You’ve probably heard about the dangers of processed sugars and high-fructose corn syrup. And chances are you’ve sought out a healthier sugar source to satisfy your sweet tooth. Honey and agave nectar are both trendy alternatives right now, but which one is healthier? Both are all-natural sweeteners and less-refined than white sugar.
In a head-to-head show down, you might be surprised by the results. Here’s a look at the nutritional value and health benefits of these sugar substitutes.
How are agave nectar and honey made?
Both honey and agave nectar are considered natural products, but they differ in how they end up on the grocery store shelf.
Agave nectar is actually a syrup (nectar is really just a marketing term). It comes from the fluid inside the blue agave plant. This is the same plant that is used to make tequila.
Agave nectar is made by the following steps:
- The fluid is first extracted from the plant.
- The juice is then filtered.
- The filtered juice is heated to break down its components into a simple sugar called fructose.
- The resulting liquid is then concentrated into a syrup.
Agave nectar requires multiple processing steps before it can be consumed. Processed food may be less healthy because the process of refining foods often means losing some (or all) of its natural health benefits.
Honey comes from bees. These busy little insects produce honey by collecting the nectar of plants. Unlike agave nectar, honey doesn’t have to be processed before consuming. But certain brands of honey are heated (pasteurized) to prevent crystallization and to kill bacteria before storage. Raw honey is all-natural and unprocessed, making it the wiser choice.
Agave nectar and honey have about the same number of calories. Both a tablespoon of agave nectar and a tablespoon of honey contain roughly 64 calories.
The two are also a bit sweeter than white sugar, so you don’t have to use as much to obtain the sweetness you desire. Keep in mind that agave nectar and honey both add these calories to your dish with little extra nutrition.
The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how much a carbohydrate-rich food may raise blood glucose levels. Sugar is a carbohydrate. GI is an especially important tool for people with diabetes, who need to control their blood glucose levels to stay healthy. Foods with a higher GI can trigger a spike in blood sugar and insulin release after eating. High-GI foods are also digested quickly, which can mean feeling hungry again much sooner.
Here’s a GI breakdown by sweetener:
- honey: 58
- agave nectar: 19
- refined white table sugar (sucrose): 60
The lower the GI value, the less the food raises your blood glucose. If you only consider glycemic index, then agave nectar takes the cake.
People with diabetes may benefit from agave nectar’s low glycemic index, but keep in mind that the American Diabetes Association recommends limiting the amount of agave nectar in your diet.
Agave nectar, on the other hand, consists of 75-90 percent fructose. That’s compared to just 50 percent for table sugar and 55 percent for the often-criticized high fructose corn syrup.
Although glucose and fructose look very similar, they have completely different effects in the body. Unfortunately, fructose is thought to be linked to many health problems including:
- high triglycerides
- fatty liver
- memory loss
Unlike other types of sugar, fructose is processed by the liver. Consuming too much fructose at once can overwhelm the liver and cause it to produce dangerous triglycerides. High fructose foods are thought to lead to belly fat, which is bad for your overall heart health.
A recent study found that rats that consumed high-fructose syrups gained significantly more weight than rats that consumed table sugar, even when their calorie intake was the same.
Honey gains a massive leg up in its competition with agave nectar.
Other health benefits
Aside from being delicious, honey has also been found to have other health benefits. It has been shown to be effective in reducing frequency of cough, calming sore throats, and improving the sleep quality of coughing children. Honey is also anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and can help reduce seasonal allergens when the honey is from your local area. Honey also never spoils.
Honey also contains a fair amount of phytochemicals that may serve as antioxidants. In general, the darker the honey, the higher the antioxidants. Antioxidants are believed to help rid the body of harmful free radicals. Research shows that antioxidants can help prevent certain types of cancers, fight aging, and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. The most benefits are seen in raw honey that is not pasteurized.
There are no major health benefits attributed to agave nectar, so honey gets all the brownie points.
Honey should not be given to infants under one year of age due to the risk of botulism spores.
Honey is the clear winner. But both honey and agave nectar are caloric sweeteners and offer little added nutritional value. Honey is better than agave nectar because it is:
- higher in antioxidants
- lower in fructose-content
- less processed
- has other health benefits
Agave nectar is marketed for its low glycemic index, but its high fructose content cancels out its potential upsides. If you don’t like the taste of honey, or you’re a strict vegan who doesn’t eat honey, the differences between the two aren’t significant enough to warrant making the change.
In the end, it’s not so much about the type of sweetener you choose, but rather the amount you consume. All sweeteners, including honey, should only be used sparingly. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to:
- tooth decay
- high triglycerides
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars including agave syrup, corn syrup, honey, cane sugar, or brown sugar to no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) for women and nine teaspoons (36 grams) for men per day.