The iidea Company, the first firm to industrially market agave syrup is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Mexican pioneer in the production of this natural sweetener obtained from Weber’s blue agave plant started operations in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1996 with just ten co-workers. Today, the company has 269 direct employees offering a line of natural sweeteners that have gained high acceptance, especially in the organic and natural food sector.
Weber’s blue agave is mainly produced in Mexico. Agave syrup consumption dates back to the country’s pre-Hispanic communities. The agave was considered a plant of the Gods for its multiple uses. The indigenous people used to take the pineapple (the heart of the agave) and heat it obtaining a sweet nectar. The alcoholic beverage Tequila is also derived from blue agave.
However, The iidea Company, in collaboration with the University of Guadalajara, embarked on a four-year research project to produce and commercialize agave syrup, resulting in the global birth of this dynamic industry.
The primary challenge was to explain the market what the product was all about because it was a new alternative to cane sugar. At first, people thought that it was an alcohol-related product because of the origin. “For years we were alone in this industry,” said sales manager Karla Berenice Padilla Zazueta.
“We spent a lot of time explaining the benefits of agave syrup.”
The iidea Co. is a global, multicultural enterprise. It is still the largest producer of agave in Mexico and the leading exporter of agave syrup worldwide. The firm enjoys several certifications, such as organic, Kosher, Halal, Non-GMO and Fair Trade that assure the consumption of its products in over 40 countries, including the United States, France, Brazil, and Japan. The primary market for agave syrup is the United States, the country where The iidea Co. exported its first shipment in the early 90’s.
The firm was recently certified with the standard ISO14001:2004 establishing a framework for environmental initiatives and formalizing its commitment to sustainable development. Some of the initiatives implemented at The iidea Company include the use of solar panels for energy production, separation, and evaluation of waste management, light sensors, and the use of natural gas as fuel.
In addition to its commitment to social responsibility working with communities certified under the Fair Trade program, The iidea Company is certified under the SA8000 social responsibility standard, which governs its relationships with all the stakeholders including society.
The company works with a community of around 250 people located in Zacatecas, 339km from its plant. And the firm has created a committee called IIDEA Cares, which is responsible for promoting activities such as reforestation, donations to orphanages, social rehabilitation, and hospitals, to improve the community. With agave prices tipped to rise more than a 100 percent by 2018, The iidea Company is well positioned due to its solid relationships with farmers.
The iidea Co. serves the food and beverage manufacturing sectors, the food service (restaurant and catering) industry, and consumers via retail brands available at supermarkets and specialty stores. Currently, more than 70 percent of its production is intended for private label contracts.
“For the US market we have produced more than 50 brands of agave syrup under private label,” says Karla. “There are plenty of other value-added products with agave syrup as an ingredient, from carbonated drinks to cosmetics.”
Today, agave syrup can be easily found in supermarket chains in countries such as Germany, The Netherlands, France, Japan, Canada, Brazil and South Korea, as it has achieved enough acceptance and recognition from the consumer for its health benefits.
“Our best seller is organic agave syrup to which we allocate more than 50 percent of our production, followed by inulin and agave powder. We are proudly the pioneer in the production of Organic Tequila and we still produce it. Nevertheless, our focus is on organic ingredients,” says Karla.
The iidea Company sees organic blue agave syrup as a perfect substitute to traditionally refined sugar cane. Agave is around 40 percent sweeter than sugar, and it is increasingly observed in organic and natural products such as chocolates and snack bars where sugar content can be drastically cut.
Agave syrup is a healthier alternative to conventional sweeteners. It is enriched with inulin, a prebiotic fiber. The higher fructose (vs. glucose) level in agave may have a significantly lower impact on blood sugar levels. The low GI in agave means the body absorbs it gradually preventing sudden high bursts of energy that end in fatigue. A lower glycemic response of agave can benefit people with glucose tolerance disorders.
The European Food Information Council recognizes that the adverse studies on fructose consumption have been about pure fructose. The iidea Co. presents a sweetener mainly composed of fructose but in combination with inulin and glucose. Therefore, those studies do not apply to their products.
Research published in the Journal of American Food in 2014 on the effect of Agave fructans on mineral absorption and bone mineral content (in mice), found that Agave fructans were able to prevent bone loss and improve bone formation.
Another Journal of American Food in 2014 study Effects of agave nectar versus sucrose on weight gain, adiposity, blood glucose, insulin, and lipid responses in mice, found that: “No statistically significant differences in total cholesterol or triglycerides were detected. These results suggest that in comparison to sucrose, agave nectar may have a positive influence on weight gain and glucose control. However, more research with a larger sample of animals and with human subjects is warranted.”
Over the years, innovation has been a key factor for success and growth at The iidea Company. The firm pioneered in launching Switter agave in powder, a well-accepted product in the bakery industry. It also introduced flavored agave to the retail sector.
The Mexican manufacturer is committed to promoting its products in new markets such as Asia and South America. Its presence in North America and Europe is already active. It is also finding new organic agave products to meet new market trends. The firm is currently working on a couple of other projects that will keep revolutionizing this industry.
There appears to be growing competition in the global natural and organic sweeteners market from products such as stevia, monk fruit, cereal syrups, and coconut sugar.
Constant innovation and investing in R&D is the company’s strategy to keep leading the pack and meeting the challenge of increasing sales for agave products year after year. “It is a reality that the category of natural sweeteners has been expanding exponentially in recent years”, Karla says. “Nevertheless, we see this as an opportunity, not a threat, because the consumer is more informed about the options and the differences in the category.”
Agave syrup has some unique benefits regarding its organoleptic characteristics and versatility that win consumers’ preference. In fact, the product has also become a complement to other sweeteners. Karla points out that the firm sees in the market, stevia with agave, agave with monk fruit and other combinations, where sweeteners have complementary benefits, and they see, in general, positive growth in the category.
Another trend is conventional food companies switching to agave and other natural non-GMO sweeteners to replace refined cane sugar. The iidea Company is prepared to serve that large segment of the market.
With obesity and diabetes on the rise, the topic of sweeteners becomes critical in assessing the nutritional facts from the label where consumers are and will be more informed of the composition and the origin of the products.
Agave syrup is a natural sweetener, with no additives or chemicals. It is an option for the conventional food industry to respond to market trends demanding natural and friendlier sweeteners.
Reaching 20 years is a milestone and also an opportunity for The iidea Company. An example of this are the seven new certifications received this year; while it has been a chance to recognize the people who have been part of this project.
“I feel proud of the evolution of this company in which we all have been working hard through the years. The certifications that we are receiving are proof of this evolution and our commitment to keep challenging us and innovating in our products. Our dedication and commitment give us the pattern to continue reaping successes and to continue celebrating together,” said the company founder and CEO Alvaro Cetto during a ceremony on March 9th.
As part of the celebration, The iidea Company has included new challenges that will allow it to set the pace as the market leader. The firm intends to continue celebrating throughout the year with customers, partners, suppliers and everyone who has made this project possible.