- Honey is generally considered “healthier” than sugar because it contains beneficial compounds like vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics.
- Honey is also lower on the glycemic index, which can be a big benefit for those looking to balance their blood sugar without sacrificing sweeteners completely.
If you’re trying to make healthier decisions, you might wonder whether honey or sugar is the better option. Honey and sugar have similarities, like both containing natural sugar and being used to sweeten foods, and differences, like honey having a higher water content and offering actual health benefits.
So which one should you ultimately choose? Let’s dive into the details.
What Is Honey?
Honey is a sweet substance produced by honeybees. It’s been used by humans as food and medicine for thousands of years.
How Is Honey Made?
Honeybees gather flower nectar and process it using a special enzyme in their digestive systems. The nectar is placed in honeycombs, and worker bees flap their wings to create a warm breeze that dries and cures it, turning it into honey.
The bees cap and store it in the honeycomb once it has reached the right consistency. This natural dehydration process is necessary to keep the honey shelf stable.
Finally, a beekeeper harvests and packages the honey, and it makes its way to your pantry.
What’s in Honey?
Honey is a carbohydrate that contains at least 181 different substances. Its main components are:
Sugars make up 82.5 percent of honey and include:
Water makes up 17 percent of honey, which is a relatively low water content. As stated above, this lower water content allows for it to have a long shelf life.
Proteins, Vitamins, Minerals
These compounds are 0.5 percent of honey and can include:
Amino acids: Proline, phenylalanine, tyrosine, glutamic acid, isoleucine, and leucine
Enzymes: Diastase, glucose oxidase, and invertase
Essential minerals: Potassium, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, sodium, zinc, and selenium
- Vitamins, antioxidants, and flavonoids (trace amounts): Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), and pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
As you can see, honey has many more beneficial compounds than sugar, making it more popular in the healthy-eating community. It also contains essential vitamins, minerals, and plenty of compounds that support overall wellness.
Note that the exact contents and makeup of each type of honey can vary based on various factors, including location, the bees’ diet, weather, and individual beekeeping practices.
For example, Manuka honey contains unique beneficial compounds that other honey does not, including leptosperin and methylglyoxal (MGO), an organic, antibacterial compound from the nectar of the Manuka tea tree.
Types of Honey
Regular honey: This is the common type of honey you’ll find at the grocery store. It’s often pasteurized to preserve its color and texture and prevent crystallization. However, because of the pasteurization process, regular honey lacks the beneficial compounds you’ll find in raw honey.
Raw honey: This is honey that hasn’t been pasteurized and is offered in its raw form — right out of the beehive. Raw honey retains all its beneficial compounds, though it’s less commonly available than regular honey. If you keep raw honey, keep in mind that it may crystallize quicker than store-bought honey and may require special storage considerations.
- Manuka honey: Manuka honey is a special type of raw honey from New Zealand. Manuka honey is unique because it’s made by bees that forage flowers from the Manuka tree, also called the New Zealand tea tree. As we mentioned, raw manuka honey contains MGO, leptosperin, and unique prebiotics.
What Is Sugar?
Like honey, sugar is a commonly utilized sweetener. It’s used in foods, beverages, and even in beauty products.
How Is Sugar Made?
Sugar juice is extracted from sugar cane stalks or sugar beets. It is boiled until it crystallizes, and the crystals are separated from the liquid. At this point, the sugar is typically refined to its final form, whether granulated, powdered, brown, or some other type of sugar.
What’s in Sugar?
Sugar is made of two parts: 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. The fructose and glucose bond together to create disaccharide sucrose, also known as sugar. Unlike honey, sugar doesn’t have any additional nutrients.
Types of Sugar
Raw sugar: sugar in its raw form without being refined. Raw sugar is popular in coffee shops and is also used in home baking.
Granulated sugar: your typical white, granulated table sugar.
Cane sugar: minimally processed sugar made primarily from sugar cane rather than sugar beets.
Powdered or confectioners sugar: Fine powder often used to make icings and frostings for baked goods.
Light brown sugar: Granulated like white sugar but with a small amount of molasses added.
- Dark brown sugar: Sugar with a higher molasses content added for a deeper flavor.
Honey vs. Sugar: Main Differences
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of honey and sugar, let’s compare them and discuss the pros and cons.
Honey Is Lower on the Glycemic Index
The glycemic index rates foods based on how much and how quickly they increase your blood sugar levels. Foods higher on the glycemic index scale tend to quickly spike your blood glucose levels, while lower ones release glucose slower and steadier. Foods lower on the glycemic index can help maintain healthy, balanced blood sugar.
High glycemic index foods often contain added sugars. Cereals, white bread, and most treats you’d use to satisfy your sweet tooth typically fall into the high glycemic index category. Overeating these foods is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Sugar, with its higher concentration of glucose and fructose, has a glycemic index rating of 65. The effect of sugar on blood sugar levels is one reason to reduce sugar consumption. Meanwhile, honey is lower on the glycemic index, with a rating of 61.
Keep in mind that both sugar and honey’s glycemic index rating can vary slightly from one product to the next. Many nutritional experts point to honey’s lower glycemic index as a good reason to substitute it for sugar.
It is possible to choose a sweetener that you can also feel good about. At Manukora, we like to think of our raw honey as a healthy indulgence due to its beneficial compounds, unbeatable flavor profile, and uniquely satisfying creamy texture.
Honey Offers Additional Nutrients Beyond Fructose and Glucose
Sugar does not contain the proteins, minerals, vitamins, and beneficial compounds naturally occurring in raw honey. That’s because sugar is a simple compound made up of only fructose and glucose.
Raw honey can include essential minerals and vitamins like potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6. It can also support a healthy immune response and contains prebiotics that can support gut health.
Honey Is Sweeter, Yet Lower in Sugar and Calories
Did you know that honey is around 25 percent sweeter than sugar? That means you can use less of it to get the same sweetening effect. Additionally, honey contains less sugar and calories per gram than table sugar.
Let’s compare their sugar and calorie levels by weight, using 100 g servings:
- Sugar: 100 g sugar, 387 calories
- Honey: 82.4 g sugar, 304 calories
Not only is honey sweeter, but it also has less sugar and calories per gram. That’s mainly because of its higher water content.
However, if you look at a tablespoon serving of honey versus sugar, the picture looks a bit different:
- Sugar (1 tbsp): 12 g sugar, 46.5 calories
Honey (1 tbsp): 17 g sugar, 64 calories
Because of honey’s liquid form and higher water content, it fills the entire spoon and weighs more than a tablespoon of sugar. A tablespoon of honey weighs around 21 g, while a tablespoon of sugar weighs just 12.5 g. This is why comparing the two by weight rather than serving size is more helpful.
Thanks to its lower glycemic index rating and beneficial compounds, honey comes out on top as being slightly “healthier” than sugar.
That’s why we recommend savoring a small spoonful of rich, creamy Manuka honey as a pick-me-up packed with beneficial compounds. (Check out our list of top five foods to eat with Manuka here!)
Honey and sugar are both common, naturally occurring sweeteners.
Thanks to honey’s lower glycemic index rating and extra proteins, vitamins, and minerals, it has additional health benefits you won’t find in sugar. Plus, honey is sweeter yet higher in water content, making it lower in calories and sugar per gram compared to table sugar.
So, is honey healthier? Well, the definition of healthy is a bit tricky, but we can say that honey, especially raw Manuka honey, has a whole lot more to offer than table sugar. We think it’s safe to say that raw Manuka makes for a worthy natural sweetener that brings benefits to the table that table sugar just can’t!
Looking for more info on all things honey? Explore the Manukora blog here.
Looking to learn more about a particularly wellness-supportive variety of raw honey that you can only get from New Zealand? Learn more about Manuka honey here.
Antibacterial Potency of Honey | PMC
Phenolic Compounds in Honey and Their Associated Health Benefits: A Review | PMC
Glycemic index for 60+ foods | Harvard Health
Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research | PMC