Why replacing sugar with honey is an unhealthy choice

Regardless of the argument as to whether honey has many health benefits over table sugar, many consumers are being misled by claims about honey. Unfortunately, its consumers are also adding it in excessive quantities to food and drink in the mistaken belief that it is healthy.

But swapping sugar for honey is not a healthy diet choice. Analysis on 223 kinds of honey, sugars and syrups, all widely available in United Kingdom supermarkets, by Action on Sugar found that honey can be up to 86 per cent free sugars, while maple syrup can be made of 88 per cent free sugars.

It found that adding a 7gm teaspoon of honey to a cup of tea added about 6gm of free sugar, while adding a teaspoon of table sugar would add 4gm.  Also, a portion (15mls) of maple syrup added to porridge contained 13.1gm of total sugars, only a little less than 15gm of table sugar.

Honey, the sweet liquid produced by honeybees (Apis mellifera), is composed of about 40 per cent fructose, in contrast to the 50 per cent fructose in table sugar and between 40 and 90 per cent fructose in high-fructose corn syrup.

Although honey is often promoted as a healthier option to table sugar because it is natural, Mrs Taibat Oduneye, a dietitian at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State, stated that its use in excess could have an adverse effect in the long run.

Mrs Oduneye said honey, like table sugar, is a form of carbohydrate, adding that its intake can also make blood sugar level to increase.

According to her, “Honey is safe to use, but an excess of it can have a bad effect on the body or blood glucose level, as is applicable to a diabetes patient. So, it is not something to be used freely. For diabetic patients, we do not encourage its use as an alternative to sugar, no matter how natural it may be.”

She declared that in Nigeria, a lot of adulterated or diluted honey is on sale, despite marketing gimmicks like people testing it with flame, checking if ants would hover around it or it will dissolve in water.

Mrs Oduneye stated that honey is not to be used freely or in excess but she recommended for a cup of tea, say about 250 mls, a teaspoon of honey or a tablespoon at the maximum.

Professor Soji Fasanmade, a consultant endocrinologist at the UCH, Ibadan, stated that many people assume honey a good alternative to sugar because the sucrose in honey is converted slowly to glucose.

However, Professor Fasanmade declared “I will not recommend honey as an alternative to sugar because when you do, people now take it in large amounts. And we should not encourage diabetes patients to take a lot of honey.

“If you want to take honey, maybe just in a little quantity to mildly sweeten the food. But they must remember that when taking honey, they are also taking sugar in an indirect way.

“Some people believe that honey has antioxidant properties, but research findings on it are not consistent. Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress in cells of the body, thus helping to protect these cells from damage.”

Professor Fasanmade added, “If you have to take honey, do not take more than half a teaspoon maximum three times a day. This small quantity of honey should not cause any problem.”

Although studies in animals show that honey raises blood sugar very slowly, the medical expert said this does not translate to this sweetener doing exactly the same in humans, particularly in diabetics.

Fasanmade stated: “When we induce diabetes in rats at our laboratory and we give them honey, it did not worsen their diabetes state, unlike when you give them food. That is why some people believe that honey is good.

“But it is unethical to induce diabetes in an individual just to substantiate this. For diabetes, so many factors like genetics and lifestyle need to be taken into consideration.

“But if you want to do such study in an animal, you can control all the other factors and just pick only one factor, but you cannot do that successfully in humans.”

Meanwhile, researchers’ investigation found that some products which are billed as containing honey actually have more table sugar in them. Too many calories from all types of sugars contribute to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, liver disease and tooth decay, all of which have devastating effects on health and wellbeing.

So, the notion that honey can be used as a sugar substitute in recipes is a fallacy since honey is sugar in itself and, therefore, is not technically a substitute for sugar.