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 natural sweeteners—you may wonder which is the better choice. Each is a healthier alternative to ultra-processed and refined sugars such as high fructose corn syrup or granulated sugar, but they have different benefits.

For instance, agave comes from the agave plant, making this option ideal for those who follow a vegan diet. Meanwhile, honey, which is produced by bees, can typically be sourced locally, which is a benefit for those who make buying local a priority.

Here's what you need to know about agave and honey, including their health benefits and risks, so that you can make a choice that is right for you.

How Agave and Honey Are Made

Agave and honey are processed very differently. Knowing how each ends up on grocery store shelves or farmer's market stand may influence your decision when choosing between the two.

To make agave, the juice must first be extracted from the agave plant. (Interestingly, this is the same plant that is used to make tequila.) The juice is then filtered and heated to break the components down into a simple sugar known as fructose, which is condensed into a syrup.

Because agave goes through multiple steps, it is considered a processed food—even when labeled "raw" agave.

Bees produce honey by collecting nectar from plants. This nectar is stored in their stomachs and taken back to the hive where it is passed from bee to bee to lower its water content to 18%, which is when it is pushed into the hive's wax chambers before being collected.

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 is a lot sweeter than honey, making it preferable in some cases because you need less of it. Agave also has less viscosity, meaning that it isn't as thick as honey.

Some compare the flavor of agave nectar to caramel. It is sold in a few different varieties:

  • 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 foods.
  • Dark agave nectar has a more intense flavor, making it suitable for meats and stews, as well as pancakes or waffles.
  • Raw agave nectar has a mild taste because it is processed at a lower heat to protect the enzymes.

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

Health Benefits

When comparing the health benefits of agave and honey, research is limited. But there are some studies that indicate that each substance offers a few benefits.

Agave Benefits

One study found that agave promotes a significantly lower blood glucose response than sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar. Sucrose can be added to foods but is also found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Another piece of research suggests that agave may be a good prebiotic, stimulating the growth of probiotic bacteria. Specifically, it provides the best growth results for lactobacillus acidophilus, a bacteria that helps the body break down carbohydrates.

Agave may even help in the fight against obesity. A 2018 study noted that consuming agave fructans help to decrease body mass index (BMI), total body fat, and total triglycerides in individuals who are obese and following a low-calorie diet.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. 

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Honey Benefits

“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," says Pauline Jose, MD, a physician with Proactive Health Labs. ”Honey has been used for thousands of years to help soothe sore throats and tame colds."

Honey has long been considered an anti-inflammatory agent and 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.

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

Honey is also known to help aid digestion, potentially even protecting against colorectal cancer. Some researchers suggest that it offers promise as an antidiabetic agent as well, and may assist with diabetes management.

Nutritional Breakdown

Both agave nectar and honey are often used in place of white sugar, but what do we know about their nutritional values? The information below is provided by the USDA.

Calories

Agave and honey both offer roughly 64 calories per tablespoon, making them fairly equal in this regard.

Protein

Although honey is slightly richer in protein than agave, the two each contain less than 1 gram per serving.

Fat

One tablespoon of honey contains zero fat while the same amount of agave is still low in fat at 0.09 grams.

Carbohydrates

Honey contains slightly more carbs than agave at 17.3 grams versus 15.81 grams per tablespoon, respectively. The simple sugars in agave are glucose and fructose while honey contains glucose, fructose, galactose, maltose, and sucrose. Both contain minimal fiber.

Vitamins and Minerals

Both agave and honey provide quite a few vitamins and minerals. Among them are vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, and selenium.

That said, several vitamins can be found in agave nectar that are not found in honey. These include vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, and vitamin B1 (thiamin). Conversely, honey contains some minerals not found in agave, such as manganese, fluoride, and pantothenic acid.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) of both agave and honey varies depending on the variety. The GI for honey can range from 35 to 87 while the GI of agave is much lower and, depending on the type, can range from 10 to 20. This means that agave has a low GI while honey has a moderate GI.

Despite having a lower GI, agave is comprised primarily of fructose. “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.

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

Impact on Weight Loss

Both agave and honey are higher in calories but, because they are relatively sweet, you would likely use a smaller amount than white sugar to get the level of sweetness you want. This can 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. Other studies involving agave note that, when added to baked goods, this sweetener increases the food's nutritional content while lowering its fat content and reducing a person's energy intake.

It is also important to note that people who follow a vegan diet may 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

Agave nectar is both gluten-free and allergen-free. 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.

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 says. "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.”

Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN

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

— Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN

Those trying to stabilize their blood sugar should lean toward other sweeteners like Stevia, suggests Gomer. Additionally, if you have diabetes, pre-diabetes, or are insulin-resistant, talk to a healthcare provider before changing your diet to determine which sweeteners are right for you, including whether you should choose agave or honey.

How to Use

When using agave or honey to sweeten your food or drink, moderation is key to keeping calorie count and sugar intake within healthy ranges. Aim for between one teaspoon and one tablespoon per serving. Even if this doesn't taste sweet enough at first, your taste buds will adjust over time.

If using agave in baked goods, use two-thirds of a cup for every cup of sugar and reduce the liquids by a quarter of a cup. You also want to decrease the cooking temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit as agave can burn easier than sugar, increasing the baking time by one minute for every 15 minutes of time called for in the recipe.

When substituting with honey, use one-half cup per cup of sugar. Like with agave, you also want to reduce the cooking temp by 25 degrees and, if you use more than a cup of honey, decrease liquids by one-quarter cup and add a half teaspoon of baking soda.

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

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