Biofuel. Ethanol is made from corn, right? Well, no, not exactly. Ethanol is basically, well, alcohol. And as we all know, alcohol is produced by fermenting sugars. Corn, relatively high in starchy goodness and complex carbohydrates that can be turned into sugars, has been a leader in ethanol production in the United States. Of course sugar beets and sugar cane are also highly suitable to this task, and used elsewhere around the world.
But the thing is, corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, these are all food. To use them to produce gas for our cars means that we have less food. To farm the land for them to make gas means that we can’t farm that land for food for us to eat. And let’s face it, to power all of our cars with green ethanol biofuel would take more farmable land than this planet has, not to mention really put a damper on our ability to live since, you know, we’d all have gone hungry and died of starvation to fuel all of our cars. As you can see, ethanol from corn and sugar is part of a solution, but it is not the solution. World hunger hasn’t exactly gone away on its own yet, and turning food into gas isn’t helping it any.
What if there were a crop that could be grown in arid desserts though, that could still make good ethanol? Where might one find such a miracle solution?
Surprisingly, it took researchers from the University of Sydney (you know, in Australia) working with researchers from Oxford University (that little school thing over in the UK) to come up with an idea that should have come from across the pond / from the other side of the planet. Their brilliant solution? Their miracle plant? Agave!
Sometimes it takes an Aussie to see what should have been right under our noses. (If someone else had the idea, I’ve somehow missed it, and would dearly appreciate a link. The first I’ve heard of this however comes from a British source about research being done on agave in Australia, of all places.)
And it is brilliantly simple and perfectly suited to Australia, as well as, potentially, many other places in the world which have stretches of barely usable land. Making it a perfect fit for biofuel production that does not interfere with global food production.
Yes, I’m taking about tequila. No, I mean mescal. Well … no, but close. I’m talking about alcohol made from AGAVE.
Yeah, that sweetener that I’ve only just started using in my tea recently, agave nectar*. It’s sweeter than honey, and less viscous (syrupy) so it dissolves better. Mexicans have been turning the starches stored in this succulent, agave, for a looooooooooong time. So just why exactly it took an Aussie to suggest making the world greener with a Tequila Sunrise is the question of the century.
But it’s a brilliant solution. Because as it turns out, agave is a charming plant. As a succulent nature made it to thrive in crappy arid conditions. It needs very little water to live. It stores lots and lots of energy to survive. In fact, “You get up to five times more energy out of the plant than you put in,” claims Daniel Tan, a senior lecturer in agronomy at the University of Sydney. Dr. Tan further expounds, “In terms of producing ethanol, agave is about the same as sugar cane.”
And as world biofuel experts are often keen to point out, ethanol from sugar is more efficient than ethanol from corn. Which means that agave could revolutionize the biofuel industry! It’s a top-notch source of ethanol and it grows in deserts where it won’t compete with food production!
So it should be very interesting to see where this research goes, and how the world adapts to it. The United States has already placed a tariff on imported ethanol to protect US corn farmers from cheaper sugar-based ethanol from the likes of Brazil. But if every country out there with a lot of sand started growing agave and turning it into ethanol, the world could literally be flooded with cheap biofuel the likes of which the US could never stand up to with corn. (Of course the US has its own large stretches of agave-friendly land to join in with.) It could also, potentially, create an exportable politically correct good for some countries in dire need of them.
*= There’s a lot of controversy over agave “nectar”. While I won’t debate the health benefits (real or imagined), I will address the caveat and basis that makes agave interesting. You see, agave “nectar” isn’t actually nectar at all. It’s not some syrup extracted from a flower. Nor is agave “nectar” even something like maple syrup, extracted and condensed sap. (That product does exist, and is called “miel de agave”.) And this is where a lot of health enthusiasts take issue with agave “nectar”, because what it is, is actually a highly processed conversion of starch. By any sane expectation, agave “nectar” is neither “natural” nor “organic”.
You see the agave plant has a giant root bulb where it stores energy. Lots and lots of energy. In a big bulb. Rather like a pineapple actually. This energy is stored as starch, not as sugar. One of the main proponents (about half) of the agave bulb’s starch is inulin, which is actually a highly indigestible fiber that does not taste sweet at all.
But (and here’s the science part) in a process almost identical to turning corn starch into corn syrup (which health proponents also aren’t fond of, but at least isn’t misleadingly called corn “nectar”), these starches from the root bulb of the agave plant can be subjected to a series of treatments with things like genetically modified enzymes, caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals. This breaks the starches down into non-naturally occurring fructose sugars and removes the resultant refuse that isn’t a sweetener.
Why do I say non-naturally occurring? Because when “fructose” does actually occur in nature, it is called levulose, and it is far less concentrated as levulose also contains naturally occurring enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, fruit pectin, and all of those lovely things that make it healthy.
Where as fructose … doesn’t.
So agave fructose is not nectar, is produced only through the use of several different chemicals, and produces a product which does not occur in nature. Just like corn syrup. Because it’s essentially the same process used to produce corn syrup that was adapted to make agave “nectar”.
Now, as to health issues, I won’t debate if either corn syrup or agave “nectar” are any less healthy than sugar because they have their advantages and disadvantages. Research has shown that on the plus side, fructose isn’t digested the same way that sugar is. Fructose isn’t turned into glucose. It is instead turned into triglycerides in your liver. (Or, immediately stored as fat if the liver decides you have enough triglycerides already.) This makes fructose theoretically safer for diabetics who need to be very careful of their glucose levels, so using corn syrup and agave “nectar” as a sweetener can help maintain steady blood sugar levels as fructose won’t contribute to a blood sugar rise and following crash.
But, on the down side, besides that too much fructose intake gets chucked right into fat cells without a chance to burn it off first, studies have also shown that fructose also inhibits leptin, the hormone that your body produces to tell you that you’re full. So the more fructose from corn syrup or agave “nectar” you eat, the less cognitive you are of your increasing leptin levels, and thusly are rendered less able to recognize that you have eaten enough food. Potentially you can be left feeling hungry after having eaten, or far more likely, to just keep eating more food than you would have eaten had things been sweetened with real sugar. This can especially be a real problem to diabetics with weight problems.
As one tracks the rise in obesity, it does seem to rather anecdotally mirror the food-industry-wide practice of using corn syrup as a substitute for sugar, which is certainly at least food for thought. Of course video games and social networking replacing playing real games and actually walking/riding a bike to a friend’s house can’t be ignored either. Frankly, there are a lot of factors in the unhealthy lifestyles of today, and we could spend an eternity breaking them down. Which is why I won’t offer an opinion on them, as real or perceived, they could be debated until the cows come home. It is literally impossible to say which side is right without going back in time.
That said however, being made of the scientific facts and verifiable results of studies so that you can best determine what is most appropriate in your situation is certainly within my purview.
And the knowledge of how unnatural corn sugar and agave “nectar” actually are is certainly also food for thought. Chances are, if you eat Splenda (aka sucralose), you already don’t care about a chemical process.