Is honey better than sugar? – the question many people ponder in the attempts to reduce the amounts of sugar in their diet which has been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, recurring yeast infections, and other health conditions.
This question can be answered with both a “yes” and a “no” depending on what aspect we are looking at: honey as an isolated sweetener or in a bigger picture - as a part of the diet that can impact immune health.
First of all, let’s remind ourselves what basic forms of sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate, there are:
Monosaccharides, or simple sugars that serve as building blocks for compound sugars:
Disaccharides, or compound sugars:
Disaccharides get digested into their component monosaccharides. There are also more complex, long-chain compound sugars such as polysaccharides and oligosaccharides, and others.
To answer our question whether honey is better than sugar as a sweetener, let’s take a look at the sugar composition of honey. Although there are many types of honey depending on what flowers bees feed on, the average composition of floral honey is following (according to Honey Composition and Properties by J.W. White Jr. and L.W. Doner. Beekeeping In The United States. Agriculture Handbook # 335 from 1980):
This composition tells us that honey is a highly concentrated water solution of approximately 40% fructose and 40% glucose (maltose and sucrose contribute these two simple sugars to the total). Some high density honeys with much lower water content have higher percentages of sugars. Thus, in terms of its simple sugars content honey is almost equivalent to table sugar (sucrose) which is 50/50 glucose/fructose.
At the same time, since raw, unfiltered and unheated honey contains enzymes, traces of minerals and B-vitamins, and antibacterial and antioxidant components, it is a better sweetener choice to add to teas, oatmeal, or plain yogurt, for example.
Honey’s glycemic index (GI) is 50 compared to 65 of table sugar. It means that honey causes a somewhat slower spike in blood glucose than plain sugar and requires less insulin to be metabolized.
Some natural sweeteners comparable to raw, unfiltered honey are:
Raw coconut sugar
- GI 64
- GI 35
- GI 55
- GI 54
In their unprocessed state these alternative sweeteners contain traces of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant compounds, and have lower glycemic indices than refined white sugar (except brown sugar).
One study looked into the total antioxidant content of various sweeteners and found that refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar contained almost undetectable antioxidant activity; raw cane sugar had a slightly higher rating. Dark and blackstrap molasses had the highest antioxidant content, while maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey showed intermediate antioxidant capacity.
The researchers concluded that based on the average consumption of 130 g of refined sugar a day, substituting alternative sweeteners could increase antioxidant intake similar to the amount found in one serving of berries or nuts. (Total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar. Phillips KM et al. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jan;109(1):64-71). Of course this conclusion does not mean that high sweetener consumption is an ideal source of antioxidants in one’s diet as you will see below.
Heating honey for long periods of time as, for example, in baking, reduces honey to being no better than refined table sugar. Honey sold in those cute bear shaped containers should be avoided because it is highly processed and there is no guarantee that it comes from bees that fed on flower nectar and not on sugar water or HFCS.
The harmful effect of sugar on immune health was demonstrated in a study that produced an astounding result - the phagocytic activity of neutrophils (type of white blood cells that engulf and ingest bacteria, fungi and other pathogens; the process itself is called phagocytosis) dropped almost 50% in blood samples from human volunteers after consumption of 100-gram doses of various simple sugars: glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey and orange juice.
In this study sugar composition of honey was assessed at: glucose - 44%, fructose - 52% and sucrose - 2%. And sugar composition of orange juice: glucose - 25%, fructose - 25% and sucrose - 48%.
The greatest effect of suppressed neutrophil activity occurred between 1 and 2 hours after ingestion and some impact was still evident at 5 hours. Starch (complex carbohydrates) did not have such an effect on neutrophils. These results show that simple carbohydrates impaired the ability of neutrophils to engulf bacteria and thus reduced the body’s resistance to infection. In contrast, fasting for 36-60 hours showed greatly improved phagocytic activity of neutrophils. (Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Sanchez A, Reeser JL, Lau HS, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 1973 Nov; 26(11):1180-4).
Another similar study published in 1977 showed that ingestion of 75 grams of glucose significantly decreased neutrophil activity in blood samples from healthy adults at 30 and 60 minutes after ingestion. (Depression of lymphocyte transformation following oral glucose ingestion. Bernstein J et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 1977;30:613)
In a more recent review of the literature on the effects of acute hyperglycemia (short-term elevated blood glucose) on the major components of the innate immune system, the research team concluded that “acute, short-term hyperglycemia affects all major components of innate immunity and impairs the ability of the host to combat infection”. (Acute hyperglycemia and the innate immune system: clinical, cellular, and molecular aspects. Turina M, Fry DE et al. Crit Care Med. 2005 Jul;33(7):1624-33).
How difficult is it to reach the threshold of 75-100 grams of simple sugars to initiate the immune system suppression? It turns out not that difficult at all. Here are the tables of some common foods and drinks, and their sugar content per a conservative-size serving:
The following changes help us control sugar in our diet and are a part of a glutathione boosting regimen for the management of Ray's peripheral neuropathy. Hopefully, you will find these tips helpful too as you move towards better immune health:
1. Honey Composition and Properties by J.W. White Jr. and L.W. Doner.
3. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Sanchez A, Reeser JL, Lau HS, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 1973 Nov;26(11):1180-4.
4. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes: A meta-analysis. Malik VS, Popkin B M, Bray GA et al. 2010 Diabetes Care 33 (11): 2477–2483.
5. Intakes of apple juice, fruit drinks and soda are associated with prevalent asthma in US children aged 2-9 years. DeChristopher LR, Uribarri J, Tucker KL. Public Health Nutr. 2015 Apr 10:1-8.
6. Dietary fructose reduces circulating insulin and leptin, attenuates postprandial suppression of ghrelin, and increases triglycerides in women. Teff KL, Elliott SS et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2004; 89: 2963–2972.
7. Impaired cellular insulin binding and insulin sensitivity induced by high-fructose feeding in normal subjects. Beck-Nielsen H, Pedersen O, Lindskov HO. Am J Clin Nutr 1980; 33: 273–278.
8. Fructose, but not dextrose, accelerates the progression of chronic kidney disease. Gersch MS, Mu W et al. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol 2007; 293: F1256–F1261.
9. Fructose ingestion acutely elevates blood pressure in healthy young humans. Brown CM, Dulloo AG et al. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2008; 294: R730–R737.
10. Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin and on appetite in normal-weight women. Melanson KJ, Zukley L et al. Nutrition 2007; 23: 103–112.
11. Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Ouyang X, Cirillo P et al. J Hepatol. 2008 Jun;48(6):993-9.
12. Soft drinks, fructose consumption, and the risk of gout in men: prospective cohort study. Choi HK, Curhan G. BMJ. 2008 Feb 9; 336(7639):309-12.
13. Effects of fructose vs glucose on regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions involved with appetite and reward pathways. Page KA, Chan O, Arora J et al. JAMA. 2013 Jan 2;309(1):63-70.