The Low Down on Agave, Honey, and Date Sugar

Picture source: Flickr, by Hillary Stein

Georgie Fear, a registered Nutritionist who writes Ask Georgie, wrote me a comment for ideas on trends in health and food for my HealthBuzz theme this August:

I think a topic you should consider addressing is normal sugar vs other sweeteners (caloric). There are so many people out there blogging about using agave and honey and dates and boasting that their recipes are “sugar-free” or contain “no refined sugar” as if they have achieved nutritional superiority.

Thanks Georgie for the inspiration!

Agave

Agave is marketed as nutritionally superior to sugar due to its low glycemic index (GI). Glycemic index for a certain food–usually carbohydrate-containing foods–is how quickly a portion of it that contains 50 grams of carbohydrate can raise blood glucose level. The higher the number, the faster starches in the food are digested and absorbed, and the faster they show up in your blood as glucose.

It’s true that agave nectar has a lower GI value than table sugar, and some studies found diets rich in foods with low GI values can prevent diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. However, it’s still equally important to look at other factors in the diet: total carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and fats, exercise habits, eating style, stress level, and so on.

Plus, agave nectar is 90% fructose. If excessive fructose is causing our obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemic, then agave might be worse than high fructose corn syrup (55% fructose) and worse than table sugar. Fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin release and as a result, doesn’t stimulate the release of another hormone that makes us feel full. So when we consume too much fructose, we are likely to eat more! Plus, fructose goes to the liver to be broken down, and there it is converted to fat, which can raise cholesterol and triglycerides. Bad stuff. Read this article from Diabetes Health for more on fructose.

And let’s not forget that agave is still nutrient-free.

Agave nectar is processed. It undergoes heat processing so that fructosans, the complex form of fructose found in it, are broken down into fructose. Now that doesn’t sound so natural from where I stand.

Honey

Honey has a GI right in the middle between table sugar and agave nectar and is 38% fructose. While honey is touted for having vitamins, minerals, and protein, the amounts are insignificant in a regular edible portion. To a get a decent amount of nutrients, you need to eat A LOT of honey, and it’s much easier to get these nutrients from fruits, beans, grains, vegetables, and dairy–without paying the price in calories and sugars.

I can’t skip that honey is highly valued by many religions and considered “holy food” by people who follow them. I personally think that it is, and prefer it often over table sugar only from my personal religious bias and not as a dietitian. Whether you agree or not, it’s totally your own opinion that I respect.

Date Sugar

Date sugar is not really sugar but is dried dates, chopped up into small pieces, then ground. It’s considered a natural and non-processed wholesome food with high fiber, vitamins, and minerals. While it can substitute an equal amount of granulated or brown sugar, it doesn’t dissolve in liquids, doesn’t melt, and can clump, making it impractical for some types of baking. Nutritionally, it might be slightly superior to sugar. Is it sugar-free? Certainly not. It has natural sugars that add total calories and carbohydrates (if you’re counting your carbs).

Bottom Line

The world of sweeteners is not a fun place to hang out. It can get messy and complicated, and there’s no straight answer. My bottom line:

  • –Agave nectar might not be as healthy as its producers and fans claim it to be. It has a low GI but high in fructose. Tough call.
  • –Honey might be slightly healthier than table sugar (due to some nutrients) especially if you like its taste and value it from your religion’s perspective.
  • –Agave and honey (and probably most other “natural” sweeteners) should be limited to the minimum. In no way are they sugar-free or refined-sugar-free! Try date sugar if available, use very ripe fruits in your baking, or use applesauce, pureed peaches, pears, berries, etc.
  • –Cut back on the amount of sweeteners you use in beverages and baked products. There’s nothing wrong with getting used to having a less of a sweet tooth.
  • –Eat fruits to satisfy your sugar cravings. And on the occasions when you want to enjoy a treat, just eat a sensible portion and don’t worry too much about the type of sweetener used.

Read this post on artificial sweeteners.

Have a different opinion? Please pitch in!

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    About Nour Zibdeh

    26 Responses to “The Low Down on Agave, Honey, and Date Sugar”

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    1. Very interesting. I just got some Date Syrup to try. I think you are right about agave getting all the raves. Not sure about all that processing tho.

      • Debbie says:

        I simmered dates (1cup) in water (1cup) for 1hour and blended them in my blender. I use the paste to add sweetness in cooked cereal. I swapped some for sugar in cookies and they were ok but very puffy. Although I also used 1/2 mashed lentils and 1/2 butter so maybe that was why.

        • Nour Zibdeh says:

          Thanks Debbie for the comment… I’m not a seasoned baker :) But from what I know, when you take a fat out and replace it with protein or carb, the consistency and texture of the baked product change…

    2. OrganicFoodDude says:

      Good article. I would point out that agave nectar (the raw / lower filtered varieties) does have trace minerals and up to 5% inulin. Depending upon the producer, some agave nectar brands are minimally processed (as in, low heat, filtration of solids, and evaporation). Using a few teaspoons is equivalent in fructose as eating an apple. I think there should be a differentiation between natural, fruit-based fructose (as in honey and agave) and the GMO-based refined corn syrup that relies upon the lab and significant chemical refining.

    3. Great post! So many people think agave is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s great to see you letting people know that it’s not the healthiest sweetener available.

    4. Georgie Fear says:

      Thank you so much for your expert handling of the topic! Great article!!
      :)

      Georgie

    5. Vinegarlic says:

      Thanks for the info. I’ve been thinking of trying date sugar for the first time sometime soon. I think it seems like a fun idea to use it in cookies during Ramadan and Eid.

    6. Nour El-Zibdeh, RD says:

      Thank you all for the comments!

      OrganicFoodDude: Thanks for pointing out this information about the fructose content in agave. I couldn’t find any nutrition analysis of agave syrup done by USDA, and as you mentioned, there are many types in the market, making it more difficult for consumers. I think we will continue to see more research on fructose in the future. I don’t think it’s a solved issue just yet.

      Nutritioulicious: I don’t think there will ever be such a thing as a healthy sweetener unless it’s real fruit! But we all want our occasional cakes and cookies, so it’s really about realizing that they’re ok if occasional, but not every morning on cereal…

      Vinegarlic: Ramadan Mubarak!

    7. Angie says:

      Excellent post! I’ve totally enjoyed reading your articles that I found through HealthBuzz!

      I think this is such an interesting and complicated topic….especially if you add artificial sweeteners into the discussion.

      Thanks for sharing!

    8. Hinna says:

      Salaam,

      I’ve been hearing a lot about coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar. What are your thoughts on this sweetner?

      You

    9. Hinna says:

      You mentioned using applesauce in cooking and baking. In what ratio can applesauce or other fruits be substituted in for regular sugar?

    10. I’m glad that you’ve spoken about this here. I personally use all these different sweeteners, but the key is moderation. I talk about the quest for the healthy sweetener on my blog- http://evolvingwell.com/wordpress/?p=178 – and how we have completely forgotten the part of sugar not being so good for us. I think that clouds a lot of people’s judgment when it comes to how much and how often to use a sweetener. Plus, I also recommend to clients to rotate their sweeteners…don’t just use one and whatever you use, moderation is key.

    11. I choose agave (to sweeten my hot tea in the morning – and to sweeten iced herbal teas I keep on hand) mainly because I can use have the amount than when I use regular sugar, and I like the taste (which is, to me, very similar to the turbinado sugar I generally buy) I also like small amounts of honey and maple syrup for sweetening plain yogurt – but don’t like the way they taste in my morning tea. 1 tsp of agave has 20 calories – and is equal (to my taste) to 2 tsp of sugar, which has 32 calories – so less is required, and therefore, I’d think makes less of an impact.
      whether it’s agave, honey or maple syrup (or regular sugar) I always use as little as possible – and when I bake, I use regular sugar, but always cut it by 1/2 to 1/3 (everything comes out fine – cutting the sugar is never a problem) – my point about agave is that since I can get away with using 1/2 the amount of sugar – then isn’t it indeed a better alternative? – also I’d like to know the amount of agave(e.g. fructose) that has a harmful impact on the liver – and since you said “too much fructose” is what does that, then I’m guessing that the 2 tsp’s a day, max, is fairly innocuous. (as innocuous as any sweetener, that is).

    12. I choose agave (to sweeten my hot tea in the morning – and to sweeten iced herbal teas I keep on hand) mainly because I can use half the amount than when I use regular sugar, and I like the taste (which is, to me, very similar to the turbinado sugar I generally buy) I also like small amounts of honey and maple syrup for sweetening plain yogurt – but don’t like the way they taste in my morning tea. 1 tsp of agave has 20 calories – and is equal (to my taste) to 2 tsp of sugar, which has 32 calories – so less is required, and therefore, I’d think makes less of an impact.
      whether it’s agave, honey or maple syrup (or regular sugar) I always use as little as possible – and when I bake, I use regular (or turbinado) sugar, but always cut it by 1/2 to 1/3 (everything comes out fine – cutting the sugar is never a problem) – my point about agave is that since I can get away with using 1/2 the amount of sugar – then isn’t it indeed a better alternative? – also I’d like to know the amount of agave(e.g. fructose) that has a harmful impact on the liver – and since you said “too much fructose” is what does that, then I’m guessing that 2 tsp’s a day, max, is fairly innocuous. (as innocuous as any sweetener, that is).

    13. Nour El-Zibdeh, RD says:

      Carol: you pretty much got my exact message. That moderation and less of all sweeteners is the key. There are people who prefer agave for the same reasons you mentioned (sweeter or the distinct flavor), and that’s perfectly fine. As long as you don’t consider it a healthy food, you’re on the right track.
      I haven’t seen an upper limit for fructose. And I doubt this will ever be set. Fructose is found in fruits and it would simply silly to put an upper limit for an ingredient found in such a healthy food group, especially that people are already behind. But, fructose in fruit is found with other sugars (glucose and sucrose), not alone. FYI, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar) are 50% fructose. I think we have so much to learn about fructose and all sugars in the future, so for now, practice common sense and moderation.

    14. Nour El-Zibdeh, RD says:

      Hi Carol (again) and everyone,

      I just came across a blog post written by a fellow dietitian and she has the answer to how much fructose is too much. Based on a report in the European Journal of Food Safety, total sugar intake should not exceed 20% of calories and fructose intake should not exceed 7.5%. For more details, check her post. Here’s the link: http://www.incyst.com/2010/07/closer-look-at-sugar-and-sweeteners.html.

    15. Big Friends says:

      I have several overweight friends that use agave. I dont think it is helping them. They always seem to have the munchies. I dont think they actually know how much they eat in a day.

      • Nour Zibdeh says:

        Thanks for the comment. Sadly, the goal of marketing is to sell more. How do you suppose companies will sell more agave? By portraying it as healthy and ‘natural.’ Sugars are sugars, and we should cut back on all of them. Have you read my recent posts?

    16. loren says:

      This was very informative, thank you! Does coconut sugar fall in the same fructose category as agave?

    17. Cassandra says:

      Very useful article! Do you have any light to shed on sucanot?

      • Nour Zibdeh says:

        Thanks Cassandra. Sucanot is cane sugar that is not processed. White table sugar that is processed. Both contain the same number of calories per grams. So if you want a more natural and pure form of sugar, or if you like the taste, use it. But you should still use in moderation because no sugar is considered healthy.

    18. Takako says:

      I have a line of product and have been looking for alternative sweetener to honey. Currently we use honey and stevia to sweeten, but I am trying to make a new vegan line and need to switch honey to something else. I have tried maple syrup, brown rice syrup, morasses, palm sugar and coconut sugar, but each sweeter has strong flavor and could not use them. Then, I came across date sugar/syrup. By reading everyone’s comment, date sugar seems worth to try. Very nutrient rich same as honey and I only need small amount since date is pretty sweet. Since “sugar” will not melt, I should try syrup. But our product say “no sugar added” and we can’t say this if we use the date sugar? or I can say “sweetened with date sugar or natural sugar”? Small matter, but seems my customers like to hear “no sugar added” and this is very important for me. Any thought?

      • Nour Zibdeh says:

        I think you’re smart by studying this thoroughly. The term ‘natural’ is very vague, and health conscious people are steering away from products with terms like ‘natural’ because they seem like a gimmick. You need to make sure you abide by FTC and FDA regulations for marketing and health claims. I think ‘made with date sugar’ is the most honest approach. If you use ‘no added sugar’ and you customer reads the ingredient list and sees ‘date sugar’ then you have deceived them. I think people want to trust the brands they buy, so honesty and transparency is your best bet. Honey is a sugar, so if your costumers don’t have a problem with it, then they won’t have a problem with date sugar. Just my thoughts.

    Trackbacks

    1. [...] using agave nectar for sugar-free pumpkin butter. Beware of such claims. Agave has sugar. Read my previous post about [...]

    2. [...] Agave nectar is processed. It undergoes heat processing so that fructosans, the complex form of fructose found in it, are broken down into fructose. Now that doesn’t sound so natural from where I stand. [source] [...]



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