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Honey vs. Sugar: Are Honey and Sugar Okay For Diabetes?

Natalie Stein
May 3, 2020
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Every carb counts when you have diabetes, so does it matter whether you choose honey or sugar? Are sweeteners okay at all with diabetes? Honey and sugar are both sweet carbohydrates, but they do have some differences that can help guide decisions. Lark for Diabetes can offer more help with healthy eating and other smart choices for lowering blood sugar.


What is the Difference With Honey and Sugar?


White and brown sugar come from extracting and refining sucrose from sugar cane or sugar beets. Honey is made from nectar by honeybees. The composition of sugar is constant, but the composition, as well as flavor and color, of honey varies depending on the flowers used to make it.


honey vs sugar for diabetes

Sugars in Honey vs. Sugar


Honey and sugar are both sweet, but they have slightly different components. Sugar is made up of a type of simple carbohydrate called sucrose. Each molecule of sucrose has one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose. Overall, sugar or sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. 

Honey, on the other hand, is about 35% glucose and 40% fructose. It has about 9% sucrose, and smaller amounts of some other simple carbohydrates. Though sugar and honey are both mainly made up of glucose and fructose, honey tastes sweeter because most of its glucose and fructose is not bound together into sucrose.

Calories and Other Nutrients in Honey vs. Sugar


Each tablespoon of sugar has 46 calories. Each tablespoon of honey has 64 calories. Sugar is devoid of essential vitamins and minerals, while honey has a several. However, they are present only in tiny amounts. For example, you would need to eat 20 cups of honey to get 100% of the daily value for potassium or zinc. That would include about 20,000 calories or enough calories for almost 2 weeks.

Glycemic Index of Honey and Sugar


The glycemic index, or GI, indicates how fast and how much blood sugar levels will rise after eating food with carbohydrates. The higher the GI, the faster and higher your blood sugar level will rise for a specific amount of carbohydrate.

The glycemic index of sucrose, or sugar, is 65 [1]. The glycemic index of honey varies because the exact composition of honey varies. One study found it to be 61 [2]. Since the glycemic index of honey can vary from low to high, and there is no way to tell before you eat it if it is low or high, it is not safe to assume that it is low. Instead, it is safer to assume that honey will affect your blood sugar similarly to white sugar.

Research on Potential Benefits of Honey


Honey has a reputation for being healthier than sugar, and there is a certain amount of research on this. It appears to be effective as an antimicrobial and for healing wounds after surgery [3]. 

When compared to sugar, honey appears to be better at protecting against obesity and high triglycerides and cholesterol [4]. It also may increase insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar, which are especially important in type 2 diabetes. 

Still, these results may be taken with a grain of salt. Some of the research has been done in rats, not humans, and the results may not be the same in people. In addition, some of the studies have included high doses of honey that have been substituted for high doses of sucrose. The great results may mean not that honey is a superfood, but that it is less bad than sucrose. 

Is Honey Really That Much Healthier?


In the amounts most people use sugar or honey, honey probably is not that much healthier than sugar.

If you have diabetes, your body has trouble metabolizing carbohydrates properly. Keeping your carbohydrate intake moderate and consistent can help keep blood sugar in check. Honey is a high-carbohydrate food, so it does count towards your carbohydrate goals for meals and snacks. 

Having too much honey or other high-carbohydrate food can challenge your body. It can lead to spikes in blood sugar and, over time, increases in glycated hemoglobin (A1C). Too many grams of carbohydrates at one time compared to the amount you usually have can also lead to changes in how much medicine you need if you are on insulin. 

Another concern with honey is its calorie content. If you are overweight or obese and have type 2 diabetes, losing a few pounds can lower blood sugar levels. Gaining extra weight can raise blood sugar. With 64 calories in each tablespoon, honey is a calorie-dense food. (In comparison, a tablespoon of cottage cheese has 7 calories, and a cup (16 tablespoons) of broccoli has 40 calories.) 

Is Honey Okay If I Have Diabetes?


Honey can be okay for many people with diabetes. For many people, it can fit into a moderate or low-carb diet in small amounts and with other nutritious foods. As always, be sure to ask your doctor if you are not sure if a certain food is okay for you to eat, and how best to fit it into your diet. 

Tips for Eating Honey with Diabetes


It is best to be aware of any honey you may be adding to foods because the calories, carbohydrates, and sugar can add up quickly. Just a few items that may call for honey include tea, peanut butter sandwiches, ricotta or hard cheeses, teriyaki sauce, and salad dressings. Without caution, honey in all these foods can contribute hundreds of calories without realizing it.

Lark for Diabetes can help you stay aware of the honey you are consuming when you log your foods. In addition, your Lark coach can offer insights, such as noticing that you had a lot of honey on a day when your blood sugar is higher than normal, for example. 

With about 15 grams of carbs in each tablespoon of honey, a tablespoon counts as 1 of the 2 or 3 servings of carbs you might be aiming for in each meal. When planning meals and counting carbs, remember to count honey along with other carbohydrates such as fruit, bread, cereal, and other grains, beans, and starchy vegetables.

It is good to keep in mind that wholesome honey is different from honey-flavored foods, or foods with a small amount of honey and a large amount of refined carbohydrates or solid fats. For example, honey ham is high in sodium and nitrates, honey-flavored cereal and graham crackers, often has more sugar than honey, and honey mustard dressing and teriyaki sauce may be high in sodium and high fructose corn syrup.

As when eating other carbohydrates, it is best to eat honey with a source of protein, fiber, and/or fat to keep blood sugar from spiking too fast. These are some ways you might consider using honey.

  • In a dressing with olive oil, vinegar, dijon mustard, and spices, over a green salad with chicken or garbanzo beans.
  • In teriyaki sauce with low-sodium soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil, used with salmon or in a stir fry with shrimp or chicken and vegetables.
  • With olive oil as a glaze for roasted chicken and root vegetables such as onions, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
  • With peanut butter on a slice of whole-grain bread.
  • With blue cheese and walnuts.

Honey and Hypoglycemia in Diabetes


Hypoglycemia is a condition with low fasting blood sugar. People with diabetes who have mild hypoglycemia, or blood sugar between 54 and 70 mg/dl, may be asked to immediately consume 15 grams of carbohydrates, such as sugar.

It is important to remember that honey may be slower to digest than sugar because of a potentially lower GI. That means it is not appropriate as a treatment for hypoglycemia. Other good options, beside sugar, are fruit juice, hard candies, and jelly beans.

When thinking about honey versus sugar when you have diabetes, honey may be a better everyday choice for sweetening foods. Lark for Diabetes can help you follow a healthy diet for lowering blood sugar, along with taking other steps to lower risk for diabetes.

Author
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health