Honey and agave syrup are both naturally-derived alternatives to sugar that have garnered worldwide attention and demand. They’ve been used for centuries for everything from food to alcoholic drinks and medicine, in countries and cultures across the world.
But when it comes to the health benefits of honey vs agave, there’s really no competition.
The production processes that agave goes through likely strips it of beneficial compounds, whereas raw manuka honey like ours keeps its high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties intact.
With rising public awareness of the dangers of refined and added sugars in food, people want alternatives.
Both honey and agave syrup are naturally-derived products with long histories of popular use throughout the world.
But are they as promising as their labels claim?
Some credible sources think not, and it’s causing concern.
So, what’s the difference between raw honey vs. agave? Do they have similar health benefits, or is one more problematic than we first thought? It’s time to find out.
In this guide to honey vs. agave:
Honey vs. agave syrup: what’s the difference?
The health and nutritional benefits of honey vs. agave nectar
How to buy the best manuka honey
Honey vs. agave FAQs
Honey vs Agave Syrup: What’s the Difference?
First thing’s first: let’s introduce you to our sweeteners in question.
An introduction to honey
It’s probably not news to you that honey is produced by honey bees.
Travelling miles to collect nectar and pollen, worker bees make honey as a food source to see them through the winter months.
The flavour and colour of honey depends on its floral source. So there are many different variations, all with their own nutrient profiles and reputations in the health and wellness space.
In this blog, we’ll be focusing on manuka honey vs. agave, as the most regulated honey and the health and wellness champion.
An introduction to agave
Agave syrup (or nectar) comes from the sap of an agave plant, much like maple syrup is derived from the sap of maple trees.
Native to Mexico, this succulent comes in two main varieties: blue and salmiana.
The syrup is produced by harvesting the core of the plant which looks like a pineapple and is called the piña. It is heated, juiced, filtered, and then evaporated to leave a sugary syrup behind¹.
Lighter agave syrups are sweeter than table sugar with a relatively neutral flavour. The darker the syrup, the more intense and caramel-like the flavour - like golden syrup.
The origins and uses of honey vs agave
Humans and honey go way back.
The earliest records of honey consumption are cave paintings in Valencia, Spain, believed to be around 60,000 years old².
According to the world’s oldest medical journals, we’ve been using honey in medicine for at least 8,000 years³.
Its associations with health and wellness span numerous cultures and generations, and was even said to be a part of Cleopatra’s beauty regime⁴.
The story of agave is a little different.
Revered by the Aztecs as a symbol of fertility and health, it was brought to Europe by Spanish colonists in the 1500s⁵.
It’s believed to have been consumed as a food, but in the 16th century when brandy supplies dwindled, Spaniards began to experiment. They were the first to make tequila with the blue agave variety, and this kick-started its long association with the alcohol industry.
In under a century, agave cultivation became a major revenue stream for all of Mexico.
While honey is used today for a host of different purposes from skin and haircare to medicine and food and drink, agave is primarily used for the latter.
What to look for on agave vs. honey labels
Honey is one of the most faked foods in the world.
As a result, you might notice a few different numbers, letters, and words on honey labels.
Here’s a quick overview of the terms and what they mean:
Pure honey: This can be a problematic term used to describe honey. The tests that honey must pass to be called “pure” just look for the presence of particular sugars. They don’t specify where those sugars have come from, so you can end up with a diluted product not purely made from honey.
Organic honey: This is another problematic term in the honey world which is probably why you won’t see it often. Since bees travel miles to collect pollen and nectar, it’s difficult to certify with any confidence
MGO: This stands for methylglyoxal, the antibacterial compound found in honey. You will typically see MGO values on manuka honey jars, although other honeys do contain MGO at lower concentrations.
UMF™: This grading is unique to monofloral manuka honey from New Zealand. It takes MGO content into account as well as other chemical compounds to verify authenticity, quality, and freshness. It is the most prestigious and rigorous testing system for manuka honey.
You might also see terms like pasteurised, filtered, and ultra-filtered. These processes involve heating and purifying honey to improve its colour and texture. The problem is, it also removes the good stuff, which we’ll discuss next.
Buying manuka honey with a UMF™ grade is the best way to be sure you’re getting the real deal.
When it comes to honey vs. agave labels, there are similar issues with less regulation.
The Mexican government has provided composition specifications for legitimate agave syrup.
Unfortunately, these same compositions can be produced using chemically manipulated sugars from cheaper plants⁶. And so, they have.
There are more advanced testing methods available, but it’s unclear whether these are used to approve products on sale in the US or how consumers can tell the difference.
There are colour gradings which indicate the flavour and intensity of the agave syrup. But there are no quality standards or grading systems being used at the time of writing.
The Health and Nutritional Benefits of Manuka Honey vs Agave Nectar
At face value, manuka honey and agave nectar appear to offer similar health benefits.
But the truth is, only one retains those beneficial properties from source to store shelf. And that depends on a number of factors.
The truth about agave nectar
There are mixed reports on the nutritional value and health benefits of agave nectar.
"Agave syrup is almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing. Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when (consumed) at higher dosess. Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though their blood [sugar] is OK".
Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Huffington Post.
While studies note that agave is a source of polyphenols (antioxidant compounds), vitamins, and minerals, and may have a lower glycemic index than honey⁷, its high fructose content is a cause for concern.
“The types and content of sugars, macronutrients and ingredients that differ in food products lead to vastly varied glycemic index values. Nor should the glycemic index be employed as the only criterion to establish a given food or diet’s health effects.
Recent research reports that fructose overconsumption is connected to the liver accumulating fat. This is associated with cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, among other harmful problems.
The way that agave syrup [AS] is advertised and how much is consumed may be the most important concerns. Making strong claims that favor AS intake should be avoided simply because additional research into fructose and its effects on human nutrition and metabolism is necessary.”
Unfortunately, it seems that any beneficial compounds in agave nectar may be lost in the production process.
“The agave sweetener sold today is made by treating agave sugars with heat and enzymes, which destroys all of its potentially beneficial health effects. The end product is a highly refined, unhealthy syrup.”
Agave nectar: a sweetener that’s even worse than sugar? Healthline.
Whilst its low glycemic index indicates that agave syrup doesn’t spike blood glucose levels, the impact of its fructose content can be much more damaging.
More so, perhaps, than sugar.
“In fact, agave nectar may be the least healthy sweetener in the world, making regular sugar look healthy in comparison.”
Agave nectar: a sweetener that’s even worse than sugar? Healthline.
Can the same be said for manuka honey?
The truth about manuka honey
Manuka honey has been studied for decades for its superior health and wellness properties⁸.
“Manuka honey’s antibacterial properties are what set it apart from traditional honey. It contains methylglyoxal as an active ingredient, likely responsible for these antibacterial effects.
Additionally, manuka honey has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits.
It has traditionally been used for wound healing, soothing sore throats, preventing tooth decay, and improving digestive issues.”
7 Health benefits of manuka honey based on science, Healthline.
Manuka honey is one of the most versatile natural antibacterial products on the market.
In fact, we list 176 ways to use manuka honey here.
Here’s what science says about the various health and nutritional benefits of manuka honey:
Manuka honey in food
Manuka honey doesn’t just offer a natural sweeteness and earthy flavour to your food and drinks.
Packed full of vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, raw and unprocessed manuka honey like ours retains all those beneficial compounds that agave syrup loses during production.
Manuka honey in skincare
Manuka honey has humectant properties so when it’s applied directly to skin, it helps to lock in moisture, keep out bacteria, and soothe dry or inflamed areas.
By regulating the skin’s pH levels⁹ and stimulating collagen production¹⁰, it can help fight acne, reduce redness, and keep the skin looking fresh and youthful.
Manuka honey in medicine
The uniquely high methylglyoxal content in manuka honey (MGO) is associated with its antibacterial effects, used by doctors and vets to treat some of the most serious open wounds.
With its natural emollient qualities, the manuka honey seals off inflamed areas and keeps them moist while they heal, remaining protected from bacteria.
Raw honey vs. agave nectar: which is healthier?
According to research, raw manuka honey is healthier than agave.
While the calories in honey vs agave are similar (around 60 per tablespoon¹¹), agave has a lower glycemic index; but this doesn’t mean much in practice¹².
The glycemic index doesn’t account for how much of a food is eaten, the impact of combining it with other foods, and the nutrient content of the food. For example, low GI foods might be high in saturated fats¹³.
Agave (and some honey) is heated and filtered to improve its texture and colour. But this destroys the beneficial enzymes and turns them into pure liquid sugar¹⁴.
Raw manuka honey like ours is not heated or ultra-filtered, specifically to retain the good stuff.
We only cream our manuka honey to help it last longer which doesn’t compromise its health benefits.
How to Buy the Best Manuka Honey
Thanks to its global reputation as a health and wellness champion, there are plenty of honey and manuka honey varieties on the market.
Some are better and more authentic than others.
To help protect the integrity of pure, raw, monofloral manuka honey from New Zealand, the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association created a grading system.
The Unique Manuka Factor (UMF™) grade is assigned to manuka honey that contains four distinct chemical compounds. These compounds confirm that it is authentic and fresh.
The UMF™ numbers identify the methylglyoxal content in the honey. In other words, the potency of antibacterial properties.
So if you’re looking for legitimate manuka honey, make sure you opt for a UMF™-graded product.
Better yet, get it from us.
All our raw manuka honeys are UMF™ graded and rigorously tested by independent authorities to ensure quality and authenticity.
We only deal with real.
Unsure which UMF™ grade is right for you?
Honey vs Agave FAQs
Quick answers to your agave and honey questions.
Is agave healthier than honey?
No, agave nectar is not healthier than raw honey. Agave sap is heated to become syrup and this process destroys the beneficial natural compounds. This happens to honey too, so that’s why we only cream our raw honey, saving it from the heat. Choose raw honey for the best health and nutritional benefits.
Is agave better for blood sugar than honey?
Whilst agave has a lower glycemic index than honey, and therefore has less impact on blood sugar, it is high in fructose which is a cause for concern. The glycemic index should not be used in isolation to judge the health and nutritional values of foods, as lower GIs don’t necessarily mean something is better or healthier for the body.
Can agave replace honey?
Yes, agave can replace honey as a natural sweetener. If you replace raw honey with agave however, then you’ll lose a lot of beneficial compounds. Agave sap is heated to produce syrup which depletes its nutritional value and effectively leaves a high fructose content. This has been linked to weight gain, liver issues, and other health problems.
Can diabetics have honey or agave?
Honey and agave have low glycemic indexes so they are considered relatively safe for diabetics. However everybody is different, and they are both still carbohydrates that should be consumed in moderation. Raw honey has many more health benefits than agave syrup, and can be used for skincare and medical purposes too.
Which is better manuka honey vs. blue agave?
Blue agave is one type of agave, and is most commonly used to make tequila. Deciding which is better depends on what you want them for. Research shows that manuka honey has far more beneficial nutrients and compounds thanks to minimal processing and unique chemical markers than agave, so manuka honey is better in most contexts.
Suggested further reading:
¹ What is agave syrup? Food Insight.
² Countries that consume the most honey, World Atlas.
³ Traditional and modern uses of honey, National Library of Medicine.
⁴ The recipes of Cleopatra, Hypotheses.
⁵ Maple and agave syrup: history and uses, Gambero Rosso.
⁶ Authenticity testing of agave syrup, Eurofins.
⁷ Agave syrup chemical analysis and nutritional profile, National Library of Medicine.
⁸ Health benefits of manuka honey, National Library of Medicine.
⁹ Honey in dermatology and skincare, National Library of Medicine.
¹⁰ Honey-based templates in wound healing, National Library of Medicine.
¹¹ Agave nectar nutrition and health benefits, Very Well Fit.
¹² Science reveals why calorie counts are wrong, Scientific American.
¹³ Glycemic index, Mayo Clinic.
¹⁴ What is agave syrup? Food Insight.
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