Sugar vs Honey vs Jaggery: Which is Healthier?

The original article didn’t include Jaggery. Included now as an additional section at the end.

‘Green tea with a teaspoon of honey please’, she said. Feeling proud that today, she’s made a healthier choice.

‘Can you please deposit another gazillion dollars into my bank account please’, the marketeer said. Knowing that today, once again, he’d made a billion people buy slightly ‘brown-er’ shit, for slightly more money.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s begin with some basics. Quick concepts we’ll need to answer this question.

Calorie Density

If your goal is weight-loss, then net calorie intake is the only metric for you to track. And to do that, knowing a product’s calorie-density is key.


Eat too much sugar, too often, and blood-sugar spikes abnormally all day. Do this over a long period of time, and the body’s insulin response gets broken. That’s diabetes.

Glycemic Index (GI)

High fibre food has very low GI. Sugary foods have very high GI.

So which of these 3 sweeteners is better?

Apart from ‘it seems more natural’, there are two other reasons people generally quote, when I ask them why they chose brown sugar/ honey over regular sugar.

It’s better for weight-loss

It’s healthier because it’s more natural and raw

So let’s examine each of the three, on both these planks.

It’s better for weight-loss

Sorry to burst your bubble, but both brown sugar and white sugar have almost the same calorie density. 375kcal and 390kcal per 100gm. Bring that down to ‘per teaspoon’, and the difference practically vanishes.

Honey does have a slightly lower calorie density. At about 330–340kcal/ 100gm, it is about ~12% less calorie dense.

But again, at a ‘per teaspoon’ level, that difference is negligible. And most often, I see people adding a bit extra honey (or licking the bit stuck to the spoon), thinking they’re making the healthier choice. Those extra 2g, and your calorie difference vanishes.

Basically, if limiting calorie intake is your goal, then (this will hurt), there is no difference between the three.

It’s Healthier

I assume that it comes from honey and brown sugar looking more natural. Which, somehow, is seen as an indicator of being more nutritious.

At this time, allow me to first bust a massive myth.

What is Brown Sugar?

Molasses are a by-product of sugar production. So, in most cases, the factory-produced brown-sugar you’ve been using as a replacement for ‘processed’ white sugar, is actually that same white sugar — with one extra step of processing!

In some cases, the manufacturer might stop the refinement process midway and let a bit (~5%) of molasses remain in the mixture. These are the slightly more ‘artisanal’ demerera sugars etc.

But in both cases, there is, literally, NO difference between the two. Neither nutritionally nor calorie-wise. The only difference is color and taste.

What a scam!

But is honey more nutritious?

Constitutionally, honey is a bit different from sugar.

Sugars are generally half glucose and half fructose. Honey, is a larger proportion of fructose. Hence honey, is actually sweeter than regular sugar. It has lower calorie-density because ~15% of honey is water.

Given it’s sweeter, one should be consuming lesser of it, compared to sugar. The reality though, as we discussed, might turn out to be different.

Also, since it comes from a more natural, unadulterated source, honey does contain many nutrients and anti-oxidants.

But I won’t go into the details of what they are, because when consumed at 2–3 teaspoons a day, these nutrients are present in just trace amounts.

So nutritionally, if you seek to reap the benefits of honey, you’d need to consume about half a glass everyday. In which case you can kiss weight-loss goodbye.

So yes, theoretically, honey is more nutritious. Given it’s composition, it has many allied benefits too — from curing coughs to healing wounds.

But unfortunately, if you’re looking at it as a healthier substitute for sugar in your weight-loss battle, then you’re in for disappointment.

Lower GI

So if you are diabetic, and you must have one of the two, honey would win.

Update: Jaggery

Crap. This is not good. But what about jaggery?

So here I am, adding our beloved ‘Gur’ to the competition. The parameters of comparison remain the same.

It’s better for weight-loss

It’s healthier because it’s more natural and raw

But first, let’s understand what is Jaggery?

Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made by boiling concentrated sugar cane extract until it hardens. It is then rolled into patties or chopped into blocks, or powdered and sold as sugar.

If you speak to an expert, they might refer to it as a ‘non-centrifugal’ sugar. Which is just a fancy way of saying that unlike refined sugar, jaggery isn’t spun while processing to separate the molasses. That’s all.

Fun Fact: While a product like jaggery is found in many cultures across the world (all over Asia, Latin America and the Carribeans), India produces about 70% of the worlds jaggery!

Calorie Density

By now you’d be seeing a common thread. Quite simply:

If it sweetens like sugar, it has the calories of sugar

That’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact that you need to factor into your daily calorie count. Don’t let anyone fool you into having more sugar than you need to, saying that jaggery or honey are lower-calorie alternatives. They are not.

Even when it comes to GI, jaggery isn’t any better than sugar. That means it causes a similar insulin spike, when consumed in a similar amount.

Nutrient Density

I must admit here, that jaggery does have the highest ‘nutrient-density’ of all the alternatives we’ve considered till now. Here’s a quick lowdown of what all it contains, per 100gm:

  • Protein: 0.4 grams.
  • Fat: 0.1 grams.
  • Iron: 11 mg, or 61% of the RDI.
  • Magnesium: 100–150mg, or about 30% of the RDI.
  • Potassium: 1050 mg, or 30% of the RDI.
  • Manganese: 0.2–0.5 mg, or 10–20% of the RDI.

As you can see, it has a lot of nutrients in decent amounts. Now, let’s say, you substitute all your sugar intake with jaggery. If you’re on a weight-loss/ maintenance diet, I’d assume you’re not consuming more than 20–25gm sugar a day (across tea, coffee, sweets etc)

(If you are, this article isn’t the first one you need to read. Read this.)

At these levels, switching to jaggery gives you about 8% of your Magnesium and Potassium, and about 15% of your Iron requirements. That’s significant.

Now bear in mind, I am NOT suggesting you make jaggery your go-to medium to get magnesium and iron. Please. Have spinach.

But at these levels, it is definitely better than having the same amount of sugar.

Allied Benefits

It’s also claimed to solve many everyday-ailments like: activating digestion, fighting cold (taken with black pepper), reducing flatulence (which is why it’s used as a quick desert after meals in many Indian households), curing mild headaches…the list goes on.

Here’s a complete lowdown if you’re interested.

I’m not qualified to prove or disprove these. But I must say this — given it’s nutritional composition, I wouldn’t be surprised if this cocktail of vitamins and minerals creates some magic in our body. Magic, because I don’t think traditional western science can decode it (yet).

Not to mention, having grown up in a middle-class North-Indian household, I’ve seen, first-hand, ‘gur’ used in various forms to cure various ailments. Empirically speaking, I’ve seen it work (same for honey in curing coughs).

It’s similar to how the Mediterranean folks would swear by Dates. Those too have an amazing nutrient profile and infact have much lower calorie-density (and hence sweetness) when used as whole-fruit. If you extract the sugar out of it though, then it has (surprise-surprise), the same calorie-density as sugar.

But dates deserve a whole different post. For now, here’s the updated verdict.

Verdict: So what do I do?

But if you’re going to have Sugar, replacing it with jaggery or dates would be my go-to option. Far lesser chemicals, far more nutrients, and perhaps some magic formula that has many ancient cultures believing in them. Good deal.

If you’re on a strict diet and completely off sugar, I also support the use of artificial sweeteners. Consumed in small quantities, they can be great allies in your war against the weighing scale. But you’ve got to be careful. Read this before you dive in.

Originally published at FIT SHIT.



Fat kid. Fit adult. Writes about Health. Busy rebuilding the worlds trust in its food.

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Shashank Mehta

Fat kid. Fit adult. Writes about Health. Busy rebuilding the worlds trust in its food.