Chris Masterjohn, one of my favorite nutrition bloggers had a post a while back where he discussed a rat study that showed honey crushing a fructose containing sugar on various measurements of health. I decided to evaluate more evidence on sugar versus honey and see which one comes out the winner.
(Note: when I refer to “sugar” in this post I’m referring to a a refined sweetener made of either sucrose or a sugar with a similar ratio of glucose to fructose).
Round 1: Rat Studies
The first study we’ll look at fed rats about 8% of their diet as honey, sugar, or starch for 52 weeks and various measures of health were examined (3). At the end of the study a few differences were found. Compared to the sugar group the honey group had higher HDL and lower triglycerides, body fat, and HbA1c levels (essentially damaged hemoglobin)
Another study noticed similar effects; rats were fed 20% of their diet as either honey or sugar for 33 days and health measurements were taken (5). The rats fed honey had higher HDL and lower levels of body fat, triglycerides, and leptin.
One study compared diets of 8% sugar and honey in young rats for 6 weeks (4). Ultimately, the honey group experienced less weight gain than the sugar group.
Another interesting study from the researchers who brought us our first study used the same experimental set up, except this time they examined various measures of mental health (2). Based on a number of experiments, the scientists concluded that the honey fed rats had less anxiety and better spatial memory than the rats fed sugar.
Finally, the study examined in Masterjohn’s post fed young rats diets composed of 65% honey, starch, or sugar (1). This study found that compared to honey, sugar lowers vitamin E, promotes inflammation, raises triglycerides, and increases vulnerability to oxidative stress.
Round 2: Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors
In one of a series of studies, people with high levels of triglycerides in their blood were fed either honey or sugar (9). Post prandial triglyceride levels were decreased after honey and increased after sugar. Another experiment by these researchers fed 75 grams of honey or sugar to healthy subjects. Once again, post prandial triglycerides were increased after sugar and decreased after honey.
A study on 60 men and women with high cholesterol had subjects taking 75 grams of sugar or honey every day for 2 weeks (6). By the end of the study, the women receiving sugar had increased levels of LDL cholesterol while the women receiving honey saw no change.
In a study similar to the previous one, 60 overweight or obese individuals were given either 70 grams of sugar or 70 grams of honey every day for a maximum of 30 days (10). This study reported that, compared to sugar, honey reduced various cardiovascular risk factors, including body fat, LDL, Hs-CRP, triglycerides, and fasting blood glucose. Unfortunately, the differences were small and not significant.
Round 3: Blood Sugar, Insulin Sensitivity, and Diabetes
In one study, subjects were given 1 gram of either honey or sugar per kilogram of body weight (16). The honey produced significantly lower post meal plasma glucose levels than the sugar.
In another study, diabetic and healthy people were given 20 grams of sugar or honey (13). In the normal and insulin dependent diabetics, the honey produced a lesser blood sugar response than the sugar.
A study on children with type 1 diabetes tested their glycemic response to honey or sugar (17). The glycemic index of honey was lower than sugar.
Final Round: Other Stuff
One study fed a large amount of honey or sugar to young students and measured blood glucose levels (12). No differential objective values were found, but abdominal discomfort was lower in the subjects taking honey than those taking sugar.
In a double blind study, healthy women were given 450 calories of honey or sugar. The women given the honey experienced lower blood glucose levels and higher levels of post meal peptide YY, a hormone that appears to reduce appetite (18).
Finally, one study fed 12 subjects about 70 grams of either sugar or honey (20). Urinary prostaglandins, a marker of inflammation (21) decreased in the honey group and increased in the sugar group.
So the fight is over and honey definitely came out the winner, though it wasn’t a exactly a knockout. If anything can and should be taken from this post it’s this: replacing equal amounts of refined sugar (like table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) with unprocessed honey will very likely be beneficial with very little appreciable downsides to most people.
However, honey is still mostly sugar, with very little in the way of vitamins or minerals. While certainly a better alternative to sugar, honey intake should probably be still viewed as a conditionally beneficial sugar source.
Note: Honey is generally not recommended for infant less than a year due to the potential contamination of honey with spores of bacteria which can cause botulism, something the infant digestive system is ill equipped to deal with.