Many people choose honey over sugar thinking it’s a more natural, healthy alternative to sugar. But does swapping a couple teaspoons of one for the other make a difference at the end of the day? Of the year?
You would not believe some of the over-the-top fear-mongering websites I found when researching this topic. Personally, I’d say the difference between the two is pretty negligible, but depending on your values it could be worth switching in the long run.
Both honey and sugar are natural products. There is no man-made substance added to either, even white table sugar. Both come in raw and processed forms. Here’s a quick breakdown of how each is manipulated before it’s sold to you:
Not much happens to raw honey between the beehive and the jar. Beekeepers strain it to remove most of the wax. It will still contain pollen, small bits of wax or honey comb, maybe even bees wings. Maybe a little TOO natural for the taste of consumers. It will crystallize very quickly making it difficult to use at room temperature.
“Honey can be considered as "raw" when it has not undergone any treatment or process such as heat treatment" - Canadian Inspection Agency
Most honey sold in grocery stores, or ‘commercial’ honey, has been pasteurized. This means it is heated to about 160F (71C) for at least 15 seconds. This processed is used in milk production as well, with the goal of killing harmful bacteria. But raw untampered honey doesn’t contain bacteria. The purpose is instead to A) kill yeast B) prevent crystallization so it stays liquid on your shelf for a long time. Basically it’s to make the product more visually appealing and easy to use. The label will often say ‘pure’.
So obviously even raw sugar is partially refined, because it comes from sugarcane or beets. In one sentence: their juice is extracted, clarified (dirt and debris removed), boiled, crystallized, then separated from the remaining liquid (molasses). A thin layer of molasses remains, which gives it a light brown colour. The most popular type is “Turbinado style” sugar, offered at Starbucks for example.
After all the processing above has been done, the sugar is then washed in hot water, dissolved in water, refiltered and recrystalized. This leaves nothing but pure sucrose (white table sugar), and no sign of molasses.
How Does This Affect Your Health?
Commercial Honey vs Sugar
Commercial honey is often considered healthier than sugar, but demonized when compared to raw honey. What's the real deal here?
• Fructose content: Table sugar is 100% sucrose. Honey is 50% fructose, which is absorbed more slowly and thus does not spike blood sugars as high. However, fructose has been linked to increased triglycerides (that's bad) and possibly obesity.
• Calories: sugar = 48cals/tbsp honey = 64cals/tbsp
• Sweetness: Fructose makes honey sweeter than sugar, so you need a smaller volume to get the same taste.
• Regulation: Honey sold in Canada is closely regulated. If you look up ‘raw vs processed honey’ many sites tell you that commercial honey is ‘fake’ and actually diluted with corn-syrup. The origin of this is a huge scheme involving China selling diluted, antibiotic ridden honey to the US, and shipping it through other countries to avoid paying tariffs. Canada does not charge tariffs for imported honey, and is subject to the same standards and inspections as local honey. In Canada we also produce more honey than we consume, so your odds of buying honey imported from China (or any of their ‘patsy’ countries) are pretty slim.
• Safety: Giving honey to children under age 1 is dangerous due to the risk of botulism. Though rare, this bacteria can be life-threatening to their underdeveloped immune systems.
Raw Honey vs Commercial Honey
Those who believe in medicinal properties of raw honey will often state that it contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and that the pollen content is beneficial. All but some pollen is lost during pasteurization.
• There are over 10 vitamins and minerals in raw honey, but each amounts to less than 1% of your daily needs. It is an insignificant source of these nutrients. Moving on...
• The role of enzymes is to breakdown things in our bodies, such as helping us digest things. We generally make plenty of our own enzymes. A common exception is people who are lactose intolerant, who don’t produce enough of the enzyme ‘lactase’. Luckily lactase is sold in pill form and can help improve symptoms. However there is no evidence that the enzymes in honey survive long enough in our digestive tract to break anything down. Plus if you’re putting raw honey in hot tea, you’re exposing it to the same temperature at which honey is pasteurized, sooo no live enzymes.
• The antibacterial properties of honey have been seen in laboratory but not in humans. It is proven to help wounds when applied directly, but we’re talking about sweeteners for your drinks here. There's no proven benefit against infection when ingested.
• Pollen is found in much larger amounts in raw vs. processed honey. There is a theory that ingesting local honey can help seasonal allergies much like allergy shots: by exposing the body to small amounts of an allergen until it builds up tolerance. There is no evidence that this is true, and there are 2 issues with the theory.
Eating pollen likely doesn’t give the body a chance to fight the allergen before it is digested beyond recognition. Probably why allergy shots are given as shots.
Seasonal allergies are usually to trees, grass and weeds vs the flower pollen carried by bees. Even if this did work odds are it wouldn’t treat the correct allergy.
• Safety: If you buy it at a grocery store it meets government safety standards. If you buy it from a hobbyist, it could be contaminated with anything, from dead bees to dust to hair of the person who jarred it. But likely not anything dangerous.
BONUS TRUTH: Raw sugar
• As we established earlier, sugar does raise blood sugar more quickly than honey. The defense for raw sugar is that it is less refined and thus has more nutrients. Sure it has trace amounts of calcium, iron and potassium from the molasses, but again less than 1% of your daily needs per tbsp. Check out more facts here.
• Safety: Unlike raw honey, raw sugar is still partially processed. It should be safe and free of contaminants just like any other packaged food.
This is probably where your decision actually has the biggest impact. It is easy to find Canadian honey in the grocery store. We’re also fortunate that local farmers often keep bees to benefit their crops, so very local honey is available at farmers markets. By buying honey you support collapsing bee populations. Beekeepers help keep colonies alive, in order to make extra income.
Sugar either comes from sugar beets in Alberta or sugarcane, which is harvested and imported from tropical areas. Like most agriculture, the downsides to sugar cane production include “loss of natural habitats, heavy use of water, chemical use, water and air pollution”. Sugar beet farming in AB is less harmful, but honey is still easier on the earth. Unless the sugar is certified fair trade, there’s also a high chance that the labourers are exploited with low wages and unsafe working conditions.
A Dietitians Opinion
Canadians are consuming an average of less than 1 tablespoon of honey per day. Any difference in health effects at this rate is inconsequential. However the environmental impacts do add up when you look at the industries as a whole. Not only does honey cause less pollution than sugar, but we desperately rely on bees to keep our crops alive with pollination. We're pretty screwed without them, so supporting beekeepers is a good thing.
Some other ways you can support bees:
Buy local honey
Plant bee-friendly wildflowers so they have something to eat. You can get seeds delivered to you for free at Bringbackthebees.ca
Leave some weeds on your lawn! Dandelions are an important source of nutrition for bees after a long winter.
Leave out some water near your flowers, bees get thirsty!
Don't use chemicals on your garden or lawn. They make their way back to the hive and damage the colony.
Don't kill bees! Duhhhh. They can literally smell fear, so as long as you're calm you won't get stung. If you need to remove a nest, find a humane and ethical removal service vs an exterminator.