Q: Is honey better for me than regular sugar?
– Kim in Brooklyn
A: Don’t be lead astray by sweet misconceptions. All sugars, with the exception of blackstrap molasses, are nutritional wastelands. Granted, honey has minuscule amounts of some minerals, but not enough to make a dent in a person’s daily needs. For example, it takes 11 cups of honey to supply a woman’s daily need for iron; it would take 19 cups of honey to supply the calcium in one cup of nonfat milk. Honey also has been touted as an alternative to sugar for weight loss and diabetes.
While in theory this claim is interesting, in reality it doesn’t hold much water. Honey is a mix of two simple sugars – glucose and fructose. Fructose does not trigger the insulin response and might not have the same effect as refined table sugar on appetite and food cravings. According to the Glycemic Index (a rating of how much blood sugar levels rise in response to a food, with glucose rating the highest score of 100) pure fructose and fructose-containing fruits rate as low as 20; even pasta raises blood sugar levels more than fructose. Although honey is high in fructose, it has a high Glycemic score of 87, not much better than refined sugar and a whole lot worse than most grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other natural foods. Why is fructose OK, but honey isn’t? Fructose is absorbed more slowly than refined sugars and must travel to the liver to be converted to glucose before it can enter the blood. Thus, fructose alone or with a meal stimulates insulin, but not as dramatically or as rapidly as pure glucose or table sugar. These three differences – slower absorption, the stopover in the liver, and a more gradual release of insulin – means that a person who switches from a sugar-laden candy bar to a fructose-filled apple is not as likely to overeat at the next meal. Honey, on the other hand, is a 50-50 mix of fructose and glucose, so at least half of its sugar enters rapidly into the blood, with no fiber to help curb the blood sugar rise. Consequently, concentrated fructose, the popular ingredient called high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and honey are no substitutes for more nutritious naturally-occurring fructose in fruits, which come packaged with vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and phytochemicals. Fructose also has a dark side. Some people have trouble digesting it and may experience diarrhea, gas, and abdominal pain when even small doses of concentrated fructose in honey or HFCS are consumed. This is not a problem when fructose is consumed in fruits. Fructose in excess of 20% of total calories also might raise blood triglyceride, cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk for heart disease. Honey is a natural sweetener and a few tablespoons a day instead of the pounds of refined sugar many Americans are eating is a safe addition to the diet. But don’t be fooled into thinking your doing anything more for your health than satisfying your sweet tooth. – Elizabeth Somer