Both honey and sugar add sweetness to meals and snacks. However, they have different tastes, textures, and nutritional profiles.
This article explores the benefits and disadvantages of both honey and sugar for health and diet.
Similarities and differences
Honey contains less fructose and glucose when compared to sugar, but contains more calories.
Honey and sugar are both carbohydrates, consisting of the two types of sugar: glucose and fructose.
Refined fructose, which is found in sweeteners, is metabolized by the liver and has been associated with:
- fatty liver disease
Both fructose and glucose are broken down quickly by the body and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
The proportions of glucose and fructose in honey and sugar are different:
- sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose
- honey contains 40 percent fructose and 30 percent glucose
The remainder of honey consists of:
- minerals, including magnesium and potassium
These additional components may be responsible for some of the health benefits of honey.
Sugar is higher on the glycemic index (GI) than honey, meaning it raises blood sugar levels more quickly. This is due to its higher fructose content, and the absence of trace minerals.
But honey has slightly more calories than sugar, although it is sweeter, so less may be required. Both sweeteners can lead to weight gain if overused.
Benefits of honey
Honey has been used since ancient times as both a sweetener and medicine.
It is a viscous liquid produced by honeybees and ranges in color from straw yellow to dark brown. The bees collect nectar from flowers and mix it with enzymes to form honey before storing it in honeycomb cells to keep it fresh.
Honey is associated with several benefits:
More nutrients and less processed than sugar
Honey varies in its nutritional composition based on the origin of the nectar used to make it. In general, it contains trace amounts of local pollen along with other substances, such as:
- amino acids
Some research indicates that dark honey has more antioxidants than light honey.
Also, honey is less processed than sugar as it is usually only pasteurized before use. Raw honey is also edible and contains more antioxidants and enzymes than pasteurized varieties.
Some research suggests that honey is a natural way to ease a cough in children.
A 2007 study found that children with bronchitis who were given dark honey experienced greater symptom relief than those taking a placebo. However, the benefits were small.
More recent research suggests that honey is better than no treatment at all for a cough, although some medications provide greater symptom relief.
Anecdotal reports indicate that locally-produced honey may help reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. However, clinical studies have not demonstrated this consistently.
One study published in 2011, found that people with birch pollen allergy, who took birch pollen honey, experienced:
- a 60 percent reduction in symptoms
- 70 percent fewer days with severe symptoms
- twice as many days without symptoms
They were also able to reduce their antihistamine intake by 50 percent compared to the control group.
These benefits may have been compounded by honey’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Also, one treatment for allergies is to desensitize the body to reactions by repeatedly introducing small amounts of allergens. In line with this, local honey may contain traces of the pollens that cause seasonal allergies.
Honey has shown benefits when applied topically, as it has antimicrobial properties:
- Wound healing: Research suggests that honey offers considerable benefits in the natural and safe treatment of chronic wounds, ulcers, and burns.
- Seborrheic dermatitis: Raw honey was found to markedly improve seborrheic dermatitis, which is an itchy and flaky scalp condition. Weekly application of honey also reduced hair loss associated with the condition and prevented relapses among study participants.
Easier to digest
Honey may be easier than sugar on the digestive system.
Due to its composition, regular sugar has to be ingested before being broken down. As bees add enzymes to honey, the sugars are already partially broken down, making it easier to digest.
Disadvantages and risks of honey
Some of the most common disadvantages and risks associated with honey include:
High calorie count
One tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories, which is higher than that of sugar at 49 calories per tablespoon.
Risk of infant botulism
It is not safe to give honey to infants younger than 12 months. Honey’s bacterial spores can cause infant botulism, a rare but potentially life-threatening disease.
The spores that cause botulism in infants are harmless in older children and adults. Symptoms of infant botulism include:
- generalized weakness
- a weak cry
Impact on blood sugar and risk of illness
Honey has similar effects as sugar on blood glucose levels. This is especially problematic for people with diabetes and insulin resistance.
Too much honey can lead to blood sugar issues in healthy people too, increasing the risk of:
- weight gain
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
Benefits of sugar
There are many different types of sugar and they have no added nutrients except molasses.
Sugar comes from sugarcane or sugar beet. Although it is derived from natural substances, sugar needs a lot of processing before it becomes the finalized product.
There are several different types of sugar including:
All these forms of sugar comprise glucose and fructose, which bond to form the sugar known as sucrose.
Sugar has no added nutrients. However, brown sugar, which is a blend of white sugar and the byproduct of sugar manufacturing known as molasses, may have some trace minerals.
The main benefits associated with sugar use include:
Lower in calories than honey
Sugar contains 49 calories per tablespoon, while honey has 64. However, honey is sweeter than sugar, so less may be needed to achieve the same sweetness.
Low-cost and long shelf life
Sugar is cheap, easily accessible, and has a long shelf life. It also makes many foods more palatable, and so, it is an attractive store cupboard staple.
Disadvantages and risks of sugar
There are some disadvantages and risks associated with sugar consumption.
Higher on the glycemic index than honey
Sugar can spike blood glucose levels faster than honey. This leads to a quick spurt of energy, followed by a sharp decline characterized by tiredness, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.
Increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Weight gain and obesity are associated with high sugar consumption, increasing the risk of illness.
More problems for the liver
Since the liver must metabolize refined fructose, issues relating to liver function may occur with high sugar intake. These include:
- nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- cholesterol management
Dental caries or cavities develop faster and in more teeth with a high sugar diet.
This is true for everyone. Sugar should be avoided to reduce the risk of cavities.
Changes in gut bacteria
A high sugar diet is associated with less healthy and gut bacteria diversity. It may also increase the risk of chronic diseases.
More difficult to digest than honey
As previously said, sugar does not contain the enzymes that honey does, so is more difficult to digest.
Which is best?
Too much honey or sugar in the diet may lead to dental issues such as tooth decay.
It is possible to consume too much of both honey and sugar. The risks of overconsumption are the same for both, as well. The main concerns are:
- weight gain
- increased risk of illness
- blood sugar peaks and crashes
- increased risk of tooth decay
Therefore, both products should be used in moderation or not at all. While honey does have some health benefits, they are mostly observed when used in response to specific issues, such as a cough or allergies, or when used topically, which does not affect blood sugar levels.
If opting for honey over sugar, choose dark, raw varieties, which contain more nutrients, enzymes, and antioxidants.
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that women consume no more than 100 calories a day from sugar (approximately 6 teaspoons) and men have no more than 150 calories per day (9 teaspoons).
It is important to note these amounts take into account sugars already added to processed and pre-packaged foods, as well as all types of sugars, including honey and syrups.
Tips for cutting down on sugar and honey intake include:
- Cut portions in half: Use a half spoon of honey or sugar in drinks and on cereals instead of a full spoon.
- Reduce sugar in baking by one-third: This reduces intake without having a big impact on flavor or texture.
- Use extracts or sweet spices: Extracts such as almond or vanilla can provide a sweet flavor to smoothies or baked goods without increasing sugar intake. Ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg are examples of sweet spices that can add sweetness without calories.
- Substitute unsweetened applesauce or mashed banana: These natural fruit purees can be substituted for sugar in equal amounts in baking and other recipes.
- Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit: Fresh berries, bananas, mango, and other fruits can satisfy a sweet tooth without the need to turn to sugar. Fruit canned in water is also a good choice. Avoid fruit canned in syrup.
Alternative sweeteners are not recommended to reduce sugar intake. These are known as non-nutritive sweeteners.
Examples include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Though the FDA reports these sweeteners are safe to use, recent research reveals they can:
- increase sugar cravings
- cause disruption to gut bacteria
- indirectly affect insulin sensitivity