Is honey really healthier than refined sugar?
Over decades, there has been an ongoing narrative around sugar, making it out to seem like the enemy. I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “I’m cutting out sugar” or “I’m going on a sugar detox.” These individuals often opt for ‘natural sources of sugar’, such as honey, but is honey healthier than refined sugars? Today, we will compare the nutritional content of honey and refined sugar to come to the bottom of this theory. Honey is healthier than refined sugar. Myth or a Fact? Let's dive deeper into their chemistry.
What's the difference between the sugar found in honey and refined sugar?
When comparing the chemical structures of table sugar and honey, there are no significant differences. Both table sugar and honey are made up of the carbohydrate components (aka monosaccharides) glucose and fructose. While table sugar is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose, honey contains a higher proportion of fructose in relation to glucose. Honey is made up of 40% fructose and 30% glucose, while the remaining 30% accounts for water, minerals and pollen. Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars, which explains why honey has a stronger sweetness for a smaller portion.
It is also important to note that in table sugar, the glucose and fructose molecules are found bound together, while in honey, some monosaccharides are free. Whether the sugar we consume comes from honey or table sugar, our bodies cannot distinguish whether it is from a natural or artificial source. For this reason, it will be metabolized the same way in the body.
But doesnt honey contain more nutrients than refined sugar?
Some people may argue that honey is more nutrient dense compared to table sugar. This may be true but when considering proportionality, these differences are minimal. Honey and refined sugars have very similar nutrient profiles. As shown in table 1.1, even though honey does contain higher amounts of carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron, and potassium, these amounts become insignificant when looking at the grand scheme of someone’s daily diet. Considering the small portion of honey that is consumed on a daily basis, these nutritional differences can be seen as negligible.
Table 1.1 Nutrient analysis for 100 kcals of refined white sugar and honey.
(about 1.5 tbsp of honey and 2 tbsp of white sugar)
What effects do these sugars have on our body?
When discussing sugars, it's also important to mention the effects they have on our blood glucose levels. The glycemic index is often used to measure a food product’s ability to raise blood glucose. It is favourable that the foods we consume have a lower GI, since it promotes the slow absorption of the carbohydrates and does not cause a drastic rise in blood glucose levels. To name a few benefits, studies have shown that a low glycemic index diet helps with blood glucose control, reduces risks of diabetes, and reduces inflammation. With regards to GI, Honey has a slightly lower glycemic index (58) in comparison to table sugar (60).
So, is honey really healthier than refined sugar?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends ‘limit the consumption of free sugars to less than 10% of energy intake’. As defined by WHO, free sugars include those found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. Considering that both honey and refined sugars have the same daily recommended intake values, chemical structures, and very similar nutrient compositions, the replacement of honey for refined sugar does not necessarily imply that it is ‘healthier’. When consumed in moderation, you can enjoy all the joys that sweets have to offer while being kind to your body.
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Healthy diet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet
Philippou, E. (Ed.). (2017). The glycemic index : applications in practice. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis.
Whitney, E. N., & Rolfes, S. R. (2019). Understanding nutrition (Fifteenth edition, student). Cengage Learning. https://www.r2library.com/Resource/Title/1337392693.