Here's the rundown on these common sweeteners, including their different costs, varieties and caloric content. Plus, learn of any potential health benefits and concerns, and insights from a California bee keeper.
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Honey
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Honey and sugar both provide sweetness, whether for cookies or cakes or a simple cup of tea. But honey is often regarded as being a healthier option. So, why is that? We spoke with a California-based beekeeper to get the scoop on everything there is to know about honey's health benefits and more. Read on to find out if your sweetener of choice actually makes a difference or not.

Types of Honey

There are over 300 varieties of honey available in the United States, with each originating from a different floral source or combination of several. Each type is typically named after the nectar source, which influences the flavor and color. Here are five of the most popular varieties of honey on the market:

  • Acacia honey is light in color and flavor with lightly fruity-floral notes.
  • Buckwheat honey is not as sweet and is darker in color than other varieties, but has been proven to be rich in antioxidants.
  • Clover is one of the most popular varieties of honey, with a light and sweet flavor and a strong floral aroma.
  • Manuka honey boasts antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is said to be effective in clearing a sore throat, preventing tooth decay, treating skin blemishes, healing wounds and more.
  • Wildflower honey can vary in flavor and color from season to season because the bees have gathered nectar from multiple flower sources. Malibu Honey founder and owner Bruce Lampcov says, "[We] collect wildflower honey from the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. The wildflowers that produce nectar vary depending on the season. Lupine, sage and buckwheat are among the most prominent in our honey."

Regardless of the variety of honey you choose, there's nothing more frustrating than getting ready to make a honey-forward recipe only to find it has hardened or crystallized. This is not a sign of aging, but is completely natural and caused by the glucose separating from the water to form crystals. Luckily, honey can be safely softened back to an easy-to-use state.

Types of Sugar

You know about standard granulated white sugar, but do you know about all of the different types of sugar available? Here are five of the most common types of sugar on the market:

  • Granulated: When you hear "sugar," this is probably what you'll think of. It is a multipurpose sugar that is highly refined and most commonly used in cooking and baking.
  • Cane: Minimally processed and produced solely from sugar cane, cane sugar has a darker color and slightly larger grain than granulated sugar. It also typically has a higher price tag.
  • Powdered: Also known as confectioners' sugar, powdered sugar has been ground down to a fine powder and has a small amount of cornstarch added in to prevent clumping. It dissolves in liquid easily and is ideal for making homemade frosting or icing.
  • Light brown: Similar in appearance to your classic granulated white sugar, light brown sugar has a small amount of molasses in it, which gives it a light brown color and more intense taste.
  • Dark brown: Dark brown sugar gives a richer flavor to recipes and has a higher concentration of molasses than light brown sugar.

Pricing

As with most food products, the price of honey and sugar can vary based on quality and available quantity. Your average white sugar will not cost as much as an organic sugar, or some varieties of sugar including coconut sugar or brown sugar. Similarly, locally made, small-batch honey from organic farmers will inevitably cost more than your run-of-the-mill supermarket honey.

Production

The process of producing honey is actually simpler than you might think, says Lampcov: "The bees make honey from the nectar they gather and store it in the comb. When the water content of the honey is below 17%, the comb is capped by the bees and the honey is ready to harvest. The beekeeper simply cuts off the caps and, using a centrifugal extractor, spins the honey into a bucket."

For sugar, sugar cane stalks are washed, cut and pressed to separate the juice from the plant material. Similarly, juice can be extracted from sugar beets as well. The juice is boiled until it crystallizes, at which point the crystals are separated from the liquid using a centrifuge, resulting in raw sugar. What type of sugar it will become (granulated, powdered, light brown, etc.) will determine what type of processing treatments it undergoes at a refinery.

Caloric Content

In 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar, there are approximately 15 calories. In comparison, there are about 20 calories in 1 teaspoon of honey. Like granulated and other types of sugar, honey is considered an added sugar, but honey contains small amounts of some vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and potassium, unlike most other sweeteners.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) is a system of categorizing foods that contain carbohydrates, based on the amount that those carbohydrates will increase the blood sugar for the average person. It is particularly helpful for those who are monitoring their blood sugar levels and focused on keeping those levels consistent, like people with prediabetes or diabetes. GI values are generally split into three categories:

  • Low GI: 1 to 55
  • Medium GI: 56 to 69
  • High GI: 70 and higher

Sugar ranks slightly higher on the index at 63 due to its higher concentration of fructose, and manuka honey ranks on average at 57. The GI of honey is slightly lower, but both sugar and honey have similar effects on blood glucose levels.

Health Benefits of Honey

Here are a few of the most notable health benefits of honey:

  • Alleviates cold symptoms: Studies have shown that honey may help reduce your cough at nighttime if you suffer from cold symptoms.
  • Provides fuel for athletes: Since a tablespoon of honey has 17 grams of carbohydrates—primarily simple carbs—it's a prime fuel source for athletes whose bodies rely on readily available carbohydrates for energy. Research shows honey may be just as effective as other carbohydrate sources, like sports gels, when it comes to performance and fatigue. One study found that honey may help support your immune system in conjunction with exercise when incorporated over time as a part of your regular routine.
  • Helps heal wounds: Honey acts as a topical antibiotic and may help speed up the wound-healing process and reduce inflammation.
  • Acts as a prebiotic in your gut: Though more studies are needed to support this info, honey has been shown to have some prebiotic potential in your gut. It may help protect the gut from harmful pathogens while encouraging probiotics to grow.

Health Benefits of Sugar

Sugar is best enjoyed in moderation, as it does not provide any significant minerals or vitamins. It is a simple carbohydrate that provides a fast source of glucose (energy), which is needed by your body to function. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for your body because they are more easily turned into energy than proteins and fats. However, we need a balance of all three macronutrients in our eating patterns to help our bodies thrive.

Health Concerns of Honey

Raw honey is generally safe to consume, with two notable exceptions:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding giving honey to babies under the age of 1 because honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism, a rare illness that may affect a baby's feeding and breathing and requires medical treatment. This applies to raw and processed honey.
  • Unprocessed honey can contain pollen and bee components, so people with bee sting allergies may want to avoid consuming honey, as it could cause anaphylaxis.

"Many people believe that eating local honey can help those with allergies such as hay fever. When bees visit a flower, they gather nectar and pollen. Although the pollen is stored separately in the hive from the honey, small amounts make their way into the honey, so when you eat honey you are also eating a small amount of pollen," says Lampcov.

However, scientists have yet to prove that eating honey can prevent allergies. There is no clinical evidence that the small amount of pollen that may be present in honey is enough to stimulate your immune system and reduce your allergy symptoms. So, keep eating honey if you enjoy it but don't expect it to cure your seasonal allergies.

Health Concerns of Sugar

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the consumption of added sugars to less than 10% of the calories we eat each day, which equates to about 12 teaspoons (48 grams) for a 2,000-calorie diet. However, many experts say this number should be even lower to reduce the risk for health conditions and concerns, which may include:

Bottom Line

So, is honey healthier than sugar? Both provide sweetness and have their place in your kitchen. However, research suggests that honey may have more health benefits than other forms of regular sugar, like granulated and cane. Now that you know all about the differences between honey and sugar, put them to work in healthy dinner recipes like Honey-Garlic Salmon and Garlic-Brown Sugar Chicken Thighs.