Spoon for spoon, honey is higher in calories and sugar
In the debate between which is healthier, honey vs sugar – honey may seem the most obvious answer. You probably wouldn’t think twice about putting honey on your toast in the morning but sprinkling a heaped teaspoon of sugar?
You’d probably think of that as unhealthy and yet the amount of sugar you’ll eat is roughly the same. If you’re confused, it’s easy to see why – gram for gram, honey is less calorific than sugar.
So, 100g of white sugar contains 406 calories and 100g of honey contains 334 calories. But honey is a lot denser than sugar, so that spoonful of honey weighs more than the same one of sugar. Therefore a teaspoon of honey contains 23 calories and 6g of sugar compared to a spoonful of sugar which contains just 16 calories and 4g of sugar!
Related: The hidden sugar in your diet
Honey is not the same as sugar though…
Sugar is 100% sucrose. Honey is roughly 80% sugar, of which half is fructose and the rest is glucose. The other 20% is water. This proportion does differ, though, depending on the honey.
Some unscrupulous beekeepers feed their bees with sugar which results in a less nutritious sweetener, for example, with more glucose and less fructose and fewer nutrients.
Honeys that are made well will contain antibacterial benefits and antioxidants. This too depends on which plants the bees collect nectar from. Manuka honey which is honey from bees that collect nectar from manuka bushes, contains high levels of methylglyoxal, a powerful antibacterial.
It’s highly likely that other honeys, especially those where bees feed on one type of flower (called mono-floral honey), contain similar health benefits to manuka honey but research hasn’t been undertaken yet.
Manuka honey is the most widely researched honey and as a result most of the information available regarding antibacterial properties relates to manuka. That doesn’t mean that other honeys aren’t as good, though.
Honey also contains just a trace of fat and fibre, which means that there’s so little it’s not possible to provide a meaningful measurement in small amounts such as a spoonful.
However, the water and traces of fat and fibre mean that weight for weight, honey is less calorific than sugar. So if you are using honey instead of sugar in baking, for example, and supplement it weight for weight, the end result should be lower in calories and sugar.
Related: 10 ways to eat less sugar without even noticing
There’s still a lot we don’t yet know
While it’s tempting to break a food down into its basic nutrients – calories, vitamins, water and so on – and assess it on that basis, there are still many aspects of foods that we don’t yet fully understand. For example, how certain antioxidants or antibacterials might work with other nutrients for good or bad. There may also be antioxidants and other nutrients that haven’t yet been identified.
What has been shown is that many honeys appear to have a beneficial effect on various aspects of health.
A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that otherwise healthy diabetics who ate honey regularly improved their triglyceride levels and also lowered c-reactive protein levels, which is good.
Other studies have shown that honeys have strong antibacterial properties, which could make them useful when you’re fighting off an infection.
Related: Honey's health benefits examined
Be aware of the different types of honey
Clear honey, hard honey or creamy honey – which is best?
The short answer is that no one knows. What we do know is why the honeys look different.
Clear honey is treated before it’s bottled or put into jars, it has been pasteurised. Like milk, the pasteurisation process involves heating. That heating process helps prevent the honey from crystallising and kills yeast cells. But it’s probable that the heating process kills other beneficial heat-sensitive nutrients such as antioxidants, for example.
However, honey contains such low levels of antioxidants in comparison to other foods such as berries. So if you prefer clear honey, you shouldn’t worry.
Creamy honey is made by mixing liquid honey with granulated honey. This mix helps create the different texture but the nutrients remain the same.
Related: Learn more about antioxidants