Food Fight: Agave vs. Honey

Food fight! Agave versus honey: which is the healthier choice?
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liquid honey and a spoon

Photo by: Andriy Titov

Andriy Titov

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

Agave

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.

Honey

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

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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