Is Honey Healthier Than Sugar?

Is Honey Healthier Than Sugar?

We all love a little sweetness in our lives from time to time. Whether it be mixed into our morning coffee or in the form of a baked delectable treat, sweet things make us happy.

Sugar and honey are two of the most widely used sweeteners around and consumed aplenty by modern folks. But, there’s been a few claims and proclamations of sorts lately regarding just how much “healthier” honey is for us compared to sugar.

Related - 5 Benefits of Local Honey

But, is any of this true, or is it more naturopath mumbo-jumbo?

Let’s begin our analysis with an open, honest discussion about the differences between honey and sugar as well as any potential benefits or drawbacks of each.

With that said…

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What is Honey?

Obtained from the regurgitation and water evaporating mechanisms of bees digesting plant nectar, honey is an all natural liquid that’s been used for centuries as both a sweetener and medicine.

In other words, honey is a sweetener and plant medicine made from bee vomit. Technically speaking, the honey-generating stomach of the bee is separate from its food-digesting one, but still...honey is the end-result of bee regurgitation.

While your favorite grocery store honey bear typically contains honey with a golden amber color, the sweet elixir actually can be found in a variety of colors spanning from light yellow to dark brown.

Does color matter?

Some research has noted that darker colored honey has more antioxidants than light honey. [4]

In terms of nutrient content, honey is mostly sugar, with some research showing it to be about 82% sugar. [2] As such, any kind of honey, regardless of how gluten-free, sustainably sourced, organically certified, and GMO-free it may be, can spike blood sugar levels.

About 38% of the sugar in honey is comprised of fructose (fruit sugar), about 32% is glucose, and the rest is made up of a melange of 20 other saccharides including the starchy fiber dextrin. [1,2]

Due to this mish-mash of different sugars, your body has to expend more energy to metabolize honey than monosaccharides like glucose. However, the actual sugar composition, and glycemic index (for what it’s worth), of honey actually depends on where it is grown as well as what other honey it is mixed with.

FYI, most of the honey you buy in the bears at the store is a blend, so it’s very possible one batch of honey you buy could vary a good bit in its sugar profile from the next one, not that any of this really matters in the grand scheme of your overall diet, but still, it’s worth mentioning.

Don’t Forget the Micros!

Moving beyond the sugary part of honey, one of the big upsides to it compared to other refined sweeteners, like table sugar, is its micronutrient profile.

Honey contains a bounty of trace elements in it, which come as a result of the bee hopping from one plant to another. Again, the region that the honey is from as well as the variety of plants each bee interacts with will make the micronutrient profile of each honey slightly different.

So, while one honey might be higher in certain minerals such as zinc, in might be lower in other ones such as selenium, and vice versa. Additionally, honey will also contain varying amounts of the following:

  • Amino acids
  • B Vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Minerals
  • Enzymes
  • Antioxidants
  • Antimicrobials

Here’s a table detailing some of the interesting compounds and phenols found in honey: [1]

And one last thing to mention is that honey is a natural preservative, meaning it doesn’t break down in nature. As such, there’s no need for your honey to contain preservatives or other additives, and if it does, chances are pretty good you’ve got some pretty shoddy quality honey.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the research-backed benefits attributed to honey.

Benefits of Honey

Improves Wound Healing

When applied topically, honey has been shown to improve healing of chronic wounds, ulcers, and burns.

What is it about honey that speeds the wound healing process?

Researchers have offered up two possibilities by which honey enhances recovery.[6,7] First, honey tempers the inflammatory response from going haywire, thereby suppressing the production and spread of inflammatory cells at the wound site. Second, honey triggers the production of proinflammatory cytokines, promoting “normal healing”, and it stimulates a rapid increase in fibroblasts and epithelial cells. [1]

May Reduce Coughing

Honey has long been used as a tonic for multiple ailments, including coughing and the common cold, and according to some research, there’s some merit to those old wives’ tales.

A study from 2007 noted that honey reduced cough frequency and severity compared to placebo, but was not significantly better than dextromethorphan (a common antitussive found in cough medicine), measured subjectively by parent survey. [8]

A subsequent review of the literature assessing the effectiveness of honey for coughing, noted that:

“Honey may be better than ‘no treatment’, diphenhydramine (a.k.a. Benadryl) and placebo for the symptomatic relief of cough, but it is not better than dextromethorphan.” [9]

In other words, honey is better than benadryl or nothing at all, but not better than other over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines.

Relieves Allergies

When you were a child, your parents and grandparents probably gave you a spoonful of honey every morning under the guise that it would help combat seasonal allergies.

But, does honey actually help reduce allergies or were your parents just loading you up with a bunch of bee vomit?

Truth be told, the data is mixed, and not that many studies have actually been carried out assessing the effectiveness of honey in regards to treating allergies. [10,11]

However, a 2011 study noted that people consuming birch pollen honey to combat the birch pollen allergy experienced a 60% reduction in symptoms, 70% fewer days with severe symptoms, and cut their antihistamine use in half. They also had double the amount of days sans symptoms compared to those who didn’t consume birch pollen honey. [10]

One plausible explanation for the use of honey to treat allergies could be that since local honey contains trace amounts of local pollen, exposing yourself to it may help desensitize your body to the effects of the given pollen when allergy season rolls around.

Bottom line, local honey might help combat allergies, but it’s not guaranteed.

Drawbacks of Honey

High in Calories

Honey contains 20-22 calories per teaspoon, meaning it contains about 60-66 calories per tablespoon. This makes honey more calorically dense than other sweeteners, including table sugar.

At the same time, honey also tends to be sweeter than other sweeteners due to its higher fructose content, meaning you can use less of it than you would other sweeteners that aren't as high in fructose.

It’s Mostly Sugar

Even though honey is “all natural” and rich in several minerals, enzymes, and other bioactive compounds, at its core, it’s still basically sugar. A nutrient-dense sugar, but still sugar.

That means overconsumption of honey, even the locally sourced, raw kind at your friendly neighborhood farmers market, can lead to blood sugar issues, weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and insulin resistance.

Not Safe for Infants

As great as honey may be for adults, it’s potentially toxic to children under the age of one. Honey contains spores that can cause infant botulism. These spores are harmless to older kids and adults, but can occasionally be life-threatening to infants.

Honey and Type 2 Diabetes

Due to the nutrient density of honey and it’s lower glycemic index compared to table sugar, it’s often suggested that it is a better sweetening agent, and potential antidiabetic agent, for those with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes than other natural sugar options.

And while there is compelling evidence for honey as an antidiabetic agent based on animal research, the human clinical trials haven’t clearly shown honey to be as beneficial as once thought. [12]

Remember, honey still has a high calorie and sugar content, so regardless of how healthy it may be, if you are struggling with blood sugar regulation issues and insulin resistance, it’s probably better to steer clear of added sugars as much as possible.

Now, let’s take a look a look at sugar and see what, if any, benefits it may have.

What is Sugar?

Derived from sugar beets and sugar cane, sugar, a.k.a. sucrose, is a disaccharide formed from a combination of glucose and fructose, two monosaccharides. Sugar has been consumed for centuries, with some records indicating Indians figured out how to crystallize sugar around the year 350 AD.

Until the 18th century, sugar was a luxury and something only the very rich members of society could afford. However, with the increased demand and the advancements in technology, sugar became much more accessible to the common bloke.

Fast forward to present day, and the average person consumes upwards of 53 pounds per year of the sweet stuff.

Is this a big deal?

Well, that’s a bit of hot button topic lately, as refined sugar as we know it today is about as micronutrient-void as a food can get. It’s heavily processed and stripped of many of the compounds that make honey a more appealing source of the sweet stuff.

There are other less-processed forms of sugar including turbinado, muscovado, brown, and raw sugar, but essentially these forms are all glucose and fructose. Brown sugar does have some molasses added to it, meaning it might contain some trace minerals, but it’s still mostly white sugar.

That being said, there are a few minor benefits to sugar…

Benefits of Sugar

It’s Cheap

This is both good and bad, honestly. Compared to a couple of centuries ago, sugar is exponentially easier and cheaper to come by. At the same time, due to its low cost, high demand, hyper palatability, and easy accessibility, it’s used as a filler and additive in many foods these days.

Long Shelf-Life

Similar to honey, sugar has an incredibly long shelf life, adding yet another reason why sugar is included in so many processed foods these days.

Low in Calories

Sugar contains around 15 calories per teaspoon or 45 calories per tablespoon. This is less than honey, which contains about 60-66 calories per tablespoon.

However, due to the fact that sugar isn’t as sweet as honey, you usually need to use more of it to accomplish the same sweetening effects as you would get from a lesser amount of honey. So, the minor calorie savings are neutralized more or less.

Drawbacks of Sugar

Increased Risk of Chronic Disease

Numerous studies have been published over the past two decades noting a close link between excessive sugar consumption and an increased risk of chronic diseases including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Poor Cholesterol levels
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

Cavities

Cavities are known to manifest more prevalently in those who consumed lots of sugar. Due to this, most chewing gums are sugar-free and advertised to help “combat dental caries.”

Higher Glycemic Index Than Honey

When compared to honey, sugar spikes blood sugar levels more than honey, which is why most people tend to experience the sugar high and crash when consuming lots of refined sugar, but not so much when consuming honey. FYI, sugar has a glycemic index (GI) of 68, compared to a GI of 55 for honey.

The rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels leave you feeling groggy, lethargic, and possibly with a headache.

Harsher on the GI System Than Honey

Two more strikes against sugar compared to honey is that, as we noted above, sugar does not contain the beneficial enzymes that honey does. This makes it more difficult for your body to digest. [15]

Additionally, some correlational studies have noted that high sugar intakes are associated with poor gut health and diversity of gut bacteria, which may lead to other chronic diseases. [13]

Honey vs Sugar

Having gone through an analysis of each sweetener, how do they compare against each other. Well, first of all, it is possible to eat too much of either sugar or honey, and as a result, you can get just as fat and sick from one as the other.

Then again, you’re smart enough to realize that neither food should be the foundation of your muscle-building nutrition plan.

So, what about the fringe benefits of each? Does one sweetener edge the other out?

Honey does offer some health benefits absent from refined sugar. Granted, these benefits are in response to specific conditions (i.e. allergies) or used topically to treat skin conditions. Neither of these are in regards to blood sugar levels though, keep in mind.

In terms of micronutrient density, it’s a landslide in favor of honey, which contains a wide array of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, and antimicrobials that are completely absent from sugar.

As we’ve stated countless times throughout this article, neither sugar nor honey should make up a considerable portion of your daily calories, but if push came to shove and you had to choose which sweetener to use...

Go honey.

And if you really want to up the ante, choose the really dark colored honey which is highest in the beneficial compounds we detailed above.

At the end of the day, honey’s micronutrient density, reduced glycemic load, and higher sweetness make it a better choice when looking to enhance the flavor of something yet still keep nutrition at a premium. That’s why the new MTS Nutrition Outright bars use honey as the preferred sweetener over sugar.

Click here to order your Outright Bars today and see what all the rage is!

References

1) Alvarez-Suarez, J., Gasparrini, M., Forbes-Hernández, T., Mazzoni, L., & Giampieri, F. (2014). The Composition and Biological Activity of Honey: A Focus on Manuka Honey. Foods, 3(3), 420–432. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods3030420

2) Jonathan W. White Jr. (1957) The Composition of Honey, Bee World, 38:3, 57-66, DOI: 10.1080/0005772X.1957.11094976

3) Marc Ohmenhäuser, Yulia B. Monakhova, Thomas Kuballa, and Dirk W. Lachenmeier, “Qualitative and Quantitative Control of Honeys Using NMR Spectroscopy and Chemometrics,” ISRN Analytical Chemistry, vol. 2013, Article ID 825318, 9 pages, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/825318.

4) S Frankel, G E Robinson & M R Berenbaum (1998) Antioxidant capacity and correlated characteristics of 14 unifloral honeys, Journal of Apicultural Research, 37:1, 27-31, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.1998.11100951

5) Al-Waili N, Salom K, Al-Ghamdi AA. Honey for Wound Healing, Ulcers, and Burns; Data Supporting Its Use in Clinical Practice. The Scientific World Journal. 2011;11:766-787. doi:10.1100/tsw.2011.78.

6) Visavadia, B.G.; Honeysett, J.; Danford, M.H. Manuka honey dressing: An effective treatment for chronic wound infections. Br. J. Oral Maxillofac. Surg. 2008, 46, 55–56.

7) Tonks, A.; Cooper, R.A.; Price, A.J.; Molan, P.C.; Jones, K.P. Stimulation of TNF-alpha release in monocytes by honey. Cytokine 2001, 14, 240–242.

8) Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM. Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(12):1140–1146. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.12.1140

9) Barker SJ. Honey for acute cough in children. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2016;21(4):199-200.

10) Saarinen, K., Jantunen, J., & Haahtela, T. (2011). Birch Pollen Honey for Birch Pollen Allergy – A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, 155(2), 160–166. Retrieved from https://www.karger.com/DOI/10.1159/000319821

11) Rajan, T. V, Tennen, H., Lindquist, R. L., Cohen, L., & Clive, J. (2002). Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology : Official Publication of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, 88(2), 198–203. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61996-5

12) Erejuwa OO, Sulaiman SA, Wahab MSA. Honey - A Novel Antidiabetic Agent. International Journal of Biological Sciences. 2012;8(6):913-934. doi:10.7150/ijbs.3697.

13) Singh RK, Chang H-W, Yan D, et al. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2017;15:73. doi:10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y.

14) Susan K Raatz, LuAnn K Johnson, Matthew J Picklo; Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 145, Issue 10, 1 October 2015, Pages 2265–2272, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.115.218016

15) Kappico, J., Suzuki, A., & Hongu, N. (2012). Is Honey the Same as Sugar? University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Publication, (September), 4. Retrieved from https://cals.arizona.edu/backyards/sites/cals.arizona.edu.backyards/files/b13fall_pp11-13.pdf

16) Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R., & Gallmann, P. (2008). Honey for nutrition and health: a review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 27(6), 677–689.

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