An amber fluid made by honey bees (Apis mellifera) from the nectar of flowers, honey has been ‘nature’s sweetener’ for centuries and is frequently marketed as ‘superior’ to sugar. Today we consume over 40 times more sugar than honey yet it remains a favourite flavouring in foods like honey cakes, sauces, breakfast cereals, honey-coated nuts, yoghurts and hams. Here’s how it stacks up side by side with sugar.
With its rich sweetness, I enjoy a spoon of honey in my lemon myrtle tea and to sweeten a bowl of high-fibre porridge oats or a tub of thick Greek yoghurt (honey really adds something special to yoghurt – such a simple dessert). I don’t mind the odd floral honey as long as it’s a mild one such as Yellow Box or Blue Gum. I’ve tried other sweeteners such as agave syrup and barley malt syrup but still come back to good old honey as my long-time fave.
Honey – once described as ‘nectar of the gods’ – is often considered a ‘natural’, healthier sweetener than sugar but nutritionally its true advantages are minor, which I know will disappoint many. It’s an attractive sweetener but like other syrups such as agave, molasses and maple syrup, it must be counted as a form of ‘sugar’ on a weight-loss diet or for anyone with diabetes and, like sugar, it can contribute to tooth decay.
Honey has been a traditional sweetener for thousands of years (think Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah honey cake), long before we discovered how to extract and refine sugar from sugar cane or sugar beet.
That honey bees are essential for pollination – in fact bees significantly increase both the yield and quality of many crops. Without bees, more than a third of our food would not be available in the current quantity or quality.
While sugar is 100 per cent sucrose, honey is made up of around 75 per cent sugars, of which roughly half is glucose and half is fructose (these proportions may vary depending on the source of the nectar). The remaining 20 to 25 per cent is water with a trace of protein, a trace of fat and a trace of fibre, which explains why honey has fewer ‘sugars’ or kilojoules/calories than sugar when you compare them weight for weight.
Compare: 100g white sugar has 1700kJ/406Cals whereas 100g of honey has 1400kJ/334Cals.
However few of us eat honey by weight. 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 you’re substituting a tablespoon of honey for sugar, you’re consuming more Calories, not fewer.
Most commercially blended honeys have a moderate Glycemic Index or GI of between 45 and 64 which is lower than sugar – white or brown - at 65. The GI varies with the level of fructose – the more fructose, the lower the GI.
Floral honeys have a lower GI which can have less effect on blood glucose and insulin levels which means they can be eaten by people with diabetes. This has often been proposed by researchers but the amounts used in testing are modest.
In Australia, where I live, these single-flower honeys are derived from native trees such as Stringybark, Red river gum, Yellow Box, Spotted gum, Ironbark, Leatherwood from Tasmania, Tea Tree and Banksia.
For example, Yellow Box has a low GI of 35 whereas a supermarket blended honey has a moderate GI value of 64.
It’s possible that all floral honeys have only modest glycemic effects, but it is too early to say as there hasn’t been sufficient testing. It appears to be related to their fructose-glucose ratio. Like variations in wines, I imagine there are endless variations in the GI and flavour in honeys. Which is nice.
For example, a 2010 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that five German honeys have a low GI. The researchers found that the ‘glycaemic index and insulinaemic index correlated significantly with the fructose content of honey varieties’.
Creamed honey (also called whipped honey or granulated honey) is simply honey that’s been whipped or beaten to slow the natural crystallization process. It’s a soft, creamy spread which is thick and easy to spread like smooth peanut butter. Nutritionally it has the same profile as ordinary honey. Many people prefer it as it’s less messy in the kitchen.
As natural as it is, don’t give honey to babies under one year* because of the small chance of them ingesting botulism spores and getting very ill. Honey can sometimes contain inactive spores of Clostridium botulinum, the tiny bacterium responsible for botulism food poisoning. Healthy adults don't get sick from them but infants can as the spores multiply in their immature guts and can begin producing botulinum toxin. After 12 months, honey is fine to offer.
Honey has a long history of safe use as a medicine – it appears in so many traditional remedies that one suspects an element of therapeutic truth despite the lack of official documentation in medical journals.
However, other claims over the years such as a cure for asthma, a tonic against colds, arthritis, anaemia or heart problems do not stand up to scrutiny. They sound tempting so think realistically – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just enjoy honey for its wonderful honey flavour!
Despite being natural with minimal refining, honey is NOT vastly superior to sugar. Certainly the floral honeys like Yellowbox and Ironbark have a lower GI which slows the rate of digestion and absorption - which is a positive - and certain honeys also have antibacterial qualities which add to their appeal.
Overall, honey is still a form of sugar and needs to be regarded as that – something nice that’s used sparingly to enhance other high-fibre foods such as wholegrain bread or rolled oats or smoothies. It’s my sweetener of choice and I like to buy a single floral honey over the blended supermarket stuff.
http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au (search for honey or botulism on the Home page)