Sugar vs Honey vs Jaggery: Which is Healthier?
Dear Reader, I wrote this article 3 years ago. And the kind of love (and shock) it got, made me realize how bad the situation of packaged food in India is.
Since then, I’ve quit my job and started my own brand of 100% clean label food products called The Whole Truth (formerly ‘and nothing else’).
We make food that’s 100% clean, and without ever any added, man made sugars.
But it does make me biased, since I now have a financial interest. Hence, this declaration upfront.
Cheers (to the whole truth). Shashank.
‘Excuse me, can you replace this with brown sugar please’, he said. Handing back to the waiter, a packet of white.
‘Green tea with a teaspoon of honey please’, she said. Feeling proud that today, she’s made a healthier choice.
‘Can you please deposit another gazillion dollars into my bank account please’, the marketeer said. Knowing that today, once again, he’d made a billion people buy slightly ‘brown-er’ shit, for slightly more money.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s begin with some basics. Quick concepts we’ll need to answer this question.
Is the amount of calories/ gram that a product has.
If your goal is weight-loss, then net calorie intake is the only metric for you to track. And to do that, knowing a product’s calorie-density is key.
When you eat anything, your body breaks the food down into its constituent sugars. These sugars get absorbed into the blood stream and travel to all cells, giving them energy. Insulin is the hormone our body produces to regulate these changes in blood-sugar.
Eat too much sugar, too often, and blood-sugar spikes abnormally all day. Do this over a long period of time, and the body’s insulin response gets broken. That’s diabetes.
Glycemic Index (GI)
GI is a measure of how big a spike in blood-sugar a particular food will cause. Lower the GI, lower the spike, better that food is for diabetics (and for everyone in general)
High fibre food has very low GI. Sugary foods have very high GI.
So which of these 3 sweeteners is better?
First up, we need to define ‘better’.
Apart from ‘it seems more natural’, there are two other reasons people generally quote, when I ask them why they chose brown sugar/ honey over regular sugar.
It’s better for weight-loss
It’s healthier because it’s more natural and raw
So let’s examine each of the three, on both these planks.
It’s better for weight-loss
Testing this is easy. To be better for weight-loss, a food product needs to have lower calorie-density. Simple.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but both brown sugar and white sugar have almost the same calorie density. 375kcal and 390kcal per 100gm. Bring that down to ‘per teaspoon’, and the difference practically vanishes.
Honey does have a slightly lower calorie density. At about 330–340kcal/ 100gm, it is about ~12% less calorie dense.
But again, at a ‘per teaspoon’ level, that difference is negligible. And most often, I see people adding a bit extra honey (or licking the bit stuck to the spoon), thinking they’re making the healthier choice. Those extra 2g, and your calorie difference vanishes.
Basically, if limiting calorie intake is your goal, then (this will hurt), there is no difference between the three.
I don’t know what ‘healthier’ means. I don’t think most people do either.
I assume that it comes from honey and brown sugar looking more natural. Which, somehow, is seen as an indicator of being more nutritious.
At this time, allow me to first bust a massive myth.
What is Brown Sugar?
Brown sugar is White sugar + Molasses.
Molasses are a by-product of sugar production. So, in most cases, the factory-produced brown-sugar you’ve been using as a replacement for ‘processed’ white sugar, is actually that same white sugar — with one extra step of processing!
In some cases, the manufacturer might stop the refinement process midway and let a bit (~5%) of molasses remain in the mixture. These are the slightly more ‘artisanal’ demerera sugars etc.
But in both cases, there is, literally, NO difference between the two. Neither nutritionally nor calorie-wise. The only difference is color and taste.
What a scam!
But is honey more nutritious?
I know, right now you’re looking for some hope that morality isn’t totally lost in the health-marketing world. Well, I have both good and bad news.
Constitutionally, honey is a bit different from sugar.
Sugars are generally half glucose and half fructose. Honey, is a larger proportion of fructose. Hence honey, is actually sweeter than regular sugar. It has lower calorie-density because ~15% of honey is water.
Given it’s sweeter, one should be consuming lesser of it, compared to sugar. The reality though, as we discussed, might turn out to be different.
Also, since it comes from a more natural, unadulterated source, honey does contain many nutrients and anti-oxidants.
But I won’t go into the details of what they are, because when consumed at 2–3 teaspoons a day, these nutrients are present in just trace amounts.
So nutritionally, if you seek to reap the benefits of honey, you’d need to consume about half a glass everyday. In which case you can kiss weight-loss goodbye.
So yes, theoretically, honey is more nutritious. Given it’s composition, it has many allied benefits too — from curing coughs to healing wounds.
But unfortunately, if you’re looking at it as a healthier substitute for sugar in your weight-loss battle, then you’re in for disappointment.
Honey does have slightly lower GI (~50) as compared to sugar (~65). So, for what it’s worth, get’s absorbed a bit slower and hence causes a lower blood-sugar spike when consumed in the same amount.
So if you are diabetic, and you must have one of the two, honey would win.
Ever since I put out this article, the one reaction I got from every reader was:
Crap. This is not good. But what about jaggery?
So here I am, adding our beloved ‘Gur’ to the competition. The parameters of comparison remain the same.
It’s better for weight-loss
It’s healthier because it’s more natural and raw
But first, let’s understand what is Jaggery?
Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made by boiling concentrated sugar cane extract until it hardens. It is then rolled into patties or chopped into blocks, or powdered and sold as sugar.
If you speak to an expert, they might refer to it as a ‘non-centrifugal’ sugar. Which is just a fancy way of saying that unlike refined sugar, jaggery isn’t spun while processing to separate the molasses. That’s all.
Fun Fact: While a product like jaggery is found in many cultures across the world (all over Asia, Latin America and the Carribeans), India produces about 70% of the worlds jaggery!
Unfortunately, the news is the same as Honey and Sugar. Jaggery has ~380kCal/100gm. So there’s very little difference in calorie density.
By now you’d be seeing a common thread. Quite simply:
If it sweetens like sugar, it has the calories of sugar
That’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact that you need to factor into your daily calorie count. Don’t let anyone fool you into having more sugar than you need to, saying that jaggery or honey are lower-calorie alternatives. They are not.
Even when it comes to GI, jaggery isn’t any better than sugar. That means it causes a similar insulin spike, when consumed in a similar amount.
With calories & GI out of the way, the next question is if jaggery is ‘healthier’.
I must admit here, that jaggery does have the highest ‘nutrient-density’ of all the alternatives we’ve considered till now. Here’s a quick lowdown of what all it contains, per 100gm:
- Protein: 0.4 grams.
- Fat: 0.1 grams.
- Iron: 11 mg, or 61% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 100–150mg, or about 30% of the RDI.
- Potassium: 1050 mg, or 30% of the RDI.
- Manganese: 0.2–0.5 mg, or 10–20% of the RDI.
As you can see, it has a lot of nutrients in decent amounts. Now, let’s say, you substitute all your sugar intake with jaggery. If you’re on a weight-loss/ maintenance diet, I’d assume you’re not consuming more than 20–25gm sugar a day (across tea, coffee, sweets etc)
(If you are, this article isn’t the first one you need to read. Read this.)
At these levels, switching to jaggery gives you about 8% of your Magnesium and Potassium, and about 15% of your Iron requirements. That’s significant.
Now bear in mind, I am NOT suggesting you make jaggery your go-to medium to get magnesium and iron. Please. Have spinach.
But at these levels, it is definitely better than having the same amount of sugar.
In Ayurveda, jaggery is used in many a medicine as a sweetener to make the medicine palatable.
It’s also claimed to solve many everyday-ailments like: activating digestion, fighting cold (taken with black pepper), reducing flatulence (which is why it’s used as a quick desert after meals in many Indian households), curing mild headaches…the list goes on.
Here’s a complete lowdown if you’re interested.
I’m not qualified to prove or disprove these. But I must say this — given it’s nutritional composition, I wouldn’t be surprised if this cocktail of vitamins and minerals creates some magic in our body. Magic, because I don’t think traditional western science can decode it (yet).
Not to mention, having grown up in a middle-class North-Indian household, I’ve seen, first-hand, ‘gur’ used in various forms to cure various ailments. Empirically speaking, I’ve seen it work (same for honey in curing coughs).
It’s similar to how the Mediterranean folks would swear by Dates. Those too have an amazing nutrient profile and infact have much lower calorie-density (and hence sweetness) when used as whole-fruit. If you extract the sugar out of it though, then it has (surprise-surprise), the same calorie-density as sugar.
But dates deserve a whole different post. For now, here’s the updated verdict.
Verdict: So what do I do?
Work on reducing your sweet craving. That’s the only reliable, long-term method to getting fit and staying so. And be very wary of marketeers trying to sell you brown stuff.
But if you’re going to have Sugar, replacing it with jaggery or dates would be my go-to option. Far lesser chemicals, far more nutrients, and perhaps some magic formula that has many ancient cultures believing in them. Good deal.
If you’re on a strict diet and completely off sugar, I also support the use of artificial sweeteners. Consumed in small quantities, they can be great allies in your war against the weighing scale. But you’ve got to be careful. Read this before you dive in.
Also published on Medium.
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