Honey vs Sugar: Which Sweetener Is Really the Healthier Choice?

honey vs sugar cat

Honey and sugar: Together they can make some kickass scrubs and exfoliants, but when it comes to eating, which sweetener reigns supreme? We often hear that honey is a healthier alternative to sugar—what with all the processing and health issues sugar is known to cause—but is that really true? Check out our breakdown of honey vs sugar below.

What is honey?

We know that bees make honey from flower nectar, but there is more to this sticky sweetener than that. Honey is composed of two sugars—fructose and glucose—and water. There are many types of honey, including acacia, eucalyptus, golden blossom and even blackberry or blueberry. Honey also ranges in color depending on the source. Most people will probably be familiar with pale-yellow honey, as it’s the most common, but there are other types of honey (like buckwheat) that are dark brown.

What are the pros of honey?

Because honey comes from a natural source, it has beneficial components like enzymes, amino acids, B vitamins, vitamin C, minerals, and antioxidants. The antioxidants found in honey contain flavonoids, which aid in inflammation reduction. Honey is also higher in fructose than glucose, which means you can use smaller amounts and still satiate your sweet tooth. Some studies, like this one by researchers in Finland, have even shown that raw, unpasteurized honey—which contains trace amounts of local pollen—can help in desensitizing people from pesky seasonal allergies. 

Honey also has other healing elements. It’s been known to soothe sore throats and calm dry, hacking coughs. It can also be found in topical forms and is helpful in healing minor burns and wounds. 

What are the cons of honey?

While honey has a lot going for it in terms of health benefits, it’s not to be consumed willy-nilly. For one, it’s high in calories—one tablespoon is 64 calories. Honey is also bad news for people with conditions like diabetes and heart disease, since it has a relatively high glycemic index. Parents of infants under a year old are also advised to refrain from feeding their tots honey as it can lead to botulism, a rare but serious illness. 

What is sugar?

Sugar is sourced from sugar cane or sugar beet and is also made of glucose and fructose, bonded together to make sucrose. While it comes from natural sources, it undergoes a lot of processing before it makes its way to your kitchen table. White, brown, and raw are the most commonly used sugars—with raw sugar being the least processed of the three.  

What are the pros of sugar?

Though it doesn’t have the added nutritional value of honey, sugar is significantly lower in calories, with one tablespoon generally coming in at 48 calories. Sugar is also often cheaper than honey, easily accessible and has a long shelf life. It’s also generally considered better for baking.

What are the cons of sugar?

Because of all the processing sugar goes through, it has no residual nutrients. Raw sugar is a lot less refined than white sugar, but even that doesn’t have any added nutritional benefits. Sugar is also higher on the glycemic index than honey and can spike blood sugar levels quickly, leading to a very steep decline afterward. (That’s why you sometimes feel a burst in energy and then steep decline after chowing down on some chocolate chip cookies.)

High sugar consumption can also lead to several health problems including weight gain, obesity, teeth cavities and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (because your liver has to work extra hard to process refined fructose.)

 So, which is the better choice?

When it comes down to it, moderation is the name of the game with both sweeteners. Overconsumption of either one can lead to some serious health issues, and while honey has a better reputation because of the additional nutrients, by no means is it a healthier alternative. Sugar is also generally preferred for baking, but that post-sugar rush crash is no joke. The takeaway is this: treat yourself occasionally, but don’t overdo it with either sweetener.

3 tips for cutting back on sweeteners:

  1. Adjust your intake. Instead of going for a full tablespoon of sugar or honey in your tea or cereals, cut back a bit and use half a spoon instead. When baking, reduce the amount required by one-third. You’ll still get the sweetness, without the added calories.
  2. Substitute with extracts or sweet spices. A touch of almond or vanilla extract can go a long way when baking. Spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg can also enhance flavor without doing damage to your sugar levels.
  3. Opt for some fruit instead. Listen, we understand that those sugar cravings can hit hard. But instead of going for the extra sweet stuff, grab a piece of fruit instead. You still get that hit of sugar, but it’s much healthier for you.

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Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...