Honey or sugar: Which is healthier?

Dear Alice,

I have heard that some sugars, such as those in honey, are more healthful than others. What sugars are in honey? What are the other kinds of sugar? Can any "unmediated" pure sugar be healthful?


Sweet tooth

Dear Sweet tooth, 

You're correct there are many types of sugars which often differ by caloric content or nutritional benefit. In foods, they're usually classified as natural or added sugars. Honey is an example of a natural sugar that is made up of fructose and glucose. Other types of sugars include ones such as sucrose, galactose, and many others. Honey can also be added to other foods to sweeten them (keep reading to learn about the distinction). And while the body does require sugar for functioning, some types are broken down and digested faster than others, causing different effects on the body. 

To set the scene, it’s important to understand what the body uses sugar for. Sugars are molecules that make up carbohydrates (carbs)—the body needs these for energy and metabolism. Simple carbs are structures consisting of one or two sugar molecules and are found in foods like honey, table sugar, sweetened drinks, and candy. These are used easily by the body and cause the blood sugar to increase quickly. On the other hand, complex carbs consist of many sugar molecules and are found in foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels because they're broken down more slowly by the body. 

So how does this relate to the concept of natural versus added sugars? Natural sugars are sugars that occur, well, naturally. These sugars are often found in something like honey, which is made up of mainly the sugar molecules fructose and glucose. Table sugar and lactose—a natural sugar found in milk—are also forms of natural sugar. These sugars are made with the same molecules, but in different proportions, which creates different levels of sweetness. In fact, honey is sweeter than table sugar and also has more calories. Natural sugar can be added to a food for the purpose of sweetening it such as adding fruit to desserts, However, it’s still considered a source of natural sugar in whatever you’re consuming. Although it would be used as a way to add sugar to a food, it’s still characterized as a natural sugar in that food. Common examples of added sugars in foods are white sugar, brown sugar, or high fructose corn syrup. 

Sugar molecules can be important nutrients for certain bodily functions, but when thinking about sugar’s role in nutrition, some consider sugar’s calorie content instead. Calories are essentially the energy budget of the body, with calories being burned when the body needs energy to function, and calories regained when food is consumed. So, all types of sugars contribute calories, but consuming foods with many added sugars might lead to an excess in calories or increase in blood sugar. As a result, added sugars are often connected to conditions like weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, or cavities. 

People who are concerned about their caloric intake from added sugars might consider switching to sugar substitutes such as artificial sweeteners. These are classified as “food additives” and are hundreds of times sweeter than granulated sugar. However, what’s unique about these products is that they don’t contribute calories or other nutrients. That being said, there’s limited research on their effects on health. Another type of sugar substitute is sugar alcohols, which are less sweet than artificial sweeteners but can be used for certain textures like in gum or candy. Speaking with a medical professional about sugar and sugar substitutes may be helpful. They can answer any questions about the benefits and disadvantages of these options. 

All this said, it can be important to note that there are also essential nutrients in some foods with sugars. For example, honey also has protein, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and polyphenols which are correlated with decreased inflammation and improved digestion. Research is even exploring whether honey has any benefits related to obesity; specifically, determining whether replacing sugar with honey shows improvements for gut health.  These nutrients are potentially "healthful", depending on what you're looking for in the food you're eating. 

Honey as a natural sugar isn't necessarily healthy or unhealthy, and neither are any of the other types of natural sugars. They’re all made up of the same few sugar molecules which are used for energy in the body. What may be more important to focus on instead is the amount of sugar that a person consumes and how it compares to their caloric needs (i.e., the energy your body needs to function). For more information about sugar and your nutritional needs, consider checking out the Key Topics page of the MyPlate website which is an online resource created by the United States (U.S.) Department of Agriculture, or consider speaking with a health care provider or dietitian about your nutritional needs. A spoonful of sugar can be good (it's Mary Poppins y'all), but an excessive sweet tooth might just cause a toothache. 

Sweet talking with you, 

Last updated Aug 04, 2023
Originally published May 18, 1995

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