What do granola bars, breakfast cereal, peanuts, graham crackers, and chamomile tea have in common? Besides being delicious, all are frequently paired with honey. In fact, honey might even make them better: The top-selling snack bar in the United States is Nature Valley Oats ‘N Honey Granola bars, and the top-selling cereal for several years has been General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios.
Honey makes us feel so warm and fuzzy that we use the word as a term of endearment for our significant others, our pets, and our kids. It’s no wonder when you see it listed as an ingredient in your favorite snack bar that it feels reassuring, like you’ve found a wholesome, natural food. Plus, it has Winnie the Pooh’s stamp of approval. That counts for something, right?
Maybe. Instead of labeling honey as “good” or “bad,” let’s dig in to the details and see how it measures up.
Honey vs. Table Sugar: The Nutritional Breakdown
In casual conversation, you usually just say “sugar,” but on a chemical level, there are many types of sugars: sucrose, fructose, lactose, glucose, and maltose, to name a handful. The two most commonly used sugars to sweeten foods are sucrose (table sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar).
Sucrose can be made from beet juice or sugar cane, and it is actually a combination of glucose and fructose, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Types of sucrose include granulated sugar (i.e. your standard table sugar), raw sugar, brown sugar, and powdered sugar.
Fructose is the sugar that naturally occurs in all fruits. When you’re eating a snack bar that’s only sweetened with dates, for example, you’re eating fructose.
Glucose is a sugar found in fruits in small amounts and is considered one of the most important energy sources for living creatures. Once digested, it’s broken down into a simple sugar that your body’s cells use for fuel, according to the American Diabetes Association.
So where does honey fit into this? Honey is actually a combination of fructose, glucose, water, and trace amounts of sucrose, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Although sucrose often gets villainized, researchers have found that the body metabolizes all these sweeteners similarly. For example, a 2015 study from Journal of Nutrition found that participants who consumed 50 grams of carbohydrates from honey, sucrose, or high-fructose corn syrup experienced similar effects on inflammation, cholesterol, or insulin.
Per teaspoon, honey contains 6 grams of sugar and 21 calories. By comparison, table sugar has 4 grams of sugar and 16 calories per teaspoon. That means honey is sweeter than sugar. “Although honey has more calories than sugar, you tend to use less of it,” says Priya Khorana, EdD, doctor of nutrition education at Teachers College of Columbia University.
But the important thing to remember is that neither honey nor table sugar has fiber to balance out the effect on blood sugar or metabolization. “Honey is a form of added sugar,” says Dr. Khorana. “It is still advisable to keep track of your intake just as you would other sweeteners.”
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar (of any type) daily for women, and 36 grams daily for men. (Learn more here about how cutting added sugars helps the body.)
Does Honey Have Any Perks?
If the body metabolizes honey similarly as table sugar, why the hype?
Honey does have a few established benefits. It does contain trace amounts of amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, but it varies depending on which plants the bees are pollinating, according to Dr. Khorana. (That said, there’s nothing in honey that you can’t get from other foods—sans the sugar.)
Honey’s biggest superpower is not its nutritional value, but its medicinal purposes. But not just any honey: The one to look for is buckwheat honey—a dark honey with an intense flavor made from bees who pollinate the buckwheat flowers.
Research shows that buckwheat honey is more effective than a placebo at improving cough symptoms and quality of sleep for children with the common cold, according to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Try adding buckwheat honey to warm tea to soothe cold symptoms. (Here are more tips to help you sleep when you’re sick.)
One caveat: In order to get the medicinal effects, it’s crucial to get honey in its pure, unprocessed form. Food manufacturers sometimes filter honey and spike it with other sweeteners (like corn syrup), which destroys its health perks. Look for honeys labeled “pure” or “raw,” and if possible, buy it directly from the beekeeper.
The bottom line: Honey makes a great natural remedy for cold symptoms, but there’s no nutritional need to add honey to your diet.