Honey vs. Sugar: Which Sweetener Should I Use?
Honey vs. sugar
When you brew a cup of hot tea, do you reach for honey or sugar? Although both may add sweetness to your drink, their nutritional benefits vary.
Honey and sugar are both carbohydrates composed primarily of glucose and fructose. They’re used as ingredients in many prepackaged foods and recipes. Both can result in weight gain if overused.
Honey’s reputation for being healthier may have some basis, but honey isn’t considered a health food. So which is healthier? Here’s what you need to know.
Bees use the nectar they collect from flowers to create honey. This thick substance is typically consumed in liquid form and can range in color from pale yellow to dark brown.
Honey is composed primarily of water and two sugars: fructose and glucose. It also contains trace amounts of:
- amino acids
- B vitamins
- vitamin C
Many of the antioxidants found in honey are classified as flavonoids. Flavonoids have anti-inflammatory properties, which may provide some health benefits.
The exact nutritional makeup of honey varies based on its origin. There are more than 300 varieties of honey, including:
- golden blossom
Each variety of honey has a distinct color and flavor. For example, buckwheat honey is a popular dark honey known for its malty taste. Fireweed honey is a light variety that’s nearly translucent in color and has a tea-like flavor.
No matter which type you prefer, any kind of honey can spike blood sugar levels.
What are the benefits of honey?
- You can use a smaller amount of honey without sacrificing sweetness.
- It contains traces of vitamins and minerals.
- Raw honey may help alleviate your allergies.
Honey is higher in fructose than glucose. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, so you may be able to use a smaller amount of honey in your food or drink without sacrificing sweetness. The trace amounts of vitamins and minerals found in honey may also have added health benefits.
Raw, unpasteurized honey contains trace amounts of local pollen, which may help desensitize allergic reactions.
Honey also provides additional health benefits:
- It may help kill off germs because it has antimicrobial properties.
- When used as a salve in gel form, it may help promote healing in wounds and minor burns.
- It may also help ease coughing and sore throats.
Overall, honey goes through less processing than sugar does. It requires pasteurization only to become table ready. Honey can also be eaten raw.
Are there downsides to honey?
- Honey is high in calories.
- It’s primarily made up of sugar.
- It may not be safe for infants younger than a year.
At around 22 calories per teaspoon, honey is high in calories. It consists primarily of sugar and should be used sparingly. This is especially true if you have health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease, or obesity.
Honey may be dangerous for infants younger than a year. This is because it contains bacterial spores that can cause botulism in infants.
Additionally, honey’s stickiness may make it a messy choice for households with small children.
Sugar is made up of a combination of glucose and fructose, which bond together to form sucrose. It has no added vitamins or nutrients.
A calorie-dense carbohydrate, sugar is derived from sugar beet and sugar cane plants. It requires multistep processing before it becomes the refined, granulated table sugar that we use most often.
Of the many different types of sugar, white, brown, and raw sugar are the most commonly used.
Brown sugar is a combination of white sugar and molasses, and may have some trace nutrients. It’s used primarily in baking.
Raw sugar is a less-refined version of white sugar. It’s light brown in color and contains larger crystals. Raw sugar doesn’t vary nutritionally from white sugar.
Other types of sugar include powdered, turbinado, and muscovado sugar.
What are the benefits of sugar?
- Sugar is a naturally occurring substance.
- It’s low in calories.
- It has a long shelf life.
As a carbohydrate, sugar is a potential source of fast fuel. Your brain needs 130 grams of carbohydrate daily to function. This naturally occurring substance is also low in calories, with a teaspoon containing about 16 calories.
White sugar has a long shelf life and is easy to use in baking and cooking. Sugar is typically low cost and easily accessible.
Are there downsides to sugar?
- Sugar can increase your risk of certain diseases.
- It can cause weight gain.
- It may be harder to digest than honey.
Eating too much sugar can increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Sugar is a common ingredient in many processed foods, so you may eat more of it than you realize. This can lead to weight gain and obesity.
People with diabetes should watch their sugar consumption, as it can cause blood sugar to spike.
If consumed in quantities greater than your body needs, sugar can provide a quick burst of fuel followed by a sharp drop in energy. Your body may find sugar harder to digest than honey, because it doesn’t contain enzymes.
Tips for cutting down on sweeteners
Many people reach for sugar and honey out of habit. We get used to the taste in our beverages and food, and miss that jolt of sweet when we forgo them. Rather than eliminating either one completely, it may help to reduce your intake.
Try using half a teaspoon of honey in tea or half a packet of sugar in coffee, instead of a full serving. You can try the same trick with breakfast cereal and yogurt. If you use sugar when baking, reducing the amount by one-third may have less impact on taste than you might expect.
The bottom line
These two widely used sweeteners have very different tastes and textures. You may find that you enjoy the molasses taste and moisture of brown sugar for baking, yet prefer the gentleness of honey on your morning toast. Experimenting with each while keeping an eye on the amount you use can help you decide which is best for you.
Honey may have a better rep, but both honey and sugar can have negative effects on your health when used in excess. If you have diabetes or heart disease, or you’re concerned about managing your weight, speak with your doctor and dietitian about your dietary needs. They can work with you to develop the best nutritional plan for you.
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Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD — Written by Corey Whelan