Comparing honey and table sugar for calories and glycemic Index (GI)

calories glycemic index sugar

 Honey is often used as a substitute for sugar, both in cooking, in desserts and in drinks like tea or coffee. And many consumers believe honey, as a wholly natural product, is healthier or better for you than table sugar.

Of course, honey is itself mostly sugar and indeed is typically composed of around 80% natural sugars (mostly fructose and sucrose). The other 20% of honey is mostly water, with a tiny amount of fat, salt and traces of fibre, protein and minerals.

However there are significant differences between table sugar and honey which are very important in a health context, and particularly as regards diabetes

1.1 Honey and Calories

Honey has less calories than the equivalent amount of sugar. According to a report published some years back at 100gms of white sugar has 1700kJ/406Cals whereas 100g of honey has 1400kJ/334Cals.

But according to nutritionist Catherine Saxelby, the comparison is deceiving because we tend to eat and measure out honey with a spoon “,,,[F]ew of us eat honey by weight” she said adding that “We’re much more likely to use a teaspoon or tablespoon here and there, so measure for measure, honey has more kilojoules/Calories. That’s because honey is denser and 1 tablespoon weighs 28g, whereas a tablespoon of sugar weighs only 16g.”

So if counting calories is an important part of your health regime, don’t forget that a spoonful of honey has more calories than a spoonful of sugar.

1.2 Honey and Diabetes

Most of the table sugar sold in Australian supermarkets, known as white sugar, is refined from sugar cane juice, and what chemists would call a polysaccharide, and specifically, sucrose.

But from a chemical standpoint, sucrose is actually a combination of two disaccharides – glucose and fructose (other types of disaccharides include maltose, dextrose, lactose etc)

This is important, because the body needs to break down sucrose into its constituent parts before they can be digested and absorbed. Honey is like, sucrose, comprised mostly of glucose and fructose.

But whereas white sugar typically breaks down into half glucose and half fructose, most standard honey blends have more glucose than fructose.

Some of the varietal honeys (such as yellow box honey or redgum honey etc) may have higher proportions of fructose.

For diabetics, fructose is a lesser concern than glucose because glucose is so readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

So eating honeys with a majority of fructose is arguably, better for those who, like diabetics, have to manage their sugar intake. Some nutritionists even suggest that it may be OK for diabetics to eat small amounts of high fructose honeys.

However the reality is that both table sugar and honey are relatively simple sugar compounds, quickly absorbed by the body and both generally not recommended for diabetics.

1.3 Honey and GI

Many diabetics, and others, rely upon the so-called glycaemic index (i.e. GI) ratings to decide what they can safely eat. GI is essentially an indicator of how readily the human body absorbs particular carbohydrates, and so how quickly they increase natural blood sugar levels.

Ratings less than 55 are generally considered good, and indicate that that particular food or product is relatively safe to consume for diabetics and /or others with blood sugar issues.

The GI index tops out at 100, and surprisingly, table sugar has a GI of only around 60, and only marginally higher than most honeys. (Quickly digested carbohydrates such as potatoes or white bread have typically higher GI ratings than either sugar or honey)

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single official testing method for determining GI ratings. So, for example, the University of Sydney’s GI index (at reports ratings as low as 35 for a yellow box honey with high fructose levels, 58 for a pure honey, and a whopping 78 for an unspecified honey with high glucose levels.

Other GI testing methods give higher levels for honey. So whilst GI numbers may be useful information for diabetics, they should only form part of the information used to make dietary decisions.

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