When It Comes to Healthy Sweeteners, Which Is Better: Agave or Honey?

Photo: Getty Images / Yuliia Mazurkevych / FOAP
Coconut sugar, maple syrup, molasses...there's no shortage of white sugar substitutes healthy foodies rely on to sweeten up their recipes the all-natural way. Most of them have stark differences: No one is going to confuse maple syrup for cacao. But when it comes to agave and honey—two natural sweeteners that often pop up in healthy recipes—it's not as easy to tell the two apart.

On the surface, agave and honey look and feel similar. Considering how pricey it can get stocking your pantry with healthy ingredients, it's worth it to know if you really need to buy both—or if you can rely on one to get the job done every time. Keep reading to get the low-down on how agave and honey differ from each other, and what a registered dietitian says about the health benefits of both.

Scroll down for everything you need to know about agave vs. honey.

How agave and honey are made

Before enlisting an RD to weigh in on the health benefits of both, it helps to know exactly what agave and honey actually are and how they're made. Agave comes from the agave plant, a succulent native to the Americas, which produces the sweet sap at its core. The plants are taken to a facility where the sap is extracted through a pressure cooking process. Then, it's cleaned, bottled, and exported.

Honey, as you probably remember from your grade school days, is made by bees.  It begins as flower nectar, which bees collect and bring to their honeycombs. There, it's turned into simple sugars and stored. Beekeepers then collect the honey, strain it, and bottle it. Because bees play a crucial role in producing honey, it's not considered a vegan food the way agave is. Additionally, there's also the New Zealand variety, manuka honey, which has many benefits, including anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Structurally, registered dietitian Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, says honey is closer to table sugar than agave is. Table sugar (aka sucrose) is made from glucose and fructose. Both agave and honey have glucose and fructose too, but Dr. Hunnes explains that the ratios in honey are closer to table sugar than agave, which is primarily fructose. This chemistry lesson comes into play when getting into the nutritional profiles.

What's the healthiest sugar alternative of all? Watch the video below to find out:

Do agave and honey have any health benefits?

Just because honey more closely resembles table sugar at a chemical level doesn't mean agave is automatically the healthier choice; Dr. Hunnes says it's more nuanced than that. "Agave in very small doses—one teaspoon or so—may be healthier than table sugar because it's mostly fructose and therefore won't effect blood-glucose levels as much as plain old sugar, but its fructose could cause it to contribute to fatty liver or increased deposition of fat in the body," she says. While fructose is low-glycemic, it can lead to increased body weight in excessive amounts.

As for honey, Dr. Hunnes says that the major difference between the sweetener and table sugar (and agave) is that it's linked to numerous health benefits. Honey is known to be antibacterial and can help heal the gut lining, allergies, and even acne, if it’s applied topically. It's also high in antioxidants, which means it can help protect the body from diseases. Manuka honey in particular is known to be a particularly potent source of these benefits.

Okay, so which one should I buy?

Because agave can't boast the same superpowers that honey can, honey comes out on top as the healthier choice, although it should still be noted that they are both sugar sources at the end of the day and should be treated as such, used in moderation. "From a sweetness power, both agave and honey are sweeter than table sugar and so you can use less of it than table sugar," Dr. Hunnes says.

She also notes that honey and agave taste slightly differently—honey has more of a floral taste while agave is more neutral—so you may want to have both on hand to use to achieve the taste profile you're looking for, when cooking various foods.

But in general, in the battle of agave vs. honey, this is one battle where honey comes out on top. Unless you're a vegan, of course.

Check out this complete guide to all-natural white sugar substitutes for more healthy cooking intel. Plus, all the ways sugar hides on food labels

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