When it comes to sweeteners, white sugar tends to be considered the omnipresent enemy. Why? Simply, it’s high in calories and doesn’t offer any essential nutrients. As white sugar continues to be pushed aside in favor of other sweetener replacements, healthy-eating advocates consistently encourage healthier alternatives like honey and agave to add in everything from tea to baked goods. Despite their overt outward-looking similarities—like texture and color—the taste, health benefits, and derivation of each differ.
Honey is a naturally produced golden liquid, made by industrious honeybees. To make it, bees use their straw-shaped tongues to extract nectar from flowers, storing the nectar in their extra stomachs. Enzymes in the bees’ stomachs mix with the nectar, altering the chemical composition. Once the bees return to the hive, the nectar is given to another bee, who transfers it into a honeycomb. This nectar is particularly watery—not the honey you’d find on the shelf at the grocery store—but once a majority of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, bees get to work sealing it, which ultimately hardens into beeswax.
On the nutritional side, one tablespoon of honey is 64 calories, which is about 17 grams of sugar. While honey doesn’t boast any fat, it does contain antioxidants and minute amounts of minerals and vitamins, although you’d have to consume a lot of honey to ultimately receive those benefits. Other health benefits include reductions in blood pressure, lower cholesterol and triglycerides levels, and successful treatments for burns when applied to skin.
Unlike honey, agave isn’t created by bugs. Instead, the syrup is produced from blue agave, the same plant from which tequila is made. These blue agaves are large, spiky, round plants that resemble a combination between a pineapple and an aloe vera plant. Agave is produced when sap from the base of the plant is extracted, filtered, and heated at a low temperature, breaking down the carbohydrates into sugar. What results is a sticky and sweet syrup.
Compared to honey, agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, and it’s actually the sweetener preferred by diabetics. While it still contains plenty of sugar, agave has an inherently sweet flavor, so even if less is used, you’ll still manage to generate something sweet.
Although honey and agave are great replacements for white sugar in baking, they can also both be used in a myriad of savory dishes as well—not just in tea and breakfast bars. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with both, level up your cooking and baking game to generate flavors that aren’t just healthy, but taste great too.
Brussels sprouts, a naturally bitter vegetable, get crisp and sweet when doused in honey and roasted in the oven. Get the recipe.
Dress up your weeknight dinner with salmon that’s drenched in a honey butter sauce. Get the recipe.
Pair these lavender-studded shortbread cookies, sweetened with honey, with a warm mug of tea or coffee. Get the recipe.
This chocolate chip honey cake doesn’t have any added sugar; it gets its sweetness from ¾ cup of honey, plus a sprinkling of chocolate chips. Get the recipe.
These healthy vegan breakfast bars boast agave to bring out the natural sweetness of the blueberries and applesauce. Get the recipe.
Spice up breakfast with this easy granola that only features four ingredients: agave, vanilla extract, quick cooking oats, and sliced almonds. Get the recipe.
Instead of purchasing the ubiquitous store-bought salad dressing, opt for making your own, like this radiantly orange dressing featuring agave, carrots, ginger, and miso paste. Get the recipe.
Agave shines as the kicker in this homemade and easy-to-make juice. Just blend pineapple chunks, strawberries, lime juice, and agave. Get the recipe.
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