificial sweetener. The sugar or the sweeteners have been purified enough that contamination is less likely. White sugar is so dry and so concentrated that nothing will grow on it. Either that, or be sure to cook well anything with agave, to be sure any bacteria are killed.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.