The human body is hardwired to like sweet foods. That was useful for our caveman ancestors who sometimes dealt with long periods of hunger or fasting when resources were scarce. But it’s not always such a great thing for modern Americans who often have easy access to countless sugary, calorie-filled snacks every moment of the day.
America’s ongoing love affair with sugar has helped fuel an increase in obesity rates and Type 2 diabetes, and that spells trouble for general health and well-being. As such, many people are looking to cut out or limit their intake of sugar, and in so doing, may be substituting in honey or maple syrup instead.
However, this move towards a more natural sweetener may not have the intended effect because as it turns out, “both honey and maple syrup are made up of primarily sugar,” says Mia Syn, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Types of Sugar
There are several kinds of sugar, including sucrose, glucose and fructose. They have differing chemical compositions and the body absorbs and metabolizes each one a little differently:
— Sucrose is the technical term for the same type of sugar derived from cane or beets– or what we think of as “table sugar.” It’s made up of a combination of glucose and fructose. It occurs naturally in many foods, but in its refined form, it’s the primary source of added sugars in the diet and is found in many processed foods and baked goods. The body has enzymes to break apart the glucose and fructose molecules; each is absorbed individually.
— Glucose, also known as dextrose, is a simple sugar that’s less sweet than sucrose and fructose. The body prefers to burn glucose for energy, and it’s a basic building block for many other more complex carbohydrates such as starches. It occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but may be added to other processed foods as well. This is the fastest and easiest sugar to absorb because it doesn’t require any enzymes to be broken down.
— Fructose is also called fruit sugar and occurs naturally in many fruits and other foods, such as from ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Fructose must travel to the liver in order to be converted to glucose for most of the body’s cells to be able to use it for energy.
All three types of sugar are part of a typical varied diet. “Honey is primarily fructose, glucose with some sucrose. The sugar in maple syrup is primarily in the form of sucrose with some glucose and fructose,” says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education at Simply Good Foods Co. and author of “The Atkins 100 Eating Solution: Easy, Low-Carb Living for Everyday Wellness.”
While it’s true that sugar provides calories, or energy, it offers “no significant nutrition like vitamins and minerals.” Because of that, “USDA dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugar intake to no more than 10% of total daily calories for health,” Syn says.
Sugar Versus Honey or Maple Syrup
Heimowitz says that in general, “we all know that it’s best to cut back on sugar intake period. You just have to open up with that.”
“Honey and real maple syrup are very similar in nutritional value and they both contain trace amounts of some minerals,” says Liz Weinandy, lead outpatient dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. For that reason, Weinandy says that honey and maple syrup are a slightly better option than white sugar.
The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly individual foods cause blood sugar levels to rise after consumption. The purer the sugar, the faster it enters the blood stream and the faster your blood sugar will spike. This is not something you want to do routinely because blood sugar spikes can lead to inflammation in the body and may encourage the body to hang onto that excess sugar as fat.
“White sugar is, of course, more processed and has no vitamins or minerals,” Weinandy says. Therefore, “honey and maple syrup have a slight advantage” in terms of being more healthful because “they have some health properties and trace vitamins and minerals and sugar has none.”
Another natural sweetener called agave syrup “has been touted as better for blood sugar control,” Weinandy says, but it’s still sugar and contains about the same number of calories per tablespoon as honey. “Like honey and maple syrup, it has some trace vitamins and minerals, but also like honey and maple syrup, it should not be a person’s main or major source of any of these nutrients,” Weinandy says.
It’s important to note that all of these sweeteners have calories that come entirely from sugars. “For general purposes, all of the calories from honey, maple syrup and white sugar come from sugar,” Weinandy says. “Honey has slightly more calories per tablespoon, followed by maple syrup and white sugar.”
“Nutritionally, maple syrup, honey, granulated sugar and agave syrup are comparable in terms of calories and composition — nearly 100% carbohydrates,” Syn says. Any of these sweeteners, when consumed in moderate levels within the USDA guidelines, are pretty comparable, and you can choose which works for you based on the application. But there are some variations depending on the type of sweetener. Below is a breakdown of the nutrient profile for one tablespoon of each sweetener.
|Honey||Agave syrup||Maple syrup||Sugar||Artificial sweeteners (such as sucralose)
|Carbohydrates||17 grams||15 grams||13 grams||12 grams||0 grams|
|Fat||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams|
|Protein||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams|
|Fiber||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams||0 grams|
Honey Versus Maple Syrup
So white sugar has lost out against these two natural sweeteners. But when choosing between honey and maple syrup, which one is better?
Heimowitz says maple syrup has a slight edge over honey. “From a sugar standpoint, maple contains less sugar and less fructose. It’s lower on the glycemic index than honey is.” When it comes to managing your weight, keeping your blood sugars steady is very helpful, she explains. “You want to make sure that you don’t spike your blood sugar because when your blood sugar spikes, you tend to store the excess sugar as fat on your body.”
Real maple syrup is concentrated sap from maple trees. As opposed to artificial maple syrup, which is just high fructose corn syrup with added colors and flavors that lacks any of the health benefits of real maple syrup, real maple syrup is also a good source of manganese, “although deficiencies are rare in the U.S. and it should not be eaten to meet a person’s need for this mineral,” Weinandy says. “Manganese is found widely in other foods such as whole grains, nuts, many spices, coffee, tea and leafy vegetables.” When purchasing syrup, check the label to ensure you’re not buying artificial or fake maple syrup.
For its part, honey isn’t the worst thing either, Heimowitz explains. “Honey does contain trace amounts of vitamin C and the B vitamins. But you’d have to consume such a large amount of honey to receive the benefit that it’s hardly worth it.”
Lastly, you have to consider taste. “The taste with honey is a little floral,” Heimowitz says. “Maple syrup is sweeter and woody in flavor, so it depends on what you’re using the sweetener for.” A teaspoon of honey in a cup of chamomile tea can soothe a sore throat whereas a drizzle of maple syrup can bring out the earthy flavor of oatmeal.
[READ: Low-Calorie Snacks.]
Natural Versus Artificial Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
There are also lab-created, non-nutritive sweeteners (so called because they contain no calories), such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharine, that may seem like great calorie- and sugar-free alternatives for satisfying your sweet tooth. But many experts caution against their use.
“Artificial sweeteners generally have very few or no calories, but there are possible health concerns with some artificial sweeteners,” Weinandy says. “I personally like to see people avoid using artificial sweeteners,” because there’s “some evidence they can increase cravings for sweets in some people and this may lead to weight gain and other problems.”
“If you’re going to have any kind of sweeteners, I prefer the natural alternatives like stevia and monk fruit,” Heimowitz says. Stevia is a sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the stevia plant that’s native to Brazil and Paraguay. It’s up to 150 times sweeter than sugar and contains almost no calories or carbohydrates.
Also known as luo han guo, monk fruit sweetener is derived from the small, melon-like fruit of the monk fruit plant native to parts of China and Thailand. It can be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar and also contains zero calories and zero carbs. Neither of these non-nutritive sweeteners have any impact on blood sugar levels.
Moderation is the Key
As nice as it sounds to switch to a “natural” sweetener like honey or maple syrup, moderation is still the name of the game. “I would never recommend anybody to have more than a tablespoon of any sweetener in recipes or in cereals of whatever you’re eating,” Heimowitz says.
Syn agrees: “Even though honey and maple syrup are often touted as better-for-you sweeteners, they are still added sugar, which is something we should monitor in our diet for weight management, diabetes prevention and overall health.”
To put some numbers behind it, if you’re consuming a 2000-calorie a day diet — which is the standard advice for most adults — “you should consume no more than 200 calories per day of honey or maple syrup which is about 3 to 4 tablespoons, or 10% of your total daily calories,” she notes.
Syn also cautions that while you may be aware of the amount of sugar you’re adding with things like honey and maple syrup, you may not realize how much sugar is contained on many other “everyday foods that may not even taste inherently sweet like ketchup, pasta sauce, granola bars, canned baked beans whole wheat bread and more. Therefore, sugar consumption can add up throughout the day without you realizing it. A good rule of thumb is to keep added sugar to a minimum when you have control of the ingredients you consume.”
Weinandy recommends limiting honey, maple syrup and agave syrup the same as you would with table sugar, ideally aiming for less than “3 tablespoons or 150 calories a day for men and 2 tablespoons or 100 calories a day for women.” This means you’ll have to be selective about what you consume. For example, “one 12-ounce can of regular soda has almost 3 tablespoons of sugar alone!”
The bottom line, Weinandy says, is that honey and maple syrup should be viewed as “a treat to use occasionally. While it may be slightly better than white sugar, they only cross the finish line a split second ahead of white sugar.”
“With sugar in any form, moderation is the way to go — not only for weight considerations but for general health,” Heimowitz says.
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Update 03/31/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.