different types of sugar

Are Some Sugars Healthier Than Others?

May 15, 2024

We all know sugar is bad. But can we get around that rule with honey or maple syrup? We asked nutrition scientist & educator Moneek Madra, PhD, to explain.

This is very basic, but we have to ask: What is sugar?

Sugar is a food that can provide our bodies with the energy we need to function (work) and grow.

The amount of sugar in our bodies is not constant. It changes in relation to what we eat, right down to the specific type of sugar or carbohydrate.

Food that contains carbohydrates, like grains, dairy, fruit, and vegetables, contains natural sugar. When eaten whole, along with the vitamins and minerals these foods also contain, our bodies digest the sugar slowly and steadily in a healthier way.

However, excess added or refined sugar is not good for our health.

What is bad about sugar for our health?

Sugar does not have much nutritional value since it doesn’t contain macro or micronutrients. It can cause trouble sleeping, concentrating, and anxiety.

Much worse: Over time, diets high in sugar (especially from highly processed foods and drinks) can lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart problems, and other major health issues.

What type of sugar is in honey and maple syrup?

Sugar, honey, and maple syrup are all made up of sucrose, known as “table sugar.”

  • Sugar is only sucrose since it is refined
  • Honey and maple syrup contain sucrose, water, and vitamins and minerals

Which has more sugar: honey or maple syrup?

Honey contains more grams of sugar than maple syrup.

Are honey and maple syrup healthier than sugar?

Honey and maple syrup are less processed than sugar, so they do contain additional vitamins and minerals, some of which have been associated with antioxidant effects. However, I would not define either of these foods as a good source of antioxidants.

When we talk about any form or source of sugar—including honey, maple syrup, and fruit—we think of how quickly it can raise our blood sugar (glucose). In general, we don’t want to have many peaks in blood sugar since this could contribute to insulin resistance.

The glycemic index is a rating system that scores foods in terms of how quickly a blood sugar spike happens.

Honey and maple syrup (and maple sugar) have a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar, so they can be beneficial alternatives. However, in the body, they are processed in the same way because they are all made up of sucrose.

So, honey and maple syrup can have more benefits than sugar, but they should also be eaten in moderation.

Which is more calorie-dense: sugar, maple syrup, or honey (and why does that matter)?

Caloric density is the calorie content of food relative to its volume.

Lower caloric densities are associated with more fiber or protein in the food. We often encourage eating foods with lower caloric density because they slow the glucose peak after meals and keep you full longer.

Sugar is the most calorically dense since it is pure sucrose. Maple syrup is the lowest of the three. But caloric density doesn’t matter in this comparison since these are usually eaten as additive sugars. They increase the caloric density of any food they are paired with, which makes the blood sugar peak faster.

If sugar is “natural,” can we eat as much as we want?

No. That would be nice, but unfortunately, it is not the case.

There is a justified push towards eating more natural, less processed foods. But all food needs to be assessed for much more than its ‘natural’ status.

This assessment is especially important when an overall dietary pattern can contribute to disease.

If you are trying to watch your calories or prevent insulin resistance (very important!), there isn’t a great benefit to using honey or maple syrup instead of sugar.

If you are trying to use sweeteners with additional micronutrients, antioxidant properties, or a different flavor profile, honey and maple syrup are excellent choices. But you still can’t have as much as you like: All sugars in excess are harmful to your health.

Can we eat as much fruit as we want?

Not quite. Fruit contains fructose and glucose. The glucose will elevate your blood sugar.

That said, many fruits contain fiber and water. So, if you eat the whole fruit, your body’s response to the sugar (the spike) is not as high.

And it’s not just the more visible elements, like the skin and pith, that contain fiber. The whole structure has fiber, even if you can’t see it. So, an orange slice without seeds or skin still has fiber.

When you squeeze the juice out of a fruit, most of the fiber gets left behind in the pulp.

This is why eating whole fruit is better than drinking juice: fiber slows the insulin spike.

What does everyone ask you about sugar?

How do I limit my sugar intake?

I usually suggest the easiest approach: Get rid of sugar in liquid form. No (or limited) juice, soda, flavored milk, and other sugary drinks. This change can significantly reduce total sugar intake.

Then, we work on other parts of the diet.

What do you wish everyone knew about sugar alternatives?

Even though honey and maple syrup look and taste different than table sugar, they have the same molecular makeup and cause the same response in your body. So, both sugar and sugar alternatives should be used in moderation as part of a healthy diet.


Moneek Madra, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Nutrition in Pediatrics and the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia.