Both honey and sugar are popular sweeteners and sources of carbohydrates. This article reveals detailed information about these two high energy products and reviews their similarities and differences. Here we are going to provide information about their pros and cons and see if sugar can be used as a honey substitute in recipes.
Honey is considered to be the oldest natural food sweetener in the world. It is a sweet product made and collected by bees foraging for flower nectar. Bees digest nectar, bring it to wax honeycombs inside beehives, and through regurgitation and evaporation, in the end, it turns into honey. Most often honey is used as a sweetener for cooking and baking as well as being enjoyed as a stand-alone spread.
Honey is believed to have a lot of health benefits as described by folk healers many centuries ago. Nevertheless, contrary to the popular belief that honey is good and safe for people with weak immunity (including little kids), there is a small risk of bacterial or fungal infection. Most microorganisms can’t grow in honey as it has low water activity, but some of them (including a number of dangerous ones) can. Perhaps honey was used by ancient healers as a simple and well-digested source of energy with a pleasant taste, which is also very important for people on the way to recovery from diseases.
Honey as a product has a long history and was always considered as a valuable product due to its easy storage, high calorie density and amazing taste. Long before mass production of sweets and sugar, people could enjoy only fruit and berries and their dried varieties, and honey was the only product with such a concentrated sweet taste.
The additional value of honey today is its natural origin in comparison to man-made sugar types. In recent decades of mass production, complete processing and the scarcity of raw foods, many people tend to prefer products that are less processed and preferably naturally grown or collected (as in the case of honey).
Honey collection is one of the traditional human activities along with hunting and fishing. Honey contains some minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, sulphur, potassium, phosphate, sodium chlorine and iron. But as the concentration of these minerals is very low, honey can’t be considered as a food high in minerals. Providing more than 60 calories in a tablespoon honey can’t offer significant essential nutrient content except for quickly released energy.
Honey is a great sweetener for baking due to its special flavor and aroma, as well its beneficial chemical properties and ability to dissolve easily. That is one more reason to choose honey.
Sugar or table sugar (as in this article we are to compare to honey to table sugar, not the chemical class of substances) is a sweet, easily soluble food available in granules or bricks of pressed granules called lump sugar.
Sugar is used for cooking, baking, preparing drinks or sweetening raw foods. It may vary in color and some characteristics depending on the source used for its production. Mass sugar manufacturing started in the 19th century when people discovered methods of extracting sugar from raw products. The most widespread products used as sources for sugar-making are sugar beet and sugarcane.
Table sugar is disaccharide sucrose; in the process of digestion it turns into the monosaccharides fructose and glucose which are quick energy sources for the human organism. According to official data in 2011 there were 168 million tons of sugar produced in the world. An average person in industrialized countries consumes more than 33 kilos of sugar per year (including that added into products), i.e. about 260 calories from sugar every day, what is quite a lot in comparison to the 19th century – where an average person consumed about 6 kilos per year only.
In the past decades an excess, and sometimes even a moderate intake of sugar was claimed to be unhealthy and linked to a higher risk of obesity, type two diabetes, tooth decay and many other diseases and health conditions. A lot of studies were conducted, but none of them could show clear results as it is very difficult to estimate the relationship between sugar intake and health risks in percentages. It is also almost impossible to find people who don’t consume any sugar to make the study reliable and objective.
Some people consider some types of table sugar (like brown sugar, turbinado sugar, maple or corn syrups) healthier than white sugar, but that is a false assumption. Our bodies handle all types of popular extracted sugars the same way. Perhaps brown sugar is a bit less refined in comparison to white, but this difference is so small that it has no nutritional significance.
To put it simply, your body does not care at all what type of extracted sugar you consume. It can come from sugar beets, sugar cane, flowers or fruit, but if it is refined it will be processed in the body the same way.
Honey vs Sugar
What are the differences between honey and sugar? The most obvious ones are their formula, texture, origin and taste.
Honey and sugar are both just a form of disaccharides formed by glucose and fructose. Honey is a whole food, but table sugar is not. In table sugar, glucose and fructose molecules are connected and create sucrose – that is the product made of beets and sugar cane. Sucrose is only one chemical compound, purified from all other components a whole plant had, while honey is composed of complex natural ingredients and includes vitamins, minerals, enzymes, pro- and prebiotics and other natural admixtures that our bodies digest and use.
Depending on the source, table sugar may differ slightly in color, but mostly it ranges from white to light-brown, and usually looks like solid but easily soluble crystals. In honey, fructose and glucose are present as independent molecules and are not the only ingredients of typical honey. Honey also consists of more than 20 other oligosaccharides. It has a creamy to thick syrup texture and a higher density than sugar. Therefore one tablespoon of sugar has about 50 calories, while one tablespoon of honey – about 70 (calories come from carbohydrates in both cases). Comparing the energetic value of 100 g for sugar and honey, it should be noted that for honey it is a bit lower due to its higher water content.
Due to its molecular content and lots of oligosaccharides, honey features a lower glycemic index (i.e. raises the blood sugar level more slowly than table sugar). Nevertheless, a lot of dietary guidelines mention the necessity to reduce sugar intake without specifying any particular types, such as white or brown sugar, syrups or honey – as mostly they are all very alike in the way they are digested. Anyway, there is a slight difference between sugar and honey digestion and it lies in the composition of enzymes. Honey is digested in a more natural way due to the fact that bee nectar divides sucrose into two monosaccharides (or simple sugars) – fructose and glucose. Acting apart they are absorbed in the stomach and give more energy. Fructose helps this energy last longer and increase endurance levels compared to sugar. Table sugar can’t be broken down by stomach enzymes due to a complicated glucose-fructose structure. That is the reason why sugar is absorbed by the small intestine and then utilized by the liver.
Honey contains minerals and B vitamins as well as vitamin C and choline – a very important neurotransmitter. It is questionable whether this amount is significant, but in any case table sugar contains nothing like that.
Also honey has been proved to have anti-bacterial qualities, and is considered to promote healing processes and prevent infections. Many people use honey in treating sore throat or boosting immunity when suffering a cold.
Besides obvious differences between honey and sugar based on their chemical compositions and nutritional value, another interesting thing is the length of time people have used these sweeteners as a source of energy. Honey has been used for thousands or maybe even millions of years while refined sugar is something we have just got used to as it has only been manufactured since the 18th-19th centuries.
A serious difference between honey and sugar is their taste. Table sugar has all that sweetness while honey also features additional taste sensations that may differ depending on the honey type. This is a reason why honey is used for baking: it is more easily dissolved and adds a little spice to any dish you cook. Also honey is used for meat and poultry marinades for the same reason.
In cooking, a tablespoon of sugar can be substituted by a tablespoon of honey, but in this case the amount of other liquids in the recipe should be reduced by ¼ tablespoon respectively. When baking, first mix honey with all fat or liquid ingredients and then add the other ones.
To sum up, it is important to say that whatever form of sweetness you choose (sugar or honey) be reasonable and don’t overeat as it may lead to overweight and other health problems. A healthy amount of either of them is a small one.
|Extracted and refined product||Whole food|
|Considered to be less healthy||Considered to be more healthy due to minerals, vitamins and natural admixtures|
|Has a form of crystals, white to light-brown color depending on the source||Has a syrupy and sometimes creamy texture depending on whether it is in liquid or solid form|
More information on the pros and cons of sugar compared to honey is available here: