Is Honey Better Than Sugar?

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What’s the difference between honey and sugar?

Honey is the rich sugar nectar that is made by bees and collected from hives for commercial product consumption. Its composition consists of around 31% glucose, 38% fructose, 7% maltose and 17% water. There are also minor amounts of other simple carbs, pollen, and minerals in honey. Both sugar and honey are calorie and carbohydrate-dense sweeteners although honey is sweeter than sugar and has more calories per gram than sugar does.1

Sugar content in honey vs. sugar

Honey contains around 75% monosaccharides, along with 10 to 15% disaccharides and trace quantities of other sugars. The sugars in honey are what give it properties like; 

  • Energy value (calories)
  • Viscosity (thickness) 
  • Granulation (texture)1

Calories in honey vs. sugar

Calories per tablespoon (tbsp)
Honey64
Sugar 46

While a tablespoon of honey has more calories than a tablespoon of sugar, honey has a sweeter flavour than sugar, so less of it is needed in one serving. This means that you can potentially save on calories depending on how much sugar you like to add to your tea, coffee or baking recipe.

Glycemic Index of honey vs. sugar

Foods having a high glycemic index (GI), rating of 70 or above, usually cause your blood sugar to rise quickly and then drop back down swiftly in a short amount of time. Foods with moderate ratings (between 55 and 69) will still cause blood sugar spikes, but probably not to the same extent as foods with higher rankings. Your diet should ideally consist of a low GI rating (below 55) as these kinds of foods keep your blood sugar stable. 

On the GI scale, pure honey usually has a score of 58 but some varieties are even lower depending on how much fructose sugar it contains. Honeys that, for example, contain between 35-45% fructose have a GI rating that falls between between 35 and 48. White table sugar (also called sucrose) has a higher glycemic index, which ranges from 58 to 65. 

Sugar has a higher GI than honey, which means that it quickly raises blood sugar levels. This is because it contains a greater concentration of fructose and does not include any trace minerals.

Similarities and differences

Both honey and sugar are both carbohydrates composed of two forms of sugar known as fructose and glucose. Fructose and glucose are easily metabolised by the body and intake can lead to rapid increases in blood sugar levels. 

However, sugar and honey have different amounts of glucose and fructose. Sugar is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose, whereas honey has 40% fructose and 30% glucose.

Benefits of honey

Honey may be better for your blood sugar levels than regular sugar as while honey, like other forms of sugar, can cause an increase in your blood sugar level, the antioxidants that honey contains have a protective function against type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Honey also has health benefits to the heart as it can help prevent heart disease.

Honey (particularly manuka honey) also has topical applications when applied to burns and wounds as it can help to facilitate the healing process. This is a known benefit as old as ancient Egypt, and is still a common thing to do, however if you have a serious burn you should receive urgent medical treatment. Psoriasis and herpes lesions may also be treated with honey application.

While honey is mostly just sugar (it has no fat and very little protein and fibre) it contains a number of minerals and vitamins, but most people don't consume honey in large quantities so it is not a main source of dietary nutrients.2 

Benefits of sugar

Sugars are important sources of energy, with glucose being the most important for the body. To keep working, the brain needs about 130 grams of sugar (glucose) every day. Glucose is found in many foods, such as fruit, vegetables, honey, and milk. The body breaks down and uses the various sugars in a variety of different ways, but it does not differentiate between sugars that are produced.

Disadvantages and risks of honey

Honey contains dormant bacteria known as Clostridium botulinum and is a possible risk associated with eating honey. The bacteria causes the condition called Botulism which is a particularly serious cause of food poisoning in babies. Children younger than 12 months may not have a strong enough immune system or enough stomach acid to fight off this type of bacterial spore so when a young child eats the honey with the bacteria, the spores become active and cause food poisoning called botulism. Even though the risk is low, honey shouldn't be given to children under the age of 1 year old in order to avoid giving them food poisoning.2

Disadvantages and risks of sugar

The disadvantages and risks of consuming sugar include:3 

  • Obesity - the number of obese people around the world is going up, and there is evidence that added sugar (fructose in sugary drinks) makes you feel hungrier and less sensitive to an important hormone that controls hunger and tells your body to stop eating (hence you end up eating more) 
  • Increased risk of heart disease - high-sugar diets have been linked to a higher risk of many diseases, including heart disease, which is the leading cause of death around the world
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes - diabetes causes many preventable deaths and creates a shorter life expectancy for many sufferers due to an associated excessive sugar consumption
  • Increased risk of cancer - eating too much sugar can predispose you to some types of cancer that are associated with obesity, bodily inflammation and insulin resistance (all by-products of a high sugar intake and well-acknowledged comorbidities of cancer)
  • Depression - diet plays a role in balancing your mood, as where a balanced diet can help improve your mood, eating a lot of processed foods containing added sugar can lead to disruptive changes in emotions and mood. 
  • Accelerated cell ageing - eating a lot of sugar speeds up the shortening of cell structures called telomeres, which increases cellular aging (for example, skin cells)
  • Fatty liver disease - high fructose sugar intake has always been linked to a higher risk of this condition 
  • Poor dental health - eating sugar (particularly alongside poor dental hygiene) can cause plaque build-up, tooth rot and gum disease 
  • Increased the risk of kidney disease
  • Accelerated decline of brain function
  • Increased the risk of gout 

Which is healthier?

Both sugar and honey can be eaten in small quantities without many negative health consequences. Although honey has a few health benefits, the risks associated with consuming too much of any substance outweighs any potential benefits.

Summary

Both refined sugar and honey are fine for your health in moderation. It may be healthier to consume honey over sugar, but both can have negative effects on your health if eaten in excess. If you are having trouble managing your weight or have any other health conditions it is best to consult with your doctor and they can advise you on a nutritional plan to follow that best suits your individual needs. 

References

  1. da Silva PM, Gauche C, Gonzaga LV, Costa ACO, Fett R. Honey: Chemical composition, stability and authenticity. Food Chemistry [Internet]. 2016 Apr 1 [cited 2023 Aug 23];196:309–23. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814615013941
  2. Samarghandian S, Farkhondeh T, Samini F. Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research. Pharmacognosy research [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2022 Nov 11];9(2):121–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5424551/
  3. White JR. Sugar. Clinical Diabetes : A Publication of the American Diabetes Association [Internet]. 2018 Jan 1 [cited 2022 Nov 11];36(1):74–6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5775006/ 

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Hana Hailu

Master's degree, Brain Science, University of Glasgow

Hana Hailu is an accomplished academic with a strong foundation in the field of brain science and pharmacology. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Brain Science from the prestigious University of Glasgow (2021-2022). Prior to this, Hana earned her Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) in Applied Pharmacology from Queen Margaret University, where she studied from September 2017 to September 2021. With her deep knowledge and dedication, Hana is poised to make significant contributions to the world of neuroscience and pharmacology.

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