Sugar substitutes - honey explained

Sweeter than sugar and with twice the nutritional profile could honey be the ultimate alternative to table sugar? We explore the nutritional highs and lows of this popular porridge topper...

Honey in a jar next to honeycomb

How honey is made

Honey is a natural, sweet liquid produced by bees from the nectar of flowers which plays a vital role sustaining and nourishing bee colonies. Each bee will make, on average, about half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Considering the tons of honey produced each year, that’s a lot of bees at work! The honeybee (Apis Mellifera) collects nectar from flowers using its mouth. Enzymes in the bee’s saliva cause a chemical reaction that turns the nectar into honey, which is deposited into the walls of the hive. The texture and flavour of the honey depends on which flowers the honeybees choose to collect from.

How it's used

Referred to in ancient writings, honey has long been used for both nutrition and medicinal healing. For centuries, honey was used to pay homage to the gods and help embalm the dead, as well as for medical and cosmetic purposes. Nowadays it is a popular, versatile sweetener that can be used instead of white cane sugar in baking, sauces and hot drinks. It works well in moist, dense, full-flavoured bakes. It is sweeter than sugar, so you'll need to use less and because honey is liquid, you'll need less fluid in the recipe. It caramelises quicker than normal sugar and gives a darker finish to your bake. It is most often sold pasteurised, although you can find raw honey. As a rule, the darker the colour, the stronger the flavour. It may solidify at room temperature, but you can remedy this by gently heating the jar in warm water. For tips on using honey in cooking take a look at our sugar-free baking guide.

Manuka honey in a jar

Nutritional highlights

Honey is made up of fructose (40%), glucose (30%), water and minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Due to the high level of fructose, honey is sweeter than table sugar. Honey is a high carbohydrate food and has a GI value of 55 (moderate range). Some varieties of honey have a lower GI however, because of fluctuating fructose levels (the more fructose, the lower the GI). Honey is still high in calories and causes increases in blood sugar.

Tablespoon (20g) honey provides
58kcal15.3g carbohydrate0.1g protein0g fat


What is manuka honey?

Manuka honey is produced from the pollen of the manuka tree. It is high in a chemical called methylglyoxal, which has been claimed by researchers to be the source of honey's antibacterial properties. Manuka honey comes with a high price tag so be sure you know exactly what you are buying. It has quite a strong flavour and can be stirred into tea and yogurt or spread on your toast. Remember that even manuka honey is a source of concentrated sugar and should be consumed in moderation.

Health claims

The health benefits of honey depend on its processing as well as the quality of the flowers the bees collect pollen from. Raw honey is honey that has not been heated, pasteurised, clarified or filtered in any way, and this form typically retains more of the health promoting nutrients that can be lost to the standard processing methods. 

Honey has been used topically as an antiseptic for years. It is believed to speed up the healing process in mild, superficial wounds, ulcers and burns. Because honey is composed mainly of glucose and fructose, two sugars that strongly attract water, honey absorbs water in the wound, drying it out so that the growth of bacteria and fungi is inhibited. 

Honey, particularly darker varieties, is a rich source of chemical compounds such as flavonoids. Flavonoids have been reported to have antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties. Due to the flavonoid content, some view honey as a healthier alternative to sugar and a source of antioxidants.

Manuka honey in a bowl

Is it better than sugar?

Honey has a lower GI value than sugar, meaning that it does not raise blood sugar levels as quickly. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you may need less of it, but it does have slightly more calories per teaspoon so it's wise to keep a close eye on your portion sizes. For diabetics, or those trying to manage their blood sugar levels, there is no real advantage to substituting sugar for honey as both will ultimately affect blood sugar levels. It's also worth remembering that like other syrups, honey is classed as 'free' sugars – the type we are advised to cut back on. If you do prefer honey, try to choose a raw variety, which contains more vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants and nutrients than white sugar and use it in moderation. It is worth remembering, however, that any nutritional benefit from consuming honey is negligible.

This article was last reviewed on 24 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts find all the answers in our sugar hub:
All you need to know about sugar

Do you use honey instead of table sugar? Have you noticed any health benefits? We'd love to hear your thoughts...

Comments, questions and tips

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Jim Penny's picture
Jim Penny
23rd Jul, 2018
You know what? You fell into the trap of saying that honey is sweeter than sugar. It is not. Honey contains roughly similar proportions of fructose and glucose. It also contains maltose, which has roughly 1/3 of the sweetness of sugar. Glucose has a lower sweetness index than sugar (sucrose) and fructose has a higher sweetness index. They largely cancel each other out in terms of sweetness. However if you heat honey to above 60 degrees C, the structure of fructose changes from a 6 member ring to a 5 member ring. The 5 membered ring has the same sweetness as sugar, so with its glucose content, and on a dry basis, the honey is less sweet than sucrose. On a dry basis, it then has a higher GI than sugar. If you add water to sugar so that it has 17% water, it will have a similar GI to honey. Honey contains miniscule amounts of minerals which would be swamped by those normally found in fruit and vegetables.. Then we have the viscosity, which others have mentioned. You tend to add more because it is more viscous. If you weighed it, you might get a better result.
Bran Lika's picture
Bran Lika
6th Jun, 2018
I should add that in case of sweetening tea or coffee, one should NOT put honey into anything that is heated over +42C degrees. Otherwise, it will lose all the health goodies honey contains.
Jamie Shaw's picture
Jamie Shaw
17th Mar, 2018
I just measured out a tablespoon of standard “runny honey” with a proper measuring spoon and it was 17g. This was on scales which weigh to 0.1g. I find that on normal scales weighing in 1g increments, small weights like these are incredibly unreliable. Most places say honey is sweeter that sugar, as backed up by the nutritional information in the article: use 0.875 times as much sugar in place of honey for the same amount of sugar but do test as our perceptions can vary between different types of sweeteners. Also, Ocado honey says 15g provides 12.2g carbs (all as sugars), so less than in this article. I’m sure all honeys vary slightly, and nutritional information isn’t perfect anyway.
Clive Burdett Jones's picture
Clive Burdett Jones
28th Jan, 2018
I would add - to complicate matters further, the viscosity of the honey makes a difference, whether it is stored in the fridge or at room temperature.
Clive Burdett Jones's picture
Clive Burdett Jones
28th Jan, 2018
I would suggest that a tablespoonful of honey weighs a lot more than 15 grams. I use a dessert spoon and, while it is difficult to extract a level spoonful from the jar, I find that the average dessert (10ml) spoonful weighs about 30 - 35 grams, arrived at by weighing the jar before and after.
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