Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Let’s Talk About Agave
We have heard from a number of people who were alarmed by what they read in Dr. Mercola’s recent article about agave syrup. We also were alarmed –not by the case Dr. Mercola makes, but by some blatant misinformation contained in his article.
We care very much about the healthfulness and integrity of our products, so we decided that it was very important for us to personally see, firsthand, where our agave syrup comes from and the process by which it is made. So in February, our general manager, Doug Furlong, took a trip to Jalisco, Mexico, to visit the agave fields and processing plants where our agave syrup is produced. (This trip is documented, with photos, on our blog at: http://coconutbliss.com/blog/doug/doug-visits-our-agave-farm-part-1).
What Doug saw was completely different from what Mercola describes. Mercola states,
“The process by which agave starch and inulin are converted into “nectar” is VERY similar to the process by which cornstarch is converted into HFCS1. The agave starch is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals.”
Doug, who has an extensive background in food science and manufacturing, witnessed the entire process, from harvest to finished product, and what he saw was a very simple process in which the agave piñas (which, contrary to what Mercola states, contain no starch), were ground up and sprayed with water to remove the juice, which was then heated to break down the inulin into fructose, mechanically filtered through screens to remove impurities, and then evaporated with a process that used only heat and a vacuum to remove excess moisture. That’s it. None of the chemicals or enzymes that Mercola describes were used, and there is no resemblance to the process used to make HFCS1. If you have ever ground, heated and strained something in your kitchen (e.g., making applesauce or tomato sauce), that is a much closer comparison to the process used to make agave syrup.
Dr. Mercola goes on to make what we find to be an offensive generalization when he refers to “…poor quality control in Mexican processing plants…” What Doug saw in the three plants he visited was state-of-the art equipment and extensive sanitation and quality control procedures that matched the best food processing plants he’s seen in the U.S. He also got to spend time with the farmers and the people who work in the plants (two of which are collectively owned by the farmers), and was impressed with the great sense of pride they had in the quality and integrity of their work. The plants and farms are also certified in compliance with USDA organic standards, and meet several other international standards for quality assurance. The certified organic agave farms use no inputs of any kind on the plants—no fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides—not even water. The agave plants are very well adapted to the environment in Jalisco and naturally thrive there.
While we cannot vouch for the whole agave industry, but only for the three facilities Doug visited (which supply not only us, but many other excellent organic food companies), some of the negative claims that Mercola makes about the agave industry (e.g., “there are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup…”; “…some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup..”), are not documented in his article. This raises the question of whether they are based on hearsay and conjecture rather than data.
The issue of fructose in the diet is very complex, and there is a dizzying array of conflicting information circulating around the Internet about this topic. We are continuing to do our own exploration and research on this, but I encourage everyone to take what you read on this subject with a hearty grain of salt, and to explore the research yourself. If you dig in to many of the articles that have recently been circulating around the Internet, you will see that there are very few actual research studies cited, but much extrapolation, conjecture, inference, questionable or faulty interpretation of research, and blatant misinformation.
What we have found, so far, in the studies we have seen, is that fructose is only problematic in excess, but causes no difficulties, for most people, in moderate amounts (up to 50-60 grams per day). Moderation is essential. Coconut Bliss is a dessert, not a staple food, and we have to trust people to consume it appropriately. We agree with many of the agave critics when they say that it is a problem that some people assume that the low glycemic index of agave syrup gives them carte blanche to consume it in large quantities. It is important to keep in mind that many foods or nutrients can cause health problems when eaten in excess.
We have asked a highly credentialed nutritionist, Buck Levin, Ph.D., R.D., for his assessment of the health properties of Coconut Bliss. Here is his conclusion:
“The amount of fructose provided by one serving of Coconut Bliss (between 10-12 grams) falls well under the risk threshold established in these dietary studies. It’s not only an amount of fructose that falls well under the health risk level, but it’s also an amount of fructose that is readily matched and exceeded in many whole, natural foods. A large apple, for example (3.25 inches in diameter), contains slightly more fructose (13 grams). So does 1 medium-sized banana plus 1 cup of blueberries. And if you compare the amount of fructose in one serving of Coconut Bliss with the amount of fructose in 200 calories worth of many other commonly-consumed foods, it is dramatically lower. 200 hundred calories worth of unsweetened applesauce, for example, contains 25-30 grams of fructose. So does 200 calories worth of unsweetened apple juice or grape juice. Even 200 calories worth of red grapes contain about twice as much fructose (23 grams) as a serving of Coconut Bliss with the same caloric value. Given these everyday food comparisons and the health research on fructose as a dietary risk factor, the use of agave syrup as an ice cream sweetener seems far from excessive and also removed from research-based health concerns in this area.”
(Buck’s full article, including extensive documentation, is available at: http://www.coconutbliss.com/Buck_Levin.pdf)
Another very clear and well documented paper about agave syrup, fructose, and other sugars, can be found here: http://www.coconutbliss.com/Agave_Syrup_9.4.09.pdf
I do not question Dr. Mercola’s motives, but sadly recognize that we live in a time and culture where everyone and everything seems to be suspect (often deservedly so), and negative charges seem to be given much more credibility than positive ones. Sensationalism sells. Our current politics are full of this (many people probably still believe that Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen!) I would welcome a public discussion about agave syrup that is based, not on sensationalism and bully pulpits, but rather on facts and documented research.
Co-founder, Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss