When looking for a way to sweeten up your tea or baked goods without adding a spoonful of straight sugar, which natural sweetener is best to reach for? Learn the differences between agave, maple syrup, and honey, and which is best suited for you.
You’ve probably learned by now that using processed sugar in your diet isn’t a great idea. All sugars, even those that are naturally derived and unrefined, lead to a spike in blood sugar. Too much of any sweetener can contribute to conditions like diabetes and obesity, so making smart choices when you do want to incorporate a little bit of sweetness is important.
Luckily, there are more natural alternatives to the granulated white stuff lurking in your pantry. A few of our favorites are agave, maple syrup, and honey. But what’s the difference between the three, and which is best for what you’re looking for? We’ve broken down how each differs in terms of flavor, nutrition, and usability. Learn more below.
Sure, all three sweeteners are sweet, but they’re different kinds of sweet, which makes them preferable in different scenarios.
Agave nectar can have a bit of a bland sweetness. It has a syrupy consistency and comes from the juice of agave plants, which are native to Mexico and often used in tequila. Since it doesn’t have a particularly strong flavor, it’s good to use in recipes or situations in which you don’t want the flavor of your sweetener to be overpowering. Agave comes in a variety of colors, some light, some dark. The darker it is, the more it will taste similar to honey. Many people like to use it in beverages, like when making cocktails or lemonade.
Then there’s maple syrup. Maple syrup comes from maple tree sap and has an amber color and sticky, runny texture. There are four classifications of maple syrup, with each grade being darker and more intense in flavor based on how long the syrup was boiled. It has a bit of a caramel kind of flavor, and the sweetness is certainly more noticeable than that of agave. Note, however, that we’re talking about pure maple syrup, not the stuff you’re likely to find in the average grocery store that has added sugars, or the blends that have additional flavors, like cinnamon or vanilla. Pure maple syrup by itself has a smooth, rich flavor.
We’d place honey somewhere in the middle. In a maple syrup vs. honey battle, it can hold its own as far as sweetness, but lacks a certain flavor depth. It’s noticeably sweeter than agave, however. Honey is made by, well, honey bees, and there are different types based on which flower’s nectar the bees ingested. Depending on the type, honey’s flavor profile can range from light and floral to earthy and almost like molasses. The taste can be mild or even a bit tangy.
The health properties of each sweetener likely have a big impact on which you’ll make a staple in your kitchen cabinet. The good news is that all have nutritional value and are better than processed white sugar. The bad news is that they still need to be used in moderation to avoid blood sugar spikes.
Despite qualifying as low on the glycemic index, agave nectar does have a downside: It’s 90% fructose, making it not that much different than high fructose corn syrup. It also has roughly the same amount of calories as sugar, so it’s not ideal for a low-calorie diet. Though it does have some nutritional value (such as healthy compounds like fructans that can positively impact insulin and metabolism), it’s best to limit usage. To be fair, it does contain trace amounts of vitamins K, C, and E, as well as calcium.
Maple syrup contains far less fructose — around 35%. It’s also full of antioxidants that are anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. Maple syrup contains many minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese as well. These minerals help maintain healthy red blood cells, support the immune system, and create new cells. There are also many valuable vitamins present in maple syrup, such as niacin, B5, B2, B6, folic acid, and vitamin A.
Honey also scores pretty high in the fructose department, ranging from 60 to 90% depending on type. It does contain vitamins C and B6, and locally sourced varieties are known to help reduce seasonal allergies. It also contains important antioxidants like organic acids and phenolic compounds like flavonoids. Honey can help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as blood pressure. Because of its high fructose content, however, it should really be used in moderation, such as a teaspoon in your afternoon tea.
When making dietary changes, people often look for more natural sweetener substitutes for their recipes, and these three often top the list for alternatives. But how effective are they?
The thing to keep in mind with agave is the mild flavor. It’s not going to pack a punch. While you can use it as a substitute when cooking or baking, it’s best used in beverages. Reach for agave when you want to lightly sweeten a cocktail, iced tea, or your morning coffee. The good thing about agave is that it dissolves quickly whether the beverage is hot or cold.
Maple syrup is heat-stable, so it can be used in a variety of ways. Use it for baking, marinades, sauces, beverages, or to glaze cookies and cakes. And of course, it’s great on pancakes and waffles. It’s pretty versatile but does have a much sweeter taste, so a little goes a long way. You’ll definitely notice the flavor, so keep that in mind if that’s not what you’re after.
While honey can be used to cook and bake with, it’s best used as a drizzle. Spread a little over your oatmeal, toast, yogurt, or cereal. Mix it in with a salad dressing or beverage.
Our Front Runner: Maple Syrup
When you look at maple syrup’s flavor profile and health benefits along with how diversely it can be used, it’s the clear winner. We really love that it’s the most health-friendly, so it can be used in moderation by a wider range of people.
Our maple syrup is Grade A, certified, vegan, and comes from a family farm in the New Hampshire hills. It contains no pesticides, corn syrup, or other artificial sweeteners. Use it on your waffles, in your smoothies, and when making baked goods. Its rich flavor and amber color make it a pantry staple. And while you’re checking out our syrup, see our other organic condiments that can clean up your recipes!
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