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Are sweet times ahead for agave?

16 June, 2011

While agave is probably best known as the plant from which tequila is made, we are also seeing rising levels of interest in its use as a sweetener in the form of agave nectar, also known as agave syrup.

While it made up only about 3% of the sugar and sweetener launches recorded globally on the Innova Database (www.innovadatabase.com) in the 12 months to the end of March 2011, there was a noticeable increase in interest in the US market in particular.

There the number of launches doubled over the same period, although from a relatively small base. In addition, Innova recorded that agave was increasingly used as a sweetener ingredient in a wide range of product launches, including soft drinks, sauces, cereals and confectionery.

Agave nectar or syrup is commercially produced mainly in Mexico and South Africa from several species of agave and it is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than conventional sugar (sucrose). It has a lower Glycaemic load (similar to that of fructose), allowing it to be marketed as a healthy natural sweetening alternative. It is sold in light, amber, dark and raw formats, with the majority of products also being organic, building on the natural image.

It is also widely marketed on its vegan status. A review of recent product launches recorded on the Innova Database shows that while agave syrup has continued to see product activity in its major producing countries of Mexico and South Africa in recent years, interest also spread geographically, not only to the US, but also to a number of European markets. The UK, Spain, France, Finland and Hungary all saw the launch of agave sweeteners over a 12-month period. 

Fairly basic products were launched onto the UK market in 2010, including Dipasa Light and Amber agave nectars from Mexico and Biona Organic Agave Syrups (also launched in Finland). The greater development of the US market was evident in terms of the wider range of launches over the past year or so.

Interesting US introductions recorded on Innova included a number of retailer private-labels, including a premium variant from Kroger under its Private Selection and a value variant from Whole Foods under the 365 Everyday Value umbrella brand. Both lines were organic, with the Kroger product marketed as Blue Agave Light Golden Syrup and the Whole Foods range offering Light and Raw Agave Nectar options.

Both were packaged in plastic bottles, rather than the more usual glass. A number of flavoured variants were also introduced by Wholesome Sweeteners, which launched Organic Blue Agave Syrups in Vanilla, Strawberry, Maple and Cinnamon flavours, marketed as suitable for use with beverages and as dessert toppings. Another added-value introduction was that of Agave Nectar Sticks by Stash Tea, offering a convenient, single-serve sweetening option for drinks.

At the same time, more established agave nectar or syrup brands are spreading to new geographical areas. The Sunny Sirop d’Agave brand from France, introduced in late 2009, appearing in Hungary in March 2011. Groovy Food Company’s Agave Nectar in Rich & Dark and Light & Mild variants, launched in the UK in 2006, appeared, perhaps surprisingly, in South Africa, one of the original homes of agave products.

Another interesting development in the South African market was the launch of a granulated Agave Sugar product from Harrewyn Organics, making the product, normally sold in a liquid format, more directly competitive with conventional sugar.

According to Lu Ann Williams, Head of Research for Innova Market Insights, agave nectar still makes up only a very small part of the sweetener market, but recent years have seen it emerge from the specialist health food sector and into the mainstream market in many countries.

While the natural, healthy, low GI image presented would seem to offer good prospects, she contends that it is also in a highly competitive marketplace. In the face of some ongoing adverse publicity about safety issues, including its high fructose content and its highly processed nature, its future still hangs in the balance.

Source: Innova Database

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