A message from Craig Gerbore:
I would like to take this opportunity to introduce an exciting new GotAgave contributor: Linda Lowen, a freelance writer who is affiliated with the New York Times Company-owned website About.com and is also a contributor to MSN.com. We are delighted to have such an accomplished, passionate, and professional writer among us. She is a like-minded natural foods enthusiast and mother of two whose accolades include: NPR’s Talk of the Nation, ABC’s Good Morning America, the 2009 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus, and twice the recipient of the Clarion Award for Best Women’s Issues Programming by Women in Communications.
Her passion for cutting through the hype and uncovering the truth has led her to write the first of what I hope are many articles on the subject of Agave. Below is Linda’s fully researched, vetted, and personal response to our first post. If you have questions about the research conducted or our choice to post this article, you can contact me, Craig Gerbore at firstname.lastname@example.org or Linda Lowen at linda(dot)lowen(at)gmail(dot)com.
by GotAgave Expert: Linda Lowen
Agave syrup’s rapid rise in the food industry as a natural sweetener with low impact on blood sugar has attracted many new fans and consumers. But its expanding market share has also made agave the target of unsubstantiated claims by self-proclaimed “authoritative” sources in an effort to halt its growing popularity.
Earlier this year, one of these sources put forth misleading information via the internet in order to negatively influence public opinion on agave syrup.
You may recall blogs and websites mentioning a “breaking news” report in which a certain “institute” claimed to have “banned” and “delisted” the sweetener due to its side effects. Many conscientious food bloggers within the health and wellness community shared word of this “delisting” of agave without realizing that the “breaking news” was manufactured and had no real basis in scientific research.
This attempt to discredit agave syrup was the latest salvo in a multi-million dollar industry battle over natural sweeteners that are safe for diabetics and others concerned about controlling blood sugar levels. And much of that battle is being fought in the online environment.
More and more consumers rely on the internet as their primary source of information. We “favorite” sites and revisit them for advice, guidance, and news on topics of shared interest, and we trust the entities behind these sites to pass along vetted, sourced, and accurate information. But when we do so, we accept health claims at face value and fail to perform the type of due diligence we would undertake in other aspects of our lives. It’s no wonder then that false claims can quickly take root.
Before those false claims can be addressed, let’s set the record straight on the current scientific findings regarding agave syrup and the research facilities and medical experts involved in evaluating the product.
Hydrolyzed from that nectar, agave syrup been marketed over the past decade as having a lower glycemic index than sugar — a fact that was verified by a June 2011 report released by the Glycemic Index Laboratories of Toronto, Canada (GILabs.com).
GI Labs determined agave syrup’s glycemic index through testing on human subjects and the resulting value for the agave syrup was 17 +/- 3.2 .
This number represents how rapidly a food elevates blood sugar on a scale to 100, with lower numbers having less of an impact on blood sugar levels than higher numbers.
As Dr. Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, FACN, CNS, FISSN explains, the Glycemic Index is used to compare sugars to each other by measuring their ability to raise blood sugars: “The scale is set from zero to 100, where low numbers do not have much impact on blood sugar levels, and high numbers raise blood sugar levels quickly.”
A fellow of the American College of Nutrition and a member of The American Dietetic Association, Dr. Kleiner notes, “Fructose is very low on the scale. Because agave syrup is high in fructose, it has a rating of 32 or lower. Honey, which has a higher proportion of glucose to fructose, has a Glycemic Index of 58. Sucrose has a Glycemic Index of 68, and glucose, serving as the index standard, is 100.”
The exact determination of the glycemic index of agave syrup is a key issue in its continued success as a natural sweetener. Previous to the June 2011 GI Labs study, conservative estimates of agave syrups ranked it at approximately 32.
Those who might question GI Labs’ findings have only to look at the scientists affiliated with the facility to verify the merits of their research.
An ISO-certified company, GI Labs is headed by Dr. Thomas Wolever, MD, PhD, DM. Dr. Wolever holds a medical degree from Oxford University, a PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Toronto, and a Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford.
GI Labs’ research and professional staff includes members with advanced degrees from Oxford, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. The lab’s Vice President, Dr. Vladimir Vuksan, PhD, was appointed by the World Health Organization as Program Director and Principal Nutrition Investigator of the Institute for Diabetes and Metabolism in Zagreb, Croatia, a position he held for 14 years.
Drs. Wolever and Vuksan, along with Dr. Alexandra Jenkins, are identified as GI Labs’ key senior scientists and Principal Investigators on the website. A link from the main page displays a client list which includes Kraft Foods, Tropicana, Blue Diamond Almonds, Nature’s Way, Nutrisystem, and over a dozen additional companies.
All the information above is readily available on the GILabs.com website.
Who Is the “Institute”?
The transparency of GI Labs and its staff stands in sharp contrast to the anonymity of those associated with the Glycemic Research Institute (GRI), the entity behind the “report” warning consumers away from the use of agave syrup.
Posted in June at the website glycemic.com and authored by the GRI, the “breaking news” report states, “The Medical Advisory Board of the Glycemic Research Institute (GRI) made the decision to halt all future clinical trials involving Agave as a result of the latest round of GRI Human In Vivo Clinical Trials, in which the diabetic subjects experienced severe and dangerous side effects related to the oral ingestion of the sweetener Agave.”
The dramatic language in the report was quickly picked up by the health, food and fitness blogosphere where GRI’s decision to “DeList” and “ban” Agave for use in foods, beverages, chocolate and any other products quickly spread — with many blogs replicating the report verbatim.
None of the bloggers who reposted the findings consulted with other reliable sources to verify the claims of the Glycemic Research Institute, vet the “institute” itself or evaluate its legitimacy as a scientific research lab. Nor did they seek to identify those individuals behind the organization or determine who serves on the group’s “Medical Advisory Board.”
Had they done so, they would have discovered that no supporting documentation exists in the field of nutritional studies or in peer-reviewed publications that recognizes the Glycemic Research Institute as either a medical facility or a research entity with the authority to approve or ban food products.
No information on GRI’s founder or CEO, its medical staff, or members of the medical advisory board is posted on its website. Neither does it provide any additional details on how it arrived at its “research” findings.
Google “Glycemic Research Institute Chief” and what comes up is _________ at the website bearing her name. (The name is blanked out for reasons that will be made clear shortly.) Her website states she is Chief of Biomedical Research at GRI and announces that she is a “Federally Registered Trademark” and will take legal action if her name is used without permission. (Duly noted.)
A search for ________’s credentials fails to reveal her educational background, medical training, or degree(s) granted by any institutions of higher learning. Instead, what surfaces are the following: articles at both scientopia.org and techdirt.com that question her legitimacy; critics who note that while she claims to have patents she provides no patent numbers; associations with Boresha B-Skinny Coffee (a purported weight loss beverage) and EdibleComputerChips.com; and claims on her website that she is “the Apha Scientist” and “in the forefront of scientific breakthroughs, including…Quantum Chocolate.”
Despite these red flags, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal based an entire article on the Glycemic Research Institute’s dramatic warning of the dangers of agave syrup. Laura Johannes’ October 27, 2009 piece, “Agave Syrup May Not Be So Simple” relied heavily on GRI’s uncorroborated findings. In doing so, Johannes (and WSJ) bestowed a level of legitimacy to __________ and GRI that — in essence — “vetted” them both, a point that’s vigorously touted on the glycemic.com website.
Many bloggers and websites, trusting that the WSJ had properly fact-checked the story, have since accepted the “warning” as the gospel truth. Did Johannes look into the background of the GRI or attempt to identify its scientists or principal investigators, or did she — like so many others — accept the “report” at face value? Johannes, who was contacted for this article, declined to respond.
Very few of us are professional journalists with the resources, and ability to dig deeply into every health-related story that crosses our path. It takes time and energy to verify claims that are presented as facts and thoroughly confirm the legitimacy of each by way of tracking down multiple sources that support these claims.
But a few simple questions will enable you to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you encounter a new study that make dramatic claims, you don’t have to invest hours of searching to obtain the critical yet basic information you need. Before you blindly accept any claims as scientific fact, ask yourself:
Who or what is responsible for the research on which the findings are based?
Was the research conducted by a laboratory recognized for its work in the field?
Who are the members of the scientific team behind the research? the principal investigators?
Are the credentials, biographies, and publications of those individuals listed?
Is there complete transparency? Is all the information you need available on the website?
Is there an explanation of the methodology? Is there ample background material to support any and all findings?
Findings are based on facts, not pronouncements. Most are presented in a lengthy paper or report which is prefaced by an abstract. Most researchers will send out a news release of their findings and link to — or attach — a multi-page PDF. If this is not forthcoming, beware.
This was part of the argument put forth in a statement by Craig Gerbore in the aftermath of the Glycemic Research Institute’s “breaking news” announcing the “ban” and “delisting” of agave syrup. The he noted, “I find the GRI ® report to be less than compelling…[F]or all the scientific posturing, very little factual evidence has been offered to support the dramatic claims they have made. The lack of specific testing information to review makes it impossible to judge the methods they used, and this omission certainly casts great doubt on the validity of their statements regarding agave syrup.”
In the end no single article, blog post, or study should convince you one way or another…including this one. Search, investigate, poke around, and read as much as you can. Know the principals behind the claims and determine whether their expertise is solid or merely skin-deep. It’s your health and well-being at stake. Shouldn’t you know both sides before you decide?