Honey vs. Sugar (+ The Dangers of Refined Sugar)
For healthy people, honey can be considered a superfood, and the same cannot be said for sugar (exactly the opposite is true, in fact). There are a lot of claims made about honey, both good and bad, and some confusion around whether it is actually better than plain old white sugar, or if it is basically the same thing, nutritionally speaking.
In this article, we’ll clear up this confusion, and spell out the distinct differences between honey and white sugar. Remember that while honey is definitely the superior choice in terms of the effects it has on your metabolism (1), and for some people it can even provide nutritional benefits when used in moderation, it is still 80% sugar by weight, and should be used accordingly.
What is Honey?
Honey has historically been used by cultures across the globe for its nutritional and medicinal benefits. Some health circles view honey as unhealthy due to its high fructose content, but honey contains a myriad of nutrients and other health-promoting compounds that can give it a place in a nutrient-dense diet. While there are a lot of “healthy” sugar substitutes out there, honey is definitely one of the best. Honey contains the following (2):
- 82% sugar, 40% of which is fructose.
- Small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
- Some antioxidants.
- Depending on the type of honey, its fructose:glucose content can vary greatly, meaning certain types will have a higher glycemic index than others.
- 1 tbsp. contains 64 calories.
What Are the Health Benefits of Honey?
Before getting into table sugar (white sugar), let’s look at some of the key benefits provided by honey. Here’s a hint: the list of benefits from sugar is much shorter; in fact, it’s pretty much non-existent.
1. Honey is high in antioxidants
Good quality honey is actually quite high in antioxidants, which work to fight free radical damage. Free radicals have been linked to serious diseases such as cancer. Honey is particularly high in phenols, flavonoids and enzymes, all of which are critical for preventing the formation of degenerative diseases (3).
2. Honey is one of the best white sugar alternatives
Even though half of honey’s sugar content is fructose vs. glucose, it actually makes for a highly preferred sugar substitute for most people, including diabetics. Honey will raise blood sugar levels far less than white sugar (4), although it will still cause a spike, so should still be used in moderation by diabetics. Instead of using white sugar that contains no nutrient value whatsoever, honey also supports heart health by helping to lower LDL cholesterol (5).
3. Honey supports a healthy heart
Believe it or not, the antioxidants found in honey are known to support healthy blood pressure, which can put us at serious risk for heart disease if chronically high (6). High triglycerides are another risk factor for heart disease, and using honey instead of white sugar might help lower triglyceride levels by up to 11%, along with lowering LDL and raising HDL cholesterol levels (a key balance for heart health) (7).
4. Honey is a powerful wound healer
Honey is a potent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory agent, and has been widely used across cultures as a burn and wound healer. Studies have shown that honey is particularly effective in healing infections related to surgery and partial thickness burns (8). Medical grade honey is also commonly used by Naturopathic Doctors (and other professionals) to treat diabetic foot ulcers, eczema, psoriasis and herpes.
5. Honey can cure a cough in children
Instead of exposing children to many “conventional” cough medications that often contain potentially harmful chemicals and side effects, try honey next time your child has a cough.
One study concluded that honey is a more effective remedy than those commonly purchased in the drugstore (9), but it can’t be used on small children under the age of 1.
On the flip side, let’s look at some of the major dangers of a diet high in white sugar:
What is Refined Sugar?
Sugar in general is a naturally occurring, sweet carbohydrate that comes in many forms. Refined, white sugar (often referred to as “table sugar”) is specifically sucrose, which is broken down into fructose and glucose by the body. Sucrose is usually derived from beet or cane sugar, and put through a refining process that involves bleaching and crystallization (hence it’s clean, white end product). Due to the refining process, it contains no vitamins, minerals or other nutrients whatsoever.
The Dangers of Refined Sugar
1. Sugar is an anti-nutrient
The term “anti-nutrient” refers to a food or nutrient that offers no benefits to the body whatsoever, and ends up depleting our nutrient stores due to the fact that it uses up more nutrients to process than it provides. You can also think of this as an “empty calorie.” Sugar contains zero protein, essential fatty acids or minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients, etc. It offers no benefit to the consumer.
2. Fructose can harm the liver
Sugar is high in fructose (honey too, although less so), which goes directly to the liver after we eat it. Glucose, on the other hand, is a type of sugar that the body needs and utilizes more effectively, and is generally less damaging (although it should still be consumed in moderation). In his excellent documentary titled “Sugar, The Bitter Truth,” Dr. Robert Lustig explains that fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, which can cause serious problems if consumed in excess.
3. A diet high in refined sugar can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes
Insulin is the hormone that escorts glucose (blood sugar) into our cells, and sends our cells the message to burn glucose instead of fat. If your blood glucose levels are chronically high, this eventually can (and does) lead to serious conditions like metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes.
4. White sugar suppresses your immune system
Fascinatingly, Linus Pauling discovered in the 1970s that because vitamin C and white sugar have similar chemical structures, they actually compete with each other for space in our white blood cells. What this means is that if we consume a lot of sugar, our vitamin C levels decrease. So, that big glass of orange juice that mom always said was the remedy for a common cold is, sadly, a nutritional myth. Vitamin C is critical to a healthy immune system, and sugar puts our vitamin C stores directly in harms way.
5. Sugar makes you fat
Plain and simple, high refined sugar consumption makes you fat. The reason for this is due to the fact that our two primary fat storage hormones, cortisol and insulin, are effected by sugar consumption. Multiple studies have cited refined sugar as the leading cause of obesity in the American diet (10), and one study found that children who drank sugar sweetened drinks every day had a 60% higher chance of being obese (11).
Honey vs. Sugar: Which Is Healthier?
By this point, the answer to this question should be clear. Honey is not only an effective medicinal agent for certain conditions, but also offers some nutritional benefit (antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, etc). While it should still be consumed in moderation, it is a far better choice than white sugar.
Refined sugar, on the other hand, offers no nutritional or medicinal benefit whatsoever, and can reek havoc on the bodies of adults and children. It can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and even cancer.
When purchasing honey, opt for raw or Manuka honey whenever possible (although raw will taste better in cooking as a sugar substitute). Honey can also be used instead of sugar in pretty much any recipe that calls for white sugar, and in your morning tea or coffee. It probably won’t help with weight loss, but it is hands down the superior sweetener.