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Honey vs Brown Sugar vs Sugar: Which is Healthier?

The answer might make you give up on the world

‘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.

Calorie Density

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.

Insulin

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. 

It’s Healthier

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. 

Lower GI

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.

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. 

In the interim, I 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.

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