Honey is a popular natural sweetener that has been used for thousands of years. It is made by bees from the nectar they collect from flowers. Honey contains sugars like glucose and fructose, which makes it a carbohydrate or carb. However, honey is different from sugar and other carbs in that it also provides small amounts of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. This has led many people to view honey as a healthier carb option compared to refined sugars. But is honey truly a “good” carb? This article will explore the carb and glycemic profile of honey and whether it deserves a place in a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
Is Honey Considered a Carb?
Yes, honey is definitely considered a carb.
One tablespoon of honey contains about 17 grams of carbohydrates, with 17 grams coming from sugars (1).
For comparison, one tablespoon of granulated white sugar contains about 12.5 grams of carbohydrates, all from sugars (2).
So gram for gram, honey actually contains slightly more carbs and sugars than regular table sugar.
However, the types of sugars in honey are different. Honey contains some glucose but mostly fructose, while table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose (1, 2).
This difference in carb composition gives honey and table sugar slightly different properties when it comes to sweetness and how our bodies metabolize them.
But the bottom line is that despite having small amounts of other nutrients, honey is very high in sugar/carb content.
It doesn’t contain fiber or any other components that would significantly “dilute” the carb content.
So yes, honey should absolutely be considered a source of carbohydrates.
The Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load of Honey
The glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) are measures that indicate how quickly and how much a food spikes blood sugar and insulin levels after being eaten.
Foods that rank high on these scales are considered high glycemic, meaning they cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Low glycemic foods don’t significantly impact blood sugar.
Most types of honey have a moderately high glycemic index, averaging around 61 on a scale of 1–100 (3).
This is slightly less than white sugar (GI of 65) but still a lot higher than some other natural sweeteners like pure maple syrup (GI of 54) (4, 5).
However, the glycemic load of honey is moderately low, estimated around 7 per tablespoon (3).
Glycemic load accounts for typical serving sizes. Since we consume honey in smaller amounts compared to other carbs, its glycemic impact is reduced.
This is one reason why honey, despite having a moderately high GI, may not spike blood sugar levels as dramatically as sugary foods like candy, baked goods, or soft drinks.
However, individuals vary in their glycemic response to honey, so this shouldn’t be assumed. Those with diabetes especially should monitor their blood sugar carefully when consuming honey.
How Honey Compares to Other Natural Sweeteners
Here’s how honey’s GI and GL compare to some other common natural sweeteners (3, 5, 6):
|Glycemic Load (per tbsp)
As you can see, honey has a moderately high GI but a relatively low GL compared to maple syrup and coconut sugar. So even though its GI is a bit higher, the small serving sizes keep its glycemic impact in check.
Stevia has no impact on blood sugar because it contains no carbs or calories.
So if minimizing spikes in blood sugar is a priority, low-carb sweeteners like stevia and erythritol would be better options than honey.
However, honey causes a slower, more gradual rise in blood sugar compared to refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup or sucrose. So it’s still a better choice than those sweeteners.
Honey Nutrition Facts
Despite being high in sugar and carbs, honey does contain small amounts of other nutrients (1, 7):
- Vitamins: Thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6
- Minerals: Calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc
- Antioxidants: Pinocembrin, chrysin, galagin, hesperetin, kaempferol, quercetin, acacetin, caffeic acid, caffeic acid phenethyl ester
- Amino acids: Prolline, phenylalanine, tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine, valine, glutamine, asparagine, lysine, alanine, arginine, cysteine
- Enzymes: Glucose oxidase, diastase, invertase, catalase
- Other: 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural, methylglyoxal, bee pollen, royal jelly
The specific vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content depends on the floral source and geography of the honey (7).
For example, darker types like buckwheat and wildflower tend to be highest in antioxidants. Manuka honey from New Zealand is especially high in methylglyoxal, which has antibacterial effects (8).
So while all honey contains sugars as its main component, its additional plant compounds and nutrients may provide some health benefits.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the amounts of these other compounds are small compared to the calories and carbs. One tablespoon of honey provides around 60 calories, all from carbs and sugar (1).
This is still a significant amount of sugar, even if you’re also getting traces of nutrients.
Therefore, honey isn’t necessarily healthier than table sugar or high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener – it should still be used in moderation on an overall healthy diet.
Is Honey Keto-Friendly?
The ketogenic or “keto” diet involves restricting carbs to 20-50 grams per day in order to achieve nutritional ketosis.
In this metabolic state, the body switches from primarily burning carbs to burning fats for fuel. Ketosis is associated with rapid weight loss and other health benefits in some people (9).
Since honey is high in carbs and provides minimal fat or protein, it is generally not appropriate for a keto diet.
Two tablespoons provide around 30 grams of net carbs, accounting for nearly an entire day’s worth on keto (1, 10).
Honey may be slightly preferable to table sugar since it has a moderately low glycemic load. Table sugar causes rapid spikes in blood sugar, triggering insulin and more carb cravings.
However, both honey and sugar should be minimized as much as possible on keto. Using a very small amount to sweeten sauces, salad dressings, or marinades may be permissible but should be accounted for.
Low-carb sweeteners like stevia, erythritol, monk fruit, and sucralose are better options on keto. These provide sweetness without any impact on blood sugar or ketosis.
Is Honey Paleo-Friendly?
The Paleo diet advocates eating whole, unprocessed foods that were available to early humans during the Paleolithic era.
While honey is considered natural, there is debate about whether it should be included on a strict Paleo diet.
On one hand, honey does not require any processing or refinement to be consumed. It was available as a food source to hunter-gatherer groups. So in that sense it aligns with the Paleo philosophy.
However, there are also arguments against including honey:
- Honey provides mostly just carbohydrates. It’s low in protein and fat, which are primary macronutrients emphasized on Paleo.
- Honey is still very high in sugar and carbs, even if it’s natural. A strict Paleo template usually avoids added sugars.
- Honey is difficult to obtain in meaningful amounts without advanced beekeeping methods. Early humans would have only been able to eat honey opportunistically.
Additionally, some individuals may avoid honey due to allergies or sensitivities.
For these reasons, some followers of the Paleo diet avoid honey, while others include it in moderation. A good compromise could be using just enough honey to sweeten meals when needed.
Overall, honey falls into more of a grey area on Paleo. But it certainly provides more nutritional benefits than refined sugar.
Health Benefits of Honey
A moderate amount of nutrition research has been conducted on the potential health benefits of honey:
Multiple studies have found that honey raises levels of beneficial antioxidants in the body (11, 12). Its phenolic compounds may help protect cells from oxidative damage.
Improves Triglycerides and Cholesterol
Some evidence shows that honey may modestly improve triglycerides, total and “bad” LDL cholesterol compared to sugar or sucrose (13, 14). This is likely due to its lower fructose content.
Lowers Risk of Heart Disease
One study in rats showed that honey protected against heart damage from a high-fructose diet (15). More research is needed to confirm its benefits for heart health.
Heals Wounds and Burns
Clinical evidence supports the use of medical-grade honey dressings and ointments for healing wounds, burns, and skin ulcers (16, 17). Its antimicrobial and antioxidant effects promote healing.
May Relieve Coughing
For children with upper respiratory infections, 2.5 mL of honey 30 minutes before bedtime helped decrease cough frequency and severity (18). However, it shouldn’t be given to infants under 1 year due to risk of infant botulism.
The enzymes and carbohydrates in raw honey promote the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli (19). This prebiotic effect may support digestive health.
Keep in mind that most studies showing benefits used honey dosages around 1-2 tablespoons per day. Amounts larger than this are unlikely to provide additional benefits.
While these preliminary findings on honey sound promising, higher quality long-term studies are still needed.
Downsides to Honey
Despite some potential upsides for health, honey also has downsides:
High in Calories and Carbs
At about 60 calories and 17 grams of carbs per tablespoon, honey is not a low-calorie or low-carb food (1). The carbs are almost entirely from sugar. This makes honey easy to over-consume, potentially leading to weight gain and poor blood sugar control.
Rapidly Digested and Absorbed
The main sugars in honey, glucose and fructose, are simple sugars that are rapidly digested and absorbed. This can cause major spikes in blood sugar and insulin in people with impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes (20).
Can Worsen Metabolic Health
While honey has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar, overconsumption may still promote metabolic syndrome, obesity, fatty liver disease, and type 2 diabetes (3, 21).
May Contain Botulinum Spores
Raw and unpasteurized honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. In infants, this may lead to botulism poisoning, which is extremely dangerous (22). Honey should never be fed to children under 12 months.
Honey is made from pollen and may cause allergic reactions in some individuals, especially those allergic to bee stings. Reactions can include numbness, breathing difficulties, rashes, or anaphylaxis (23).
So despite having some beneficial compounds and properties, honey has potential downsides to consider.
Consuming large or even moderate amounts on a regular basis is unwise, especially for those with prediabetes, diabetes, or other metabolic disorders.
Is Honey Better Than Sugar?
Honey does contain small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – which white sugar lacks completely.
However, both are still high-carb, calorie-dense sweeteners made up almost entirely of simple sugars.
A teaspoon or tablespoon here and there might be harmless, but large doses of honey can flood your system with sugar, potentially leading to poor metabolic health over time.
Additionally, the evidence is unclear as to whether honey provides enough benefits – when consumed in normal food amounts – to make any meaningful difference for health compared to sugar.
For optimal wellbeing and stable blood sugar levels, most people are better off minimizing intake of both honey and refined sugars.
How to Add Honey to Your Diet
The dominant expert opinion is that honey should be used sparingly as part of an overall healthy diet.
Here are some ways to incorporate a moderate amount of honey:
– Drizzle a teaspoon over plain yogurt or oatmeal
– Mix into tea or coffee instead of sugar
– Combine with ginger and lemon for a honey-lemon sore throat remedy
– Use to sweeten sauces, salad dressings, marinades, or dips
– Mix with nut butter and spread onto fruit slices
When purchasing, look for raw, unprocessed honey from local beekeepers. This preserves more of the beneficial antioxidants. Canola honey tends to be one of the highest in antioxidants based on region (7).
Keep intake to no more than 1-2 tablespoons per day, and consider lower-carb sweeteners like stevia if aiming for a low-carb or ketogenic diet. Diabetics should be especially cautious with portion sizes.
Finally, honey should never be given to children under one year old due to risk of infant botulism poisoning.
Honey is considered a carbohydrate and sugar, since almost all of its calories come from glucose and fructose.
It has a moderately high glycemic index but a low glycemic load when used in small amounts. This makes it unlikely to cause major blood sugar spikes compared to many other carbs. However, diabetics must still use caution when adding honey to meals or drinks.
Honey provides traces of antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins – giving it slight nutritional benefits over table sugar. However, its sugar content is still very high, which is reason for moderation.
While preliminary research suggests honey has some promising health benefits, the evidence is not yet strong enough to recommend high intakes for improved health.
For optimal nutrition and blood sugar control, honey is likely fine in small amounts of 1-2 tablespoons per day at most. But it should still be seen as more of a carb/sugar than a health food.