Honey vs. Sugar
While honey and refined sugar are both sources of sugar and provide sweetness, honey is often touted as being the healthier choice with more nutritional value, but is it true? Here is a complete breakdown of honey vs. sugar and an answer to whether honey is truly the healthier option or not.
What’s the difference between honey and sugar?
Honey and sugar are both sources of carbohydrates, specifically sugar from simple carbohydrates. Although both honey and sugar contain sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates, they differ in their overall composition.
Sugar, from sugarcane or sugar beets, is made up of monosaccharides; 50% fructose and 50% glucose, which bond together to create the disaccharide sucrose, also known as sugar.
Honey is the rich sugar nectar collected by bees and is composed of roughly 38% fructose, 31% glucose, 17% water, and 7% maltose, in addition to small amounts of other simple carbohydrates, pollen, and nutrients. (1)
Sugar Content in Honey vs. Sugar
Gram per gram, table sugar contains slightly more calories than honey. Per 100 grams, table sugar provides 100 grams of sugar, while honey provides 82.4 grams of sugar. This difference is due in large part to the fact that sugar is 100% sucrose, while honey has higher water content. (2)(3)
Calories in Honey vs. Sugar
Given table sugar contains more sugar per serving, it also contains more calories per serving compared to honey. Per 100 grams, table sugar provides 387 calories, while honey provides 304 calories. However, since honey is a liquid when measured by volume, it contains slightly more calories than sugar: one tablespoon of honey contains 63.8 calories, while one tablespoon of sugar contains 46.5 calories. (2)(3)
Glycemic Index of Honey vs. Sugar
The glycemic index, or GI, of a food indicates how quickly or slowly it will raise blood sugar levels once consumed; the higher a food ranks on the GI scale the more rapidly it will increase blood sugar levels. Sugar ranks higher on the glycemic index scale than honey, meaning it will raise blood sugar levels more quickly. This is due to the higher concentration of fructose in sugar. Sugar ranks at 65 on the glycemic index scale, while the exact glycemic ranking of honey varies because the composition of honey can vary, however, on average honey ranks at 61. Overall, the difference is minimal.
Benefits of Honey
Although not all honey is created equal, raw honey does contain several health benefits.
Source in Antioxidants
Research has shown that some of the main health benefits of honey are from its content of antioxidants. (4) Natural raw honey contains a range of compounds that act as antioxidants including phytochemicals, flavonoids, and ascorbic acid. These compounds, specifically flavonoids, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and other health benefits. (5)
Source of Vitamins and Minerals
In addition to its antioxidant properties, honey is a natural source of vitamins and minerals. The exact breakdown in nutritional content will vary from one honey to the next, as bees pollinate in different regions on different plants, however, natural honey has been shown to contain small amounts of niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc, as well as trace amounts of many other nutrients. (5)
Antibacterial, Antifungal, and Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Some are the most interesting health benefits of honey include its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Research has shown that raw, unpasteurized honey can kill unwanted bacteria and fungus, as it contains hydrogen peroxide, a natural antiseptic, which can kill harmful bacteria and fungi. Certain forms of honey have been shown to support wound healing, minor burns, and skin irritations such as psoriasis, as well as ease a common cough or cold. (6) Moreover, raw, unpasteurized honey contains trace amounts of local pollen, which some experts claim may help to desensitize seasonal allergic reactions, although scientific research is still inconclusive at this time.
Sweeter than Sugar, So it May Require Less
Compared to sugar, honey is higher in fructose than glucose and, since fructose tends to have a sweeter taste, you can use smaller amounts of honey to satiate a sweet tooth.
Benefits of Sugar
Surprisingly, there are some benefits to sugar.
Technically speaking, sugar is a naturally occurring substance. Although much of the table sugar processed today is made from sugar beets, many of which are genetically modified, sugar is traditionally made of sugarcane with is a natural, fiber-rich plant.
Per volume serving, sugar contains slightly fewer calories. Therefore, when measuring sweeteners for a recipe, 1 cup of sugar will provide fewer calories than 1 cup of honey; 774 calories per cup vs. 1,031 calories per cup. (2)(3)
Inexpensive and Versatile
Compared to honey, sugar, especially refined white sugar, is far less expensive and is commonly used in numerous recipes around the world.
It is important to note that there are many different types of sugar and, although the nutritional differences are minimal, there is some variation between white sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, and other forms of sugar.
Concerns with Honey
Aside from rare allergies in some individuals, there are a few health risks related to honey. Although it does contain slightly more calories per serving the difference is minimal.
Concerns with Sugar
Compared to honey, sugar has been linked to more health concerns. A high consumption of calories from refined and added sugar has been linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and an increased risk of illness. (9)
Which is Healthier?
From a calorie and sugar content perspective, the differences between sugar and honey are minimal, however, overall, honey contains slightly more health benefits than table sugar from its potential antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Honey also contains trace amounts of B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium, and manganese. However, it would require such large volumes of honey, and therefore sugar, to obtain any significant amount of these trace minerals that it would likely negate the added benefits.
The Bottom Line
While honey does provide more nutritional value than table sugar, when consumed in excess, both honey and sugar can have negative effects on metabolic health. If you are reaching for honey, it is best to reach for local and raw honey to benefit from its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, and health benefits.