While honey and white 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 beet, is made up of monosaccharides; 50% fructose and 50% glucose, which bond together to create the disaccharide sucrose, also known as white 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, amino acids, enzymes, and nutrients (1).
Both sugar and honey come in many different forms. Granulated sugar comes in white, light brown, dark brown, caster, confectioner, muscovado, and demerara sugar, while honey varies in color, texture, and by plant, including clover, wildflower, and buckwheat honey.
Honey vs. Sugar Nutrition
|Serving Size||per 100 grams||per 100 grams||per 1 tbsp.||per 1 tbsp.|
|Calories||387 calories||304 calories||48 calories||64 calories|
|Carbohydrates||100 grams||82.4 grams||12.5 grams||17.3 grams|
|Sugar||99.8 grams||82.1 grams||12.5 grams||17.2 grams|
|Fiber||0.0 grams||0.2 grams||0.0 grams||0.04 grams|
|Protein||0.0 grams||0.3 grams||0.0 grams||0.06 grams|
|Fat||0.0 grams||0.0 grams||0.0 grams||0.0 grams|
Gram per gram, table sugar contains slightly more calories than honey. Per 100 grams, white sugar provides 99.8 grams of sugar, while honey provides 82.1 grams of sugar. This difference is due in large part to the fact that sugar is 100% sucrose, while honey has a higher water content.
Given white sugar contains more sugar per gram, it also contains more calories per gram compared to honey. Per 100 grams, white 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 64 calories, while one tablespoon of white sugar contains 48 calories.
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. White 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 (4). While honey has a lower glycemic index, the difference is minimal.
Benefits of Honey
Although not all honey is created equal, raw honey does contain several added health benefits.
Source of Antioxidants
Research has shown that some of the main health benefits of raw honey are from its content of antioxidants (5). 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 (6).
Source of Vitamins and Minerals
In addition to its antioxidant properties, raw honey is a natural source of vitamins and minerals. The exact breakdown of micronutrient content will vary from one raw 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 trace nutrients (6).
Antibacterial, Antifungal, and Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Some are the most interesting benefits of raw honey include its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Research has shown that unpasteurized raw honey can kill unwanted bacteria and fungi, as it contains hydrogen peroxide, a natural antiseptic, which can kill harmful bacteria and fungi. Certain forms of raw honey have been shown to support wound healing, minor burns, and skin irritations such as psoriasis, as well as support the immune system to help ease a common acute cough, cold, or sore throats (7). Moreover, raw 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, So May Require Less
Compared to sugar, raw 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 regular 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, it is traditionally made of sugarcane which is a natural, fiber-rich plant.
While both regular honey and table sugar are considered empty calories, 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; as sugar provides 774 calories per cup and honey provides 1,030 calories per cup.
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.
Concerns with Honey
The primary health concern with honey is its safety for infants younger than 12 months, as honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism (10). Aside from this and rare allergies in some individuals, there are a few health risks related to raw honey. Although it does contain slightly more calories per serving than sugar, the difference is minimal.
Concerns with Sugar
Compared to honey, sugar has been linked to more health concerns. Excessive sugar intake and high consumption of calories from refined, added sugar have been linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and an increased risk of illness (11). However, it is important to consider that this may simply be a correlation, not a direct cause.
The consumption of sugar does not directly cause weight. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate that can be consumed in a healthy diet, however, it is important to understand that sugar is very calorie-dense, and excessive intake of sugar can contribute to excess calorie intake, which can lead to weight gain.
While sugar contains more nutrients and is associated with several health benefits, honey contains more calories per volume serving, therefore, it may not be the more optimal choice for weight loss. Both honey and sugar can support weight loss as long as a calorie deficit is created.
Honey has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, however, the health benefits of honey are largely dependent upon the quality of honey and the amount consumed. When consumed as added sugars in excess, high intakes of both honey and sugar have the potential to contribute to chronic inflammation.
Both sugar and honey have a very long shelf life. When properly stored, honey can remain edible for years, even decades, and sugar can last forever as long as it is kept away from moisture and heat.
Which is Healthier?
From a calorie and sugar content perspective, the differences between sugar and honey are minimal. Overall, raw honey contains slightly more health benefits than table sugar from its potential antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties which support the immune system.
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 raw honey, and therefore sugar, to obtain any significant amount of these trace minerals that it would likely negate the additional health benefits.
Whether you spread honey on your morning toast or make your coffee with a bit of sugar, both sweeteners can be included in a healthy diet.
The Bottom Line
While honey does provide more nutritional value than table sugar, when consumed in excess, both too much sugar and too much honey can have negative effects on overall health. If you are reaching for honey, it is best to reach for raw locally produced honey to benefit from its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, and health benefits.