Food Fight: Agave vs. Honey

by in Food Fight, Healthy Tips, November 1, 2012

This is going to be our toughest food fight yet! Two natural sweeteners pitted against each other – it’s a very difficult decision.

Most agave nectar is produced from the blue agave plant grown in desert regions like the hilly areas in Mexico. The syrup is extracted from the “honey water” found at core of the plant, filtered, heated and then processed to make it into thicker nectar you see at the store. This makes agave a good sweetener for vegans (who don’t eat honey).

Agave nectar has a dark amber color, but has a more neutral flavor than honey. One tablespoon of the sweetener has about 60 calories compared to about 45 and 60 in the same amount of granulated sugar and honey, respectively. It’s 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar and so you can use less of it. Agave easily dissolves in cold liquids like smoothies and iced tea and can be used to replace granulated sugar in baked products (see instructions below). Many food manufacturers also use agave nectar in products like energy drinks and bars because of its light flavor and over-hyped nutritional benefits.

To replace sugar with agave in your baked treats, do the following:

  • Replace 1 cup of sugar with 2/3 cup of agave
  • Reduce liquids in the recipe by ¼
  • Reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F to prevent excessive browning
  • Increase baking time by one minute for every 15 minutes of baking time

Depending on how it’s processed, agave contains from 55% to 90% of a sugar called fructose —which is also found in fruit. The remainder of the sugar ranging from 10% to 45% of sugar is from glucose. This is a similar to the amount of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup.

The media has hyped up agave because of its low glycemic index (GI of 17) compared with regular sugar (GI of 68) or even honey (GI between 60-74 depending on variety).  This low glycemic index has made agave a favorite among many diabetics. However, according to the American Diabetes Association agave should be treated just like any sweetener (like sugar, corn syrup or honey) and be consumed in limited amounts.

The reason for the lower glycemic index is due to the high amount of fructose. However, studies have shown that high amounts of fructose have been linked to diabetes, obesity, fatty liver and may play a role in memory loss.

Nutritionally, agave does contain provide small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. However, the amounts aren’t major contributing factors to your overall diet.

One tablespoon of honey has about 64 calories. The flavor of honey depends on where the bee collected its nectar. The darker the color, the more robust the flavor and the more antioxidants present. You can also find a variety of minerals like iron, copper, niacin, riboflavin, potassium and zinc.

Honey is about 25-50% sweeter than sugar so you don’t need as much when using it in a recipe. When substituting for granulated sugar, use lighter-colored (and milder flavored) honey so it won’t overpower your recipe.

When baking, use the following guidelines to substitute honey for granulated sugar:

  • Use ½ cup of honey per cup of sugar
  • Reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F to prevent excessive browning
  • If using more than 1 cup of honey, decrease liquids in the recipe by ¼ and add ½ teaspoon of baking soda

Check out our other tips for baking with honey

There’s also been some belief that eating local honey can help alleviate seasonal allergies. The theory stems from the facts that bees collect local pollen spores and if we consume around a tablespoon a day, it could help build up our immunity through gradual exposure. An article published in the New York Times in 2011 discussed a recent study conducted at the University of Connecticut Health Center. The results found that local honey had no such benefits.

Babies under the age of one year shouldn’t eat honey as it contains botulism spores that their underdeveloped immune systems can’t handle.

Healthy Eats Winner: This food fight winner is honey. Agave is a bit more processed and has been over-hyped by the media and built up to be a super-sweetener—but it’s just like all the others and should be used in moderation.

TELL US: Who gets your vote: agave or honey?

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Comments (498)

  1. […] Healthy Eats – Food Network Healthy Living Blog /* […]

  2. Honey says:

    Honey, it's thicker and has a more subtle flavor. The variety of honey is nice too like orange blossom.

  3. JBug says:

    Basically agave is 'natural' in the same way that cane sugar is natural: It is from a plant but it is highly processed. Kudos to the marketing agent who came up with calling it agave 'nectar'. Makes it sound like you just press the juice out of the plant and into the bottle.

    Honey is truely a natural sweetner. All you have to do is spin it out of the comb and you are done. The flavor varies by the pollen source the bees used. You can even get exotic honey flavors. Honey helps hold moisture in the food. It lasts forever on the shelf. You don't actually hurt the bees in the process. Honey is the big winner.

    • Mrs. K. Wright says:

      Honey only has a mural of different tastes if the manufacturer does not micro filter out the pollen, which is totally unnecessary. The least processed honey (whereby only particles have been strained out) is the very best tasting. If you don't believe, try some, and try the over-processed, pollen-eliminated varieties on any supermarket shelf. The true taste of honey will wow you and you will never go back to over-processed. Honey is so pure until there is no excuse for the overprocessing that routinely goes on with this product. We've recently heard that pollen-eliminated honey has no nutritional value at all, and the taste is certainly gone, so why buy it?

  4. […] Food fight! Agave versus honey: which is the healthier choice?  Who gets your vote: agave or honey?  […]

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  7. Dillip says:

    Never before experienced both the food at a same time but while about honey I must say one of the best food which particularly helps to lose weight naturally, honey and lemon both the ingredients are provides a natural way to lose weight, and in case of agave I must say anything that is natural must be effective for human health.

  8. gentle luna says:

    The amount of fructose in agave makes HONEY the easy choice for me. Honey is about as natural and nutritious as you can get. All the media hype about agave as well as the use on tv food shows has the public thinking agave is the best sweetener to use, which is a shame.
    Thank you for this informative article defining the two.

  9. Kirsten says:

    Honey. I buy bee pollen as well (cold storage only or a waste of $) and my energy is increased markedly.

  10. Chef Art says:

    Honey is the better of two bad choices. Both are a sugar and high in the glycemic index. Stevia is the only choice

    • anna says:

      However, Stevia has a bitter after taste and is also very processed. A couple of the more popular brands of Stevia are actually owned and manufactured by Coca-Cola. Look up all the facts. Only pure natural Stevia at that is the true healthier option for all as well as diabetics.

    • Kal says:

      My wife recently swiched to Stevia and became quite ill (serious bloating, and breathing problem like slow suffocation). If you Google Stevia, you'll find many people have allergies to this sweetner, so try at your own risk. The Stevia we bought (Costco) tasted horrible too. Back to honey for now.

    • Mike says:

      Also…Stevia is related to ragweed, and if you're allergic, it can get bad for you.

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