Looking for the perfect sweetener? Maybe you don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners or want something more natural to satisfy your sweet tooth. Looking at maple syrup vs agave, is one healthier? Let’s compare!
What is Maple Syrup?
Real maple syrup is a natural sweetener created from the sap of maple trees. Maple syrup is produced exclusively in North America from primarily black maple and sugar maple trees (which grow there in abundance). The province of Quebec in Canada produces three quarters of the world supply of maple syrup.
Syrup is graded based on its color and when the sap is collected. The four grades of syrup are golden, amber, dark, and very dark. Darker syrup is from sap collected later in the season and generally has a stronger flavor. It is often used in cooking and baking. Lighter grades are the type used on pancakes and waffles. They all have a sweet taste and light flavor similar to brown sugar. To be called maple syrup, the product must contain 100% maple syrup. If the syrup is mixed with other sweeteners, it must be labeled “maple-flavored”.
Nutritional Value of Maple Syrup
|Nutrients in 1/4 cup maple syrup|
|Manganese||72% of the RDA*|
|Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)||27% of the RDA|
|Copper||17% of the RDA|
|Calcium||6% of the RDA|
Health Benefits of Maple Syrup
In addition to the nutrients listed above, maple syrup contains polyphenols (plant compounds that are beneficial to health). Polyphenols act as antioxidants in the body to prevent and repair damage from free radicals. Some research indicates that the polyphenols in maple syrup may modify the absorption of glucose in the body when compared to sucrose (or plain sugar).
Consumption of maple syrup vs sucrose (table sugar) also resulted in lower levels of inflammation in the liver.
Pro-tip: Make sure you are getting pure maple syrup, not maple-flavored syrup which might contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup which have none of the nutrients of maple syrup.
Health Risks of Maple Syrup
High in Calories and Sugar
Maple syrup is high in calories and high in sugar. Eating too much sugar or too many calories can be detrimental to your long-term health, so syrup should be used in moderation. Maple syrup may cause cavities or tooth decay due to the high sugar content.
Blood Sugar Effects
Because maple syrup provides high amounts of sugar with no fiber, it can cause blood sugar spikes that may be especially bad for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes. A tablespoon of maple syrup has a glycemic index of 54 (which is lower than white sugar at 65, but still high). The glycemic index is a scale from 0 to 100 indicating how quickly your body will release glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream from a food. A diet composed of large amounts of high glycemic index foods can lead to health problems including obesity and diabetes.
Maple syrup production is moderately sustainable according to Healabel. Well tended trees can produce syrup for 100 years or more. Subsequently the wood can be used for fuel. Processing does produce air pollution. Choose options with the least packaging and those produced locally when possible.
What is Agave?
Agave is a succulent (a type of plant with thick water-storing parts). It is native to dry areas of the Americas, particularly Mexico and the Caribbean. The agave nectar is a thick, sweet liquid produced from the sap of the agave plant (most commonly the blue agave).
Agave nectar is heated and filtered into a liquid form (agave syrup) to be used as a sweetener. When distilled, the sugars from agave syrup can be used to make alcohol, such as tequila. The agave syrup (what we sometimes simply refer to as agave) adds sweetness with a neutral taste. The thin consistency makes it easy to mix agave into beverages.
Similar to maple syrup, there are different types of agave. Depending on the processing, agave syrup can be produced in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. The light variety has the most neutral flavor, while the amber and dark options have a strong flavor with a bit of a caramel taste.
Raw agave syrup is processed at a low temperatures which helps preserve some of the nutrients from the agave plant.
Nutritional Value of Agave Syrup
|Nutrients in 1/4 cup agave syrup|
|Thiamin (Vitamin B1)||6% of the RDA*|
|Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)||7% of the RDA|
|Vitamin C||10% of the RDA|
|Vitamin E||4% of the RDA|
Like most plant-based foods, agave nectar has some nutrients in its raw form. However, during processing to create the syrup-like version that most of us are familiar with, it loses the majority of its nutritional value. It does have some polyphenols, but not to the same levels as maple syrup.
Health Benefits of Agave
Blood Sugar Effects
The main type of sugar in agave is fructose which causes less of a spike in blood sugar levels in your body than glucose does. A tablespoon of agave has a relatively low glycemic index of somewhere between 19 and 32 (compared to 65 for white sugar). And because of its intense sweetness, you may need less of it than regular sugar or other sweeteners to achieve the flavor you desire.
Agave has been used medicinally in Mexico for a variety of ailments. Emerging animal research is confirming that it may be beneficial in reducing inflammation.
Inulin is a type of dietary fiber found in plant foods, including chicory root, asparagus, onions, and bananas. It is also found in raw agave, though due to the processing, it is not in agave syrup. Inulin can help with digestion and constipation and may help with overall gut health.
Pro-tip: Adding garlic, artichokes, leeks, wheat, and oats to your diet is a great natural way to increase your inulin intake!
Health Risks of Agave
High in Calories and Sugar
Similar to maple syrup, although agave is a natural sweetener, it is still high in calories and sugar. Overconsumption can cause tooth decay and may put you at risk for obesity, diabetes and other chronic disease.
Agave is 90% fructose. Fructose is processed differently in the body than glucose. It does have less of an effect on blood sugar levels, but some research indicates that high fructose intake may be linked with increased risk of belly fat, fatty liver, dyslipidemia and insulin resistance. However, a recent animal study showed that natural sweeteners like agave, maple syrup and honey, may have less of a negative effect on insulin resistance and inflammation than sucrose, or plain sugar.
Production of agave syrup is not easily sustainable. According to the Green Living Detective, agave plants are slow growing and the whole plant is processed to create syrup. This combined with general mismanagement of plantations, monocrops and industrial processes equals a not very green outcome.
Pro-tip: If you do opt for agave, choose raw agave (which is less processed) and organic and free trade.
Maple Syrup vs Agave: Is One a Better Choice?
Sugar is added to so many foods that most of us have a much higher sugar intake than is recommended. Consuming too much sugar puts you at risk for obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. It’s important to watch your overall intake to decrease your risk of developing these types of disease.
Maple syrup and agave are both natural forms of sugar. However, just because they are natural does that mean they are a healthier choice as a sugar substitute? Not necessarily. Maple syrup is higher in nutrients, so if that is the most important factor for you, and you enjoy the stronger flavor, maple syrup would be your best choice. However, if you want an option with a lower glycemic index than sugar, or want a more neutral flavor in your sweetener, then agave would be a good choice.
The difference in taste between maple syrup and agave may be a matter of personal preferences. Bottom line: both are high in sugar and empty calories, so use them in small amounts.
Marie, Adriane. “Maple Syrup Benefits and Side Effects.” Healabel, Jan 1, 2023. https://www.healabel.com/maple-syrup-benefits/
McNamee, Gregory Lewis. “maple syrup”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Oct. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/maple-syrup. Accessed 6 March 2023.
Petruzzello, Melissa. “agave”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Jan. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/plant/Agave. Accessed 6 March 2023.
Valle M, St-Pierre P, Pilon G, Marette A. Differential Effects of Chronic Ingestion of Refined Sugars versus Natural Sweeteners on Insulin Resistance and Hepatic Steatosis in a Rat Model of Diet-Induced Obesity. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 30;12(8):2292. doi: 10.3390/nu12082292. PMID: 32751772; PMCID: PMC7469035.
Vick, Danielle. “How green is it… to use agave?” Green Living detective, Sep 17, 2020. https://www.greenlivingdetective.com/how-green-is-it-to-use-agave/
Kate is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and certified yoga instructor with a Master’s in Public Health. She loves to share what she has learned about nutrition and yoga to help people live healthier, more balanced lives. When not working on this blog or teaching yoga, Kate is usually spending time with family and friends or reading a good book.