Sugar, Honey, Or Jaggery – Which One Is Healthiest?

Sugar is considered an integral part of our life when it comes to food. After waking up, we grab a cup of coffee or tea with sugar. Then this process of sugar consumption continues the entire day either by adding it to tea or milk or by consuming it indirectly through various food products such as ice creams, chocolates, cold drinks, and packaged fruit juices.

Sugar, Honey, Or Jaggery… Before we begin, what is good, and what is bad? Let us understand some quick concepts we’ll need to answer this question:

Calorie Density:
It’s the number of calories per gram that a product has. If our goal is weight loss, then net calorie intake is the only metric for us to track.

When we eat anything, our body breaks the carbs down into constituent sugars. These sugars get absorbed into the bloodstream and travel to all cells, giving them energy. Insulin is the hormone our body produces to regulate these changes by the glucose uptake into cells, reducing serum blood glucose levels.

Glycemic Index (GI) & Glycemic Load (GL):
The glycemic index is a way to measure how 50 grams of carbohydrates in a particular food will cause our blood sugar levels to rise. The higher the number on the glycemic index (1-100), the more rapidly the carbohydrate is converted into sugar. Although our brain and body need glucose to function, too much too fast is not healthy.

Example: High-fiber food has a very low GI. Sugary foods have a very high GI.

The glycemic load takes the glycemic index one step further and measures the rise in blood sugar based on the number of carbohydrates the food contains in an average serving. The glycemic load is calculated by multiplying a food’s glycemic index by the carbohydrate content (measured in grams) and dividing by 100.

So now, which of these sweeteners is better? How can we define ‘BETTER’ here?

The most common differentiation we hear is ‘it seems more natural.’ Still, people generally mention two other reasons when asked why they chose brown sugar/honey/jaggery over regular sugar.

“It’s better for weight loss.”

“It’s healthier because it’s less processed and has more micronutrients.”

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

1. It’s better for weight loss: Testing this is easy. A food product needs to have lower calorie density to be better for weight loss. Simple. Now,

White/Brown Sugar: Sorry to burst your bubble, but brown and white sugar have almost the same calorie density. 375 kcal and 390 kcal per 100 gm, respectively. But the difference is negligible when we consume one teaspoon or ten gms of it.

Honey: Honey does have a slightly lower calorie density. At about 330–340kcal/ 100gm, which is about ~12% less . But again, at a ‘per teaspoon’ level, that difference is negligible. And most often, we see people adding a bit extra honey, thinking they’re making the healthier choice. That extra two gms and the calorie difference vanishes.

Jaggery: Jaggery is the same as Honey and Sugar. Jaggery has ~380kCal/100gm. So there’s very little difference in calorie density.

Having either of the three is not good or bad. They are almost the same in terms of calories. You need to factor it into your daily calorie count. Don’t let anyone fool you into having more sugar than you need. They are not. If limiting calorie intake is your goal, then there is no difference between them.

2. It’s Healthier, less processed & rich in nutrients.: We are aware that “The Dose makes the poison.” So, food being healthy depends on how much quantity you consume. That being said, brown sugar, demerara sugar, honey, and jaggery are thought to be better because they are less processed and have more nutrients. Let us break this down :

What is Brown Sugar?

Essentially brown sugar should be the less refined version of white sugar. However, the primarily available commercial brown sugar is White sugar + Molasses. Molasses are a by-product of sugar production.

Brown sugar prepared by adding molasses, in the end, is often much coarser than its unrefined equivalent. It can be easily distinguished from its less refined counterpart as the molasses may be easily separated from the crystals by simply washing to reveal the underlying white sugar crystals; in contrast, with unrefined brown sugar, washing will show underlying crystals off-white due to the inclusion of molasses.

So, in most cases, the factory-produced brown sugar commonly used as a replacement for ‘processed’ white sugar is that same white sugar — with one extra step of processing! But in both cases, there is NO difference between the two. Neither nutritionally nor calorie-wise. The only difference is color and taste.

What is Honey?

But is honey more nutritious: It’s a bit different from sugar. Sugars are generally half glucose and fructose. Honey is sweeter than regular sugar. It has lower calorie density because approx 15% of honey is water. Given that it’s sweeter, one should consume less of it than sugar. The reality, though, as we discussed, might be different. Also, since it comes from a more natural, unadulterated source, honey does contain many anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals. To understand it clearly, when consumed at 2–3 teaspoons a day, these nutrients are present in trace amounts (You will have to consume at least 100 gms or more to get the benefits). So yes, theoretically, honey is more nutritious. Given its composition, it has many allied benefits, too — from curing coughs to healing wounds (PMC5424551). But unfortunately, it is not a Healthy Substitute for sugar in the weight loss journey.

Lower GI: Honey has a slightly lower GI (~50) compared to sugar (~65). So, it gets absorbed a bit slower and hence causes a lower blood-sugar spike when consumed in the same amount. So for someone with Diabetes, Yes, honey is a little win over sugar, but it needs to be tightly regulated.

What is Jaggery?

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

India produces about 70% of the world’s jaggery!

Similar GI: Jaggery isn’t any better than sugar. That means it causes a similar insulin spike when consumed in an equivalent amount.

Jaggery does have the highest ‘nutrient density’ of all the alternatives we’ve considered till now. Sugar, Honey, and Jaggery it has some percentages of micronutrients like Iron, Magnesium, potassium, and manganese. Still, if you plan to take jaggery for these benefits, you better have Spinach with much fewer calories.

So what do I do?

Sugar (White/Brown) is considered part of ‘Empty Calories’ food with no/limited nutrition values; hence, there are no significant health benefits. Also, the high glycemic index (GI) and the minimal amount/absence of vitamins and minerals raises blood sugar levels more quickly.

Usually, Jaggery is not chemically processed like refined sugar. Therefore, it’s always a better choice, but Diabetic patients should avoid Jaggery considering the high glycemic index value to avoid a rise in blood sugar levels.

Honey is a healthier choice than other sweeteners, as it is less processed with a low glycemic index (GI), and contains vitamins and minerals. Still, in terms of calories, there is little difference.

So, you can choose any of the above you enjoy and make it a part of your diet as they all stand at a similar level with little difference. Remember, count the calories & moderation is the key.

Limiting your Sugar intake to avoid health issues is always recommended, but no harm in adding a teaspoon of Sugar, honey, or Jaggery to your daily cup of Tea!


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