By Tami Weiser
With the ketogenic diet now the most searched for diet in the United States, the interest in sugar, carbohydrates, and how they affect our blood sugar have reached an all time high. You don’t have to be following a strict protocol like the keto diet to be sugar conscious — in fact keeping an eye on the amount of sugar you ingest is good for overall health. And one of the first places to address is the sweeteners we use. Which brings us back to the realm of natural sweeteners and the difference between honey and agave.
Both honey and agave syrup are liquid sweeteners that most of us keep tucked in the pantry, ready to use on the fly, for everything from sweetening your everyday cup of tea to healthier baking and dessert making. Each of these delightful liquids has advantages and disadvantages, and one, perhaps both may be for your specific dietary needs and lifestyles. Let’s take a closer look so you can choose which one is right for you.
Agave Nectar is:
- Agave syrup is a low GI sweetener that is lower in calories than honey. One tablespoon of agave syrup has 60 calories and contains 15 grams of sugar.
- Agave syrup supplies tiny small amounts of several nutrients, like vitamin C, E and K,and has about the same amount of calcium as honey.
- Honey is a completely natural product, with little if any processing. One tablespoon of honey has 60 calories and contains 17 grams of sugar.
- It’s antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial and has many vitamins and minerals that vary by type.
- Honey also never spoils.There is no current evidence to support the idea that local honey has any significant effect regarding allergies
What is Agave Nectar?
Agave nectar is derived from the blue agave plant, a succulent, native to the Americas. The blue agave plant’s sap is fermented into the famous and flavorful tequila but it also has another use. The sap and pulp are also pressure cooked, extracted and filtered, and processed into a sweet, sticky syrup called agave nectar.
Agave Nectar, Your Blood Sugar Levels, and Your Health
Agave syrup has become popular over the past decade, because of it’s relatively low effect on the body’s blood sugar levels. As low carb and low-white sugar diets have become the rage, a food’s level on the glycemic index has become vital information.
The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how much a carbohydrate-rich food may raise blood glucose levels. 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 many nutritionists view as allowing you to feel hungry again much sooner than if you had eaten a healthy fat, protein or more complex carbohydrate.
Agave’s glycemic index (around 17) is indeed far lower than regular white sugar (around 68) or even honey (which ranges between 60-74 ). Regardless, the American Diabetes Association suggests that all sweeteners need to be limited and that includes agave syrup.
Agave Nectar: Research & Precautions
There has been research into agave nectar that has begun to make agave less appealing. We’ll have to dive into some quick science to understand why.
- Agave nectar is high in fructose. Agave is composed primarily of one type of natural sugar, fructose. Fructose has less of an effect on blood sugar than table sugar or honey, both of which are primarily glucose. Fructose, has some drawbacks for some people, particularly those who adhere to a FODMAP diet, who avoid it entirely. Studies have shown that high amounts of fructose have been linked to diabetes, obesity, fatty liver and may play a role in memory loss. In fact, agave’s high fructose and small amounts of glucose proportions are comparable to that of high-fructose corn syrup. The details about what agave really is, and what it’s effects could be, has taken some shine off of the agave’s rising star, for some dieters.
- Agave nectars are also a processed food. Some nutritionists argue that it loses most of the small amount of vitamin and mineral value through the production. The best bet for finding an agave with high concentrations of it’s vitamins and minerals, would be to look for the darkest nectars.
What Does Agave Nectar Taste Like?
Agave nectar or syrup sold in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. Light agave syrup has a neutral flavor and pale color. Amber agave syrup has a slightly burnished, mildly caramelized flavor. Dark agave syrup boasts a powerful, deep almost earthy caramel taste and has a strong sweet and toasted fragrance.
Agave Nectar in Your Kitchen
Agave’s news isn’t all doom and gloom. Agave has one important nutritional factor that offers a great reason to enjoy agave. Agave is about 1½ times sweeter than table sugar, so you use far less to get the same sweetening power. That means agave is a calorie bargain, a terrific option for those watching their intake. Agave nectar also has a few culinary tricks up its sleeve though, that are important to consider when choosing between agave and honey.
Agave easily dissolves in cold liquids like smoothies and iced tea, making it very handy for home mixologists and home bakers. Even commercial food producers have begun to use agave nectar in many items, like energy drinks, for two reasons. First, because it dissolves easily, and second, because the lightest colored agaves sport a neutral flavor (unlike honey), making it super easy to use in many recipes.
Agave is a one-ingredient product. One more plus for agave is that although it is processed, it is based singularly on a natural product. Agave’s are also not a newfangled item, and notwithstanding it’s sugar composition, truly has a very low Gi index. That is a vital factor to consider when choosing a liquid sweetener.
What is Honey?
Honey is naturally made by bees and harvested from the honeycomb. It is an ancient sweetener, that has been consumed and enjoyed by humans and animals for as far back as humans have records. Before processed white sugars became widely available around the sixteenth century, honey was the world’s principal sweetener and remained the one of the only accessible sweeteners for all but the elite until around the twentieth century.
Honey and Your Health
Honey has some interesting medicinal qualities that research has shown to be effective.
- Blood Sugar: Our body handles the spike in blood sugar from honey exactly the same way it would with white, processed sugar.
- Coughs & Colds: Although it may seem too good to be true, honey reduces coughing and calms sore throats in children. Honey is also antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial. Honey, in its raw, unpasteurized state, also has antioxidants that may help prevent certain types of cancers, fight aging, and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Allergies: There has been a great deal of…buzz (it was right there!) about honey’s value regarding allergies. The idea was that since you can get very local varieties, pollinated and surrounded by small but different environmental allergens, that ingesting the honey sourced from your local area, would give you allergy protection. Unfortunately for allergy sufferers, this theory has been debunked. Eating local honey is a delicious way to support local beekeepers and agriculture, but it does not seem to have any effect on local, seasonal allergies.
Honey: Research & Precautions
Babies under the age of one year should never eat honey, since it may contain botulism spores that babies and their underdeveloped immune systems and those with autoimmune disorders should avoid.
What Does Honey Taste Like?
Honey is a unique flavor, sort of an earthy caramel, but varies enormously by the location and types of plants the bees pollinate, from a mineral buckwheat, a rich and dark goldenrod to mild mannered orange blossom, wildflower and clover.
Honey in Your Kitchen
Aside from being a favorite for sweetening beverages, honey is frequently used in baking to introduce added moisture along with its distinct flavor. Honey’s complex sweetness makes it a great choice in savory dishes, marinades, and vinaigrettes when sweetness is needed to balance out sour or salty notes.
The Bottom Line
Both agave and honey have unique features and qualities. They are both handy for cooking but they are not exactly interchangeable when it comes to taste, processing, and utility. Perhaps most importantly, your body reacts distinctly and differently with regard to elevating blood sugar levels and the GI index. They both have a purpose in healthier, cleaner eating, and both deserve a spot in your pantry.