U.S. demand for alternative sweeteners is expected to advance 3.3 percent a year through 2015, according to a new report on the Alternative Sweeteners Market released by The Freedonia Group of Ohio. In 2010, the alternative sweeteners netted $1.2 billion. By 2020, sales are predicted to hit $1.6 billion.
Stevia continues to be king of the alternative sweeteners, followed by agave nectar at a distant second. In 2010, stevia sales totaled $41 million. By comparison, agave nectar rang in at $16 million.
Casting predictions about 2015, Freedonia analysts believe stevia will net $77 million in sales, verses $23 million for agave nectar. In 2020, stevia sales will hit $120 million, versus $30 million for agave nectar.
Agave nectar is probably the most promising of the new natural sweeteners. "Demand for agave nectar is projected to advance 8 percent annually to $22 million in 2015," Mzik predicted.
Like stevia, agave nectar will benefit from a growing focus on natural foods, which has also driven a number of other trends in the broader sweetener market, such as rising use of less-refined sugars and evaporated cane, as well as the use of natural sugar substitutes that offer the advantages of alternative sweeteners, but not the real or perceived drawbacks.
Most agave nectar in the United States is shipped from producers in Mexico; Sweet Cactus Farms and GTC Nutrition are among the larger suppliers.
There is, however, a downside. Unlike many alternative sweeteners, agave nectar is not reduced-calorie; this could limit its use, Mzik said. Agave's makeup also has been challenged by health reporters.
A February 2010 article on HuffPost titled "Debunking the Blue Agave Myth" blasts agave nectar's low-glycaemic index for one simple reason: Agave is largely made up of fructose, at levels two times higher than HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup.)
"Research shows that it's the fructose part of sweeteners that's the most dangerous," writes Dr. Johnny Bowden. "Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and metabolic, syndrome (AKA pre-diabetes)."
But Mzik argues that Agave nectar’s high fructose and low glucose content make it somewhat sweeter than sucrose, but those same proportions also make it safe for diabetics because it has a lower glycaemic impact. "There are different grades, some of which have their own distinct flavor. Although most tasters would find these flavors to be pleasant enough in their own right, they limit the usefulness of agave nectar as a straight replacement for sugar or HFCS in some applications," she says.
Agave nectar's plant-based origin allows for its depiction as a natural product, often an important factor for food and beverage processors.