Sweetener Comparisons: Honey, Agave, Molasses, Sugar, Maple Syrup

http://greenlitebites.com/2010/11/11/sweetener-comparisons-honey-agave-molasses-sugar-maple-syrup/
20101111_sweeteners1

I have heard a lot about agave nectar, and have a friend who makes delicious breakfast bars with it as a sweetener. I believe it is used to replace honey, and has a lower glycemic index. I was wondering whether you have used this sweetener, and also if you could explain your use of honey along with molasses: what does one offer that the other does not?
-Laura

Hi Laura!

I love this question because I get to give you my opinion. I love giving an opinion! It’s probably a big reason why I blog. :)

But first.. Let’s start with the facts. Here’s a little chart of basic nutrition information for a 1/2 cup of each sweetener. I added maple syrup and sugar in there just for comparisons.

Honey Molasses Maple Syup Agave Nectar White Sugar
Weight 169g 168g 161g 168g 100g
Calories 515 489 420 480 387
Carbohydrates 140g 126g 108g 128g 100g
Sugars 139g 93g 96g 120g 100g
Estimated Glycemic Load 85 77 63 77 70
Vitamins Honey Molasses Maple Syup Agave Nectar White Sugar
Thiamin 0% 5% 1% ? 0%
Riboflavin 4% 0% 1% ? 1%
Niacin 1% 8% 0% ? 0%
Vitamin B6 2% 56% 0% ? 0%
Pantothenic Acid 1% 14% 1% ? 0%
Choline 3.7 mg 22.4 mg 2.6 mg ? 0%
Betaine 2.9 mg 0 0 ? 0
Minerals Honey Molasses Maple Syup Agave Nectar White Sugar
Calcium 1% 35% 11% ? 0%
Iron 4% 44% 11% ? 0%
Magnesium 1% 102% 6% ? 0%
Phosphoros 1% 5% 0% ? 0%
Potassium 3% 70% 9% ? 0%
Zinc 2% 3% 45% ? 0%
Copper 3% 41% 6% ? 0%
Manganese 7% 129% 266% ? 0%
Selenium 2% 43% 1% ? 1%
Fluoride 11.9 mcg 0 0 ? 1 mcg

*Full nutrition information not verified for agave nectar but some sources say vitamin and mineral content is negligible.

Sweetener Comparisons: Honey, Agave, Molasses, Sugar, Maple SyrupNow onto my opinion.

As you know I try to limit my use of white sugar. Just look at that table. It offers me nothing and frankly, I’m just not into empty calories. I do keep sugar on hand but I normally buy the sugar in the raw or organic evaporated cane juice as both of them are less processed and don’t have everything stripped out.

You may notice plain old sugar actually has LESS calories per half cup than all of the other sweeteners. For the dieter this may seem like a benefit but actually honey and agave are both sweeter then sugar so you need to use less. Comparing molasses and maple syrup really isn’t fair as they have a much more complex taste.

Agave nectar is an interesting option and I’ve notice there is a lot controversy about it. Food Renegade has an interesting articled called Agave Nectar: Good or Bad? that goes into a lot of detail. I don’t think Agave is the end all be all sweetener that some make it out to be but I do like that you need less of it than sugar (I believe is 1.4 x sweeter.) I tend to think of it as honey-like without the honey flavor. It’s simply just sweet. I use it now and then but don’t currently have it in my pantry. I asked my favorite RD, Dave Grotto, as I couldn’t find much detail about the vitamin and mineral content of agave nectar and here’s what he had to say…

“The micronutrient content of agave nectar is barely worth mentioning. Agave does contain cancer fighting saponins & inulin though.”

So maybe it offers a bit more then just plain old table sugar. I can’t be sure.

As for me, depending on the recipe I normally use a combination of honey and molasses as it ads a complex sweetness without needing too much. In addition, both honey and molasses are shown to have additional health benefits and as you can see from the chart, they offer something besides calories and sweetness.

Molasses is probably my favorite but it adds such a strong flavor you can’t use it as an all purpose sweetener. You can almost think of it as concentrated liquid brown sugar. Alone it’s not all that great but used in a recipe it’s adds a deep, dark, sweetness. It’s also the one sweetener that contains the most vitamins and minerals. According to WHFoods.com,

“Blackstrap molasses is a sweetener that is actually good for you. Unlike refined white sugar and corn syrup, which are stripped of virtually all nutrients except simple carbohydrates, or artificial sweeteners like saccharine or aspartame, which not only provide no useful nutrients but have been shown to cause health problems in sensitive individuals, blackstrap molasses is a healthful sweetener that contains significant amounts of a variety of minerals that promote your health.”

Honey is normally my sweetener of choice when molasses will be too strong. I’ve grown to love the dimension it adds and I generally find a little goes a long way. I try to find minimally processed honey as I think most of what is sold in stores has been processed to death and any health benefit it has been lost. I still use store bought but I try to pick up different honey varieties when I’m at farmers markets and natural food stores.

Maple syrup is also another option I tend to forget about as I’m not the biggest maple fan. I don’t hate it but I’m not nuts about it either. However, it can add and interesting taste and sweetness to particular desserts and baked goods just like molasses and honey. I will only buy 100% pure maple syrup as everything else sold in stores is really flavored corn syrup.

You’ll notice I didn’t even touch the artificial stuff in this post. I’m not ant-artificial. I actually have a bag of splenda in my pantry as I write this. Then again, it’s been in there for 3 years so that may give you insight into how much I actually use it. Honestly, once I had kids (I can say kidS now, can’t I?) I decided to limit artificial stuff more and more. I’d rather my little man have real sugar than splenda any day. He’s not watching his figure or reducing his calories and I pay attention to how much he’s getting so we don’t go overboard.

There is also the stevia option now which I’d prefer to use over splenda, aspertame and saccharine but if I can sweeten with honey, molasses or maple syrup I’d rather go that route. It’s just a personal preference and it helps me have fun and get creative in the kitchen. In a weird way I look at sugar and splenda as taking the easy way out. I’m strange, I know. ;)

Thoughts on sweetener options? What’s your sweetener of choice?

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47 Comments and 3 Replies

  1. Karen

    Interesting! I admit that I am a big Splenda user. I remember way back when there was the health scare about saccharin. Seems to me there have been questions about the artificial stuff for a long time.

  2. Ryan @NoMoreBacon

    This is really cool Roni and a great resource for people to check out. I personally have tried steering away from the artificial stuff as well because I actually GAINED weight when I went from sugar soda to soda with Nutra-Sweet. I always had a craving for sweet things when I was drinking Diet soda. Those other alternatives like Mollases, agave nectar, and maple syrup are some things I’ll have to try. We’ve used honey in quite a few different things before.

    Thanks for putting this together!

  3. Jessica

    Thanks Roni! I actually have a jar of homemade molasses at home and was wondering on the NI. I’ve been thinking of a sweet potato casserole and use molasses instead of brown sugar and butter.

    YAY!

  4. deb roby

    My first go to for sweetening is usually maple sugar. As much because I like it’s easy-flowing nature compared to honey and molasses as that I love it’s flavor.

    When I want the sweet without the additional complex flavoring, I usually go to stevia.

  5. Dave Grotto, RD

    Great job, Roni. Love your insight!

    I think it is important to put the use of sweeteners into perspective. The serving size you use is 1/2 cup. That’s fine for a recipe but a LOT for 1 person so I don’t think that reflects what one person gets out of “sugar”, nutrition wise.

    My advice is use what tastes good to you and look to “food” to derive your nutrition. At the end of the day, I really think it is a “wash” when it comes to the nutritional value of all sweeteners.

    You’re the best and you have great-tasting food to back it up!

    Dave

  6. Marysabel

    Very informative and well researched. I agree, like I told you Roni, there’s not even enough information about Agave Nectar in other languages. I did use that agave a few years ago on a pumpkin pie and it was delicious, but now after reading all this information and what I researched myself, I’m a little afraid of how sweet it is. I prefer to use products like Stevia in the Raw, which I know it’s not going to affect my blood sugar levels and my insulin levels, but that is a personal choice. If you are not dealing with pre diabetes then that’s a whole different story. I’ll stick to my stevia. Well done Roni.

  7. roni

    Thanks for the comment Dave! I was originally going to use a tablespoon for comparison but then I realized the original asker was really referring to recipe making, which is what I mostly use sweeteners for so I changed to half cup. But I agree is a lot for a single person.

    Regardless I FEEL better using honey or molasses in my recipes and at the end of the day that’s all that matters. :)

  8. Gwen

    My husband has been going to a dietician/herbalist due to severe thyroid issues, and he was given a list of good/bad foods. The herbalist stated that agave nectar was basically corn syrup!#@??? We’ve since cut it from our diets…Just thought I’d chime in. Love this post!

  9. Michelle @ Turning Over a New Leaf

    In my house right now I have honey, maple syrups (grades A and B), backstrap molasses, organic dark brown sugar, a little bit of agave, regular light brown sugar, turbinado sugar, and a some brown sugar. I had sucanat until I used it up last week.

    My preferance is honey, molasses, and maple syrup. I tried using molasses as a primary sweetener in a baked good about a month ago and it was waaaay too rich. Now I use honey+molasses or maple syrup. Though, I’m still trying to iron out the kinks in my baking when I substitute a liquid sweetener (such as honey and whatnot) in place of granulated, but in time I’ll get there. :)

    Oh! Another sweetener is date sugar or date syrup. I have a bag of dried dates right now that I’m considering making date syrup with. We’ll see how it works out!

  10. SusieBee

    I have maple syrup (100% pure), agave, honey, white and brown sugar, splenda and truvia in the house. I alternate what I use (my twisted way of thinking a little of each is better than alot of one) although we don’t use alot of sugar.

    I do think the flap over agave has been over the top.

  11. Jen @ Making Messes

    Thanks for gathering all this info!

    I tend towards raw sugar and honey. I just don’t like the taste of the other sweeteners. I used Agave Nectar sometimes, but don’t prefer the taste. I’m with Ryan, I tend to crave sugar more when I ingest artificial sweeteners.

    Great post!

  12. Marysabel

    @ Jen, OMG that is so true. I made the change from Splenda to Stevia months ago and I do not crave sugar anymore. Of course I get some kind of craving close to that date of the month, but nothing like it used to be when I consumed Splenda. Now that you point that out, everything makes sense!

  13. Ami

    I really like sucanat when I can get it inexpensively. Sucanat stands for Sugar Cane Natural and when you see it, you’ll notice it does look natural. One brand of it is Rapadura.

    Some who absolutely love stevia may want to investigate it a bit. I read that it’s traditional use was birth control. (I would assume that’s in very large amounts.) That might not matter to some people, but it could be a big deal for others!

    I love using sorghum because I can buy it at the farmer’s market. It can be used interchangably with molasses and has a bit of different nutrients to offer. Plus you can buy it local!

    Speaking of local, did you know that local raw honey, eaten a small amount daily, can help with seasonal allergies?

    It’s pretty cool that we can use all these different sweeteners that have different ways to nourish our bodies and offer such great flavors!

  14. Ortal

    Hi Ronny, just wanted to chime in. I add agave nectar to your oat-pumpkin-cup recipe to give it extra sweetness and make it a bit moister. its fabulous.

  15. Nicole P

    I use stevia in the raw for making sweet tea…I am currently using about a cup per gallon of tea and it is sweet- I was thinking about cutting it to 1/2 a cup next time I make it and then go down from there. I hear tea loses a lot of its flavor when sugar is added so it would be nice to not have to have sugar in it. As far as sweetening other things I use honey mostly as it is more natural. I have a serious problem with sweets and so I never buy normal sugar because then I want to bake ad that is just asking for trouble. (Note: when I say I want to bake I mean I will bake something new everyday; cinnamon rolls, apple pies, cakes, muffins)

  16. Tamara

    When I first started making your Whole Wheat Banana muffin recipe, I found I started adapting all of my other recipes to limit the use of sugar and substitute it for honey and molasses. Between that and a few dark chocolate chipes to appease my husband, I got my complaints, and he was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned they contained no oil, butter or white sugar. I adapted my blueberry zucchini muffin recipe and they’re now my little brother’s favorite (seriously, he opted for those instead of homemade cupcakes for his bday a couple of years ago).

    I recently switched to agave because of my one-year-old. I’m still too nervous to give her honey because of the infant botulism risk, but prefer to use something besides white sugar. I use it in small quantities, like in smoothies or baking (and most recently, pumpkin butter) and she seems to enjoy. Once I can, I’ll probably use honey more. It’s just been around longer and if I buy it locally, I just feel more comfortable with it. Right now I’m trying to focus on more of a quality vs. quanity mindset. It used to be about what contained the least calories, but I’m trying to look at the overall health picture now when I make decisions. I cut out artificial sweeteners for the most part just before I got pregnant and haven’t missed them. In fact, now I think they just taste vile! I’d much rather have a few extra calories by using something “real” then a chemically-developed lower-cal sweetener.

  17. Nathalie

    I use mostly honey as my parents are beekeepers :)

    When you buy honey, look for unpasteurized: it’s unnecessary because honey will naturally stay good. If you keep it clean and don’t add water to it, honey is actually too sweet for anything to grown in it, as in not enough water available for bacteria/fungi. The pasteurization will destroy some of the vitamins and other health benefits and will make the honey taste burnt. If the honey becomes cloudy it’s only crystallizing, which is normal: heat it up gently in hot water or the microwave and stop as soon as it’s clear.

    In small amounts (tablespoons) I use the same amount of honey as I would of sugar. In larger amounts (cups) I use about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of honey per cup of sugar, but decrease the volume of liquid by 1/4 cup per cup of sugar (honey adds water too).

  18. wendy

    I use Honey over Maple Sugar because it is cheaper. We have a beekeeper friend who we get our honey from. I also have some sucanat. I do buy white sugar…my husband is a big sweet tea drinker and prefers white sugar in it (1 cup per pitcher – yicks – I know!).

  19. Eileen

    My in-laws use stevia, and I like that it doesn’t have the long lasting sweet taste that sugar does, but has no after taste. It does take some getting used to. I got on the agave bandwagon and then rarely used it. I didn’t like how the recipes I made turned out. I’d rather just use sugar and limit how much I eat of it. That said, I suck at limited how much I eat sugar but frankly I’d rather eat sugar than chemical sweeteners any day.
    Thanks for the post! I knew there was a lot of great stuff in molasses, and I really think that it is under used today. We only seem to use it around the holidays in ginger cookies and pecan pie. I am going to have to figure out how to use it in other recipes that aren’t quite so sweet and fattening.

  20. Thea @ I'm a Drama Mama

    I’ve been so afraid to make the switch from white sugar, especially in my coffee. I’m just afraid that my coffee will taste like whatever else I put in it.

    I’m almost out of white sugar so when I went to the grocery, I bought turbinado raw cane sugar. I have no idea what that meant, LOL! There were so many options when it came to granulated things.

    One of these days, I need to try adding honey to my coffee. What’s the worst that could happen, right? If I don’t like it, I’ll make another cup of coffee!

  21. Laura

    Hey Roni! Thank you so much for answering my question about agave nectar, and so completely too! Wow, you did a lot of work on it. I will look back and reference this post a lot, I’m sure. It’s funny, because the day you posted this I had just gone out for the first time to buy molasses, because I wanted to make your molasses cookies. I haven’t made them yet, but I’m comforted knowing that molasses is now in my arsenal. Now that I see how much more nutritious it is than other sweeteners, I’m excited to start adding it into some things.

    Since I posted this question some time ago, I have looked into at least the calorie content of agave compared to honey, and I noticed that it was about the same. Since then I’ve been working on using up the agave that I have, but I’m not sure I’ll buy any more. It seems like a fad more than anything. Syrup is syrup after all, right? It’s gonna be sweet, and with sweet comes calories. That’s what’s so cool about the molasses; it has calories, but it also has some great micronutrients too. Thanks for doing this detailed review!

  22. Liz W

    i’m trying to reduce our intake of processed sugars. i’m also trying to reduce my use of things like equal in tea. i tried agave, and that stuff wasn’t dissolving in my iced tea! it was a bummer. i’ve tried and liked stevia (sweetleaf, which is less processed), but it’s expensive, and i really like my iced tea. been using a lot of honey in baked goods lately, though, and it’s been a mild sweetness. we’ve also been buy bananas just to let them over-ripe to use them in baking. once they’re brown, we just freeze them till we’re ready for them. it’s been working. we also waste less food that way.

  23. Amy

    I feel that people are generally ignorant of the real dangers of sugar. Sugar encourages metabolic disorders and chronic disease. Also, cancer grows and feeds from sugar (including fructose), over fats or proteins.

    I hope people will watch “The Bitter Truth” presented by Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology.

    Here is a short, easy-to-read article on how cancer uses sugar.
    link to drmirkin.blogspot.com

  24. Mary

    I live in Vermont where the best Maple Syrup in in the world is made. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup which is why it’s so expensive. However it does offer many of same benefits as honey for the same reasons. If you have allergies it can really help. As to the strength of the flavor Roni mentioned, I can only assume she has only tried the darker grades. Many people like the flavor so they use the dark or lower grades of maple to enhance this flavor, however if you just want the sweetness without a lot of maple flavor I would recommend the Grade A fancy. It has a very mild flavor with all of the sweetness and it costs the same amount. Most people from out of state get grade B because they are used to artificial maples that have a strong flavor, but real Vermonters only use grade B in cooking. Personally I use the fancy on everything. Of course I can go to any convenience store, grocery store, or even my local insurance office to get this so it’s a good option for me.

  25. Ruth

    Mary, I’m an out-of-stater, but love maple syrup. Just made maple bacon ice cream with coconut milk/cream using only maple syrup to sweeten. So great. But I like that grade B will offer more flavor. Thanks for tip, I never understood the difference. Next project, honey lavender, then black strap molasses ginger for the holiday season. I’ve also tried to use molasses more for its calcium – thinking just molasses coconut ice cream might be just the nutritious end of meal treat I’m looking for!

  26. Pete Julienne

    Hey Roni,

    This is a great article. I just discovered mixing Molasses and Honey this morning. I came across your website and you said exactly how I feel. What a great validation! I have completely stopped eating any processed foods. I have not eaten any less and lost about 20 lbs and for the first time feel great in a long time.

    You blog is a wonderful source of information. Keep it up!

  27. Steve L

    I use a mixture of honey, maple syrup, brown sugar and splenda depending on what I’m baking. I am deathly alergic to aspartame(nutra sweet/amino sweet) but have a type 1 diabetic son. Thankfully, for us both splenda came out and we both can have that.

    I haven’t used sweeteners on the table in decades. Grew up putting the spoons of white sugar on my cereal in the morning… now can’t stand it like that.

    One of the things I have noticed since moving away from white sugar is a difference in the glycemic spike in my son’s BG levels after he eats my baking. The brown sugar and other sugars definitely raise his levels, but there isn’t so much of a “spike” as a “hump” in his levels.

    Great information on here.

  28. Ellen B. Hazzard

    This is regarding raw sugar or any other mildly processed sugar. I had a friend, an MD, who served on The National Sugar Board a number of years ago. He toured all the sugar processing plants all over the world and the one constant that he always commented on was how many ppm’s of rat shit are allowed in raw sugar vs. processed white sugar. Thank you i will ingest my rat shit quotient in some other way and definitely NOT in raw sugar. Gave it up years ago for this very reason. Hmmmmmmmm!!!!!!! We eat at our own peril. Honey harbors bacteria. Maple syrup is the cleanest because it is boiled and boiled and boiled, so is clean AND pure. A bit pricey, but if you want your sweet sources to be clean, maple syrup is the way to go.

  29. Albi

    At the moment its stevia. But im researching around and turns out the cheap ol coconut sugar ( im fr south east asia – malaysia) has a lower gi of 35 vs maple syrup 55. And are mainly sucrose vs agave which although hv lower gi is mainly single sugar fructose. Fructose are only processed to be stored as liver glycogen – its great post cardio but in term of muscular replenishment we need glucose. Date syrup high gi but its great as post workout. Athough i enjoy stevia , its fairly new and theres nothing to establish its safety in long term or heavy consumption. So im planning to vary my sweeterner. I think people should look at their local option ( pomegranate molasses in mid eastern, palm sugar/ coconut sugar, date, fruits like honey jackfruit boiled down— south east asia again) to sweeten up their life. Decrease carbon emission and friendlier to your economu.

  30. Seth

    This data can easily mislead someone to the wrong conclusion. Sugar is only lower in calories than the other four sweeteners when measured by a standard volume (1/2 cup). But according to this data, when compared by WEIGHT, sugar has 27% MORE calories per gram than honey, 33% more kcal/g than molasses, 48% more kcal/g than maple syrup and 35% more kcal/g than agave nectar.
    Sugar also has the highest glycemic load per gram.
    Really the key question is which sweetener achieves the desired sweetness level with the least amount of calories? And of course, which one does our body agree with the most?
    In my opinion, honey wins.

  31. Gary

    Roni, Thank you for the very informative article on sweeteners, and especially the comparison chart. I’ve read a little about the biological sugar called trehalose, but I don’t know how it could be used in cooking. Do you have any ideas?

  32. Trying-to-get-healthy Teen

    Hey, Roni! This is a great article and just wanted to chime in.
    I have a question: will using these liquid sweeteners (Syrup, molasses, and honey) affect how my recipes come out??
    I bake a lot and have been looking for alternatives to sugar because I know (like you) that it’s not good for you.
    Any help is great, thanks! :)

  33. theresa

    This is really great. It is unfortunate that you are missing the numbers on agava. I would be interested in seeing the results even if they are negligible.

    Splenda is terrible stuff and carcinogenic. A good alternative is Stevia as a sweetener. It is concentrated however it is a natural sweet green leaf plant. I grow it in my herb garden and use it in my tea to sweeten it up. I also use the concentrated form when I am on the run.

  34. Marlene

    I googled that I wanted to compare agave to molasses and found your blog. Thanks for this article! I was buying Vons Organics raw agave because it tasted like molasses (others I found do not, like you said, they’re just sweet). Well, my local store stopped selling this item, and it made me wonder if I should just use molasses or maple syrup, and it turns out that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to do now! The only nice thing about agave is it’s consistency. It melts into hot coffee or cold lemonade easily. I’ll have to see how it goes with molasses. Your blog is now in my favorites list :-)

  35. Eileen

    Thanks for all your info. I, too, was looking for comparisons. I like honey since my niece told me it might help with our tree fruit/nut allergies if we used local honey. It did.

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