Agave vs. Honey: How They Compare, According to Dietitians

picture of dark agave

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When it comes to choosing between agave and honey, both of which are natural sweeteners, you may wonder which one is the better choice. But, unfortunately, the choice is not that simple. It really just depends on your preferences and your nutritional goals.

Both agave and honey are often used as an alternative to ultra-processed and refined sugars—such as high fructose corn syrup or granulated sugar—but they have different benefits. In general, agave nectar or agave syrup comes from an agave plant, which makes it ideal for those who follow a vegan diet.

Meanwhile, honey, which is produced by bees, can often be locally sourced for those who make buying local a priority. Here's what you need to know about both sweeteners including their benefits and risks so that you can make a choice that is right for you.

How Agave and Honey Are Made

Although both agave and honey tend to be natural sweeteners, how they are processed is completely different. Knowing how they each end up on your grocery store shelves may influence your decision when choosing between the two.

People who make agave nectar first extract the juice from the agave plant. Interestingly, this is the same plant that is used to make tequila. To make agave, the juice from the plant is filtered and heated to break down the components into a simple sugar known as fructose.

Lastly, the resulting fructose liquid is condensed into a syrup. Because agave goes through multiple steps before it ends up on the grocery store shelves, it is considered processed food, even when labeled "raw" agave.

As for honey, it is produced by bees, who collect nectar from plants to make honey. Unlike agave, honey does not have to be processed before consuming it and can be eaten in its raw form. However, certain brands of honey are heated to remove bacteria and prevent crystallization. This process is called pasteurization.

Use and Versatility

Agave nectar is sold in a few different varieties—light, amber, dark, and raw. Light agave nectar has a very mild taste and is generally used in baking and beverages. Amber agave nectar has a bit more flavor and is used for more savory food while dark agave nectar has a more intense flavor making it suitable for meats and stews, as well as pancakes or waffles.

Some have compared the flavor of agave nectar to caramel. Meanwhile, agave that is marketed as "raw" has a mild taste because it is processed at a lower heat to protect the enzymes. Some claim that raw agave is healthier than other forms of agave.

Agave is a lot sweeter and has less viscosity than honey. This makes it less detectable in some cases, such as drinks, because you would need less of it.

Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CSG, CDN, CCM, CDCES, ACE-CPT, owner of Genki Nutrition and media spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests using agave for cakes, baked foods, and cocktails. Nevertheless, the thicker viscosity of honey can be better for teas and more soothing to your throat.

Health Benefits

When comparing the health benefits of both agave and honey, the results are limited. Very little research has been done on the health benefits of these products. That being said, there are some limited studies that indicate that both substances could offer some health benefits.

Pauline Jose, MD

Honey has been used for thousands of years to help soothe sore throats and tame colds.

— Pauline Jose, MD

For instance, one study found that agave may have a positive influence on weight loss and glucose control when compared to sucrose. Sucrose is often used to create table sugar. Honey, on the other hand, has long been considered an anti-inflammatory agent and has been used to calm a sore throat and ease coughs.

“Honey has been used for thousands of years to help soothe sore throats and tame colds," says Pauline Jose, MD, a physician with Proactive Health Labs. "There’s a reason why you put honey in your tea when you don’t feel well or why the cough drops you buy at your local pharmacy may have honey in them.”

Honey also contains a fair amount of phytochemicals, which serve as antioxidants. Antioxidants are believed to help fight harmful free radicals in the body, preventing a number of things—from cancer to aging.

According to Kim Rose, RDN for the weight loss app "Lose It!" and certified diabetes care and education specialist, you should think of antioxidants as “tiny, but mighty, compounds that help protect the cells of the body from oxidative damage."

Due to being anti-microbial, honey also is known to help aid digestion and reduce gastritis. Likewise, honey may sometimes be used as a potential antidiabetic agent with the potential to reduce the complications of diabetes.

Agave, on the other hand, is not known to improve digestion. However, a study published in the journal Food and Function found that up to 7.5 grams per day of agave inulin resulted in minimal gastrointestinal symptoms, did not increase diarrhea, and even improved laxation in adults. This implies that agave nectar is not necessarily bad for digestion, despite honey being a much better digestive aid.

Nutritional Breakdown

Both agave nectar and honey are often used in place of white sugar, but what do we know about their nutritional value? The two predominant components of natural sweeteners like agave and honey are water and carbohydrates.

Honey is denser than agave with 17% water compared to agave nectar which contains 23% water. Additionally, one serving size of honey is 1 tablespoon (21g) which is more than two times less than that of agave nectar which has a serving size of one-quarter cup (55g). Here we deconstruct what exactly these two sweeteners contain as well as how they compare to one another.

Calories

Agave and honey are both considered high-calorie foods. When comparing the two, agave has a slightly higher caloric value with 310 calories per 100g serving while honey has 304 calories per 100g serving.

Proteins and Fats

Although honey is slightly richer in protein than agave nectar, the two each contain less than 1 gram of protein per 100g serving. Likewise, agave contains less than 1 gram of fats and honey is completely fat-free.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the primary ingredient in honey and agave with the composition being dominated by sugars and containing very little fiber. When comparing the carbs in each, honey contains slightly more carbs than agave. For instance, a 100g serving of agave contains 76g of carbs while a 100g serving of honey contains 82g of carbs.

The simple sugars in agave are glucose and fructose while honey contains glucose, fructose, galactose, maltose, and sucrose. Meanwhile, agave usually contains about 90% fructose while honey contains less than 50% fructose and more than 40% glucose.

Vitamins and Minerals

When it comes to the vitamins found in both honey and agave, agave comes out on top. Several vitamins can be found in agave nectar that are not found in honey. These include vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B1, vitamin B3, and vitamin B6. Regardless of that, honey is a good source of vitamin C.

By contrast, honey comes out on top when comparing mineral components. For instance, honey is richer in most minerals including zinc, potassium, calcium, iron, copper, phosphorus, and magnesium. Meanwhile, both agave and honey contain the same amount of sodium.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) of both agave and honey will vary depending on the variety you are using. For instance, the GI for honey can range from 35 to 87. Meanwhile, the GI of agave is much lower and depending on the type can fall in the range of 10 to 20. This means that agave has a low GI while honey has a moderate GI.

Kellyann Petrucci, MS, ND

While fructose doesn’t elevate your blood sugar in the short term in the way that glucose does, it’s very hard for your body to process because your liver is the only organ that can metabolize it in significant amounts.

— Kellyann Petrucci, MS, ND

Despite having a lower GI, agave is comprised primarily of fructose. Unlike glucose and most other forms of sugar, fructose is processed by your liver, which can be hard for your body to process.

“While fructose doesn’t elevate your blood sugar in the short term in the way that glucose does, it’s very hard for your body to process because your liver is the only organ that can metabolize it in significant amounts," says Kellyann Petrucci, MS, ND, a board-certified naturopathic physician, and a certified nutrition consultant.

Impact on Weight Loss

Both agave and honey are high in calories, but because they are relatively sweet, you would likely use less than white sugar to get the sweetness level you want. This fact could lead to a lower sugar intake overall, says Tara Tamaino, RD, a registered dietitian, and director of nutrition for the Connell Company and the Park at Berkeley Heights.

What's more, some studies have suggested that honey may actually suppress your appetite and help reduce weight gain because of a lower food intake. Similar studies have been done for agave nectar and indicate that it may assist with glucose control.

It is also important to note that people who follow a vegan diet, generally opt for agave over honey. Some consider honey to be a form of animal exploitation and are concerned that the production of honey can endanger bees.

Allergies and Other Precautions

When it comes to choosing between agave and honey, there is a lot to consider. Agave nectar is both gluten-free and allergen-free. Meanwhile, honey is naturally gluten-free as well, but due to being created from pollen, it is not completely allergen-free.

Although allergies to honey are rare, there are some people who cannot tolerate honey very well. That being said, honey has been anecdotally reported to reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies, but these results have not been reproduced consistently in clinical studies.

Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN

All sugar, including agave [and honey], will raise blood sugar and aggravate insulin.

— Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN

When it comes to choosing agave or honey based on the claims that they are superfoods or that they will control blood sugar, Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN, the director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center cautions against automatically ascribing to these claims without speaking with a healthcare provider.

“There isn’t any credible science that points to agave being a superfood," Gomer adds. "It, by itself, is not harmful, but of course, it depends on how much and who is consuming it. All sugar, including agave [and honey], will raise blood sugar and aggravate insulin so anyone who is diabetic, pre-diabetic, or insulin-resistant would want to avoid consuming much or any of it.”

Those trying to stabilize their blood sugar should lean toward other sweeteners like Stevia, suggests Gomer. Additionally, one study found that even eating a moderate amount of high fructose liquids (like agave) may impact your plasma lipid profile and could even contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome.

Additionally, if you are diabetic, pre-diabetic, or insulin-resistant, talk to a healthcare provider before changing your diet. They can help you determine which sweeteners are right for you including whether you should choose agave or honey.

A Word From Verywell

Both agave and honey are natural sweeteners that are sometimes used in place of white sugar. Additionally, agave is a vegan product while honey is produced by bees. While there are some benefits to using either agave or honey, it is important to note that neither substance is a superfood.

To determine which sweetener you should use, or if at all, talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian. They can help you determine what is right for you given your medical history and your nutritional goals.

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