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As we learn more about the health issues associated with a diet high in refined sugar, sweeteners that are closer to their natural source, like honey and agave syrup, have become more popular. Here, we look at the health benefits of both.

A primer on natural and refined sugars  

Not all sugars are the same. A diet high in added refined sugar has been linked to a number of chronic health conditions, including obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cognitive disorders, and certain types of cancer. Given the risks associated with refined sugar, what do you do if you have a sweet tooth and are trying to make healthier choices?

Since your body reacts to natural sugars differently than it reacts to refined sugars, you may want to replace refined sugars with natural sugars, such as honey or agave syrup. One of the best ways to look at the difference in how the body processes sugars is to use the glycemic index (GI).

The glycemic index is a tool that measures how much a specific food boosts blood sugar. The index compares how the body reacts to a particular food in relation to how it reacts to pure glucose. The higher the number, the closer it is to pure glucose. High glycemic foods cause fast spikes in insulin and blood sugar, whereas low glycemic foods have a slower effect, allowing insulin and blood sugar to remain stable. Both honey and agave syrup have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar.

The health benefits of honey  

Honey is the first known sweetener to be used by man, with its history dating back to 2100 B.C. The reported health benefits and medicinal uses of honey also go back to ancient times. Its antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties made honey a popular treatment for wounds and make it a natural remedy still widely studied today for its medicinal properties.

Honey also has nutritional value, containing minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. And it has anti-inflammatory properties. What's more, by consuming local honey, you receive a boost of antioxidants that can help strengthen your immune system to seasonal allergies. Honey has also been used to treat and soothe a sore throat.

Honey has been recommended as an alternative sweetener for those diagnosed with diabetes because of its ability to help control insulin spikes and blood sugar. With a score of 55, honey has a lower GI than both table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Additionally, honey tastes sweeter than table sugar, allowing you to use less of it. However, one tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories, which is slightly higher than an equal amount of table sugar.

Since honey is made by bees, it is not considered vegan; creating a potential drawback for those who are on a completely plant-based diet.

The health benefits of agave syrup  

Agave syrup is derived from the agave plant, a succulent found primarily in Mexico and the Caribbean. For years, the various parts of the agave plant have been used for making paper, tools, tequila, and syrup.

With a low glycemic index of 17, agave syrup has been touted as one of the sweeteners that may allow people to lose weight while controlling their blood sugar and insulin levels. One study showed that mice who were given agave nectar were less likely to gain weight and had decreased insulin and blood sugar levels as compared to mice who were given table sugar.

In addition, agave syrup is a low allergy food and is completely plant-based, making it a good alternative to honey for vegans. It’s very sweet, meaning that you should be able to use less agave syrup than you’d have to use table sugar. And its mild taste makes it a good product to use for recipe substitution.

Similar to honey, agave syrup has 63 calories per tablespoon; slightly higher than an equal amount of table sugar. And while the nutrient content in agave syrup is higher than the nutrient content in table sugar, it is lower than the nutrient content in honey.

Which is healthier?  

When making a choice, the best rule of thumb is to look for the product that provides the greatest overall health benefits.

Honey wins hands down.

There is a wealth of research available to show the medicinal value of honey and its many healing properties. And while agave syrup’s glycemic index is lower than honey’s, the additional health benefits put honey over the top!

Who knew you could enjoy a sweet bite of honey and also receive antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and gain anti-fungal and antibacterial properties as well?

The bottom line  

While consuming sweeteners that are closer to their natural source is better than consuming refined sugars, it’s important to remember that even natural sweeteners like honey and agave syrup are sugars.

Be mindful of how often or how much of these products you are using. While honey or agave syrup may be better for your body than a highly-refined sugar product, they should still be used in moderation.

Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise, where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.