Manuka Honey vs. Sugar: What You Need to Know (Comparison Guide)


20 minutes

Essential Takeaways

Sugar itself isn’t dangerous. It’s the over-consumption of sugar today that has caused a widespread obesity epidemic. It’s often hidden in foods and called other things, making it difficult for consumers to regulate their sugar consumption.

Manuka honey contains sugars, but it offers much more. Alongside fructose and glucose, manuka honey has uniquely high levels of the antibacterial compound methylglyoxal, making it a powerful ingredient not just used in food.

Manuka honey is far more versatile, and even used for serious medical conditions. As a result, in the debate between honey vs. sugar, we think there’s a clear winner.

Before sugar was an isolated ingredient, honey was king - and not just in food.

Indigenous tribes in New Guinea were chewing on sugarcane for millennia before Western nations got their hands on the addictive substance.

Sugar has been fundamental in the trajectory and development of our species as we forged new territories, relationships, and business ventures across the globe.

It’s become so mainstream that sugar hides in foods you may least expect. And it’s become a public health crisis in recent years.

As we turn back to natural alternatives, many people are asking the question; since honey contains sugar, which is healthier? Are they both safe to consume?

How does honey vs. sugar compare?

In this ultimate guide to manuka honey vs. sugar:

  • The truth about honey vs. sugar

  • The health benefits and dangers of honey vs. sugar

  • Honey vs. sugar for diabetes

  • Honey vs. sugar for weight loss

  • Comparing honey with different types of sugar

  • The uses of manuka honey and sugar

  • How to choose between honey and sugar

  • Where to get the best manuka honey

  • Honey vs. sugar FAQs

The Truth About Honey vs. Sugar

It’s no secret these days that over consumption of highly-processed foods is associated with nasty long-term health conditions.

But we love our sweet foods. And we know that they can be enjoyed in moderation, as part of a balanced lifestyle.

The key to this balance is understanding how to differentiate between the products on store shelves. Where do they come from, how have they been processed, and what are you putting into your body?

So on this exploration of honey vs. sugar, let’s start with these basics.


The story of honey

As nectarivores (things that eat nectar), bees have a bit of a tough time when flowers are in short supply.

So they make honey as a food source to get them through the changing seasons.

They do this by collecting nectar, digesting it, then regurgitating and chewing it to reduce its moisture content. That way, it can be stored safely in the honeycomb and not go mouldy.

But this sweet, viscous liquid is delicious to other organisms too - not just bees.

In fact, there’s evidence that humans have been consuming it for the last 60,000 years¹. Honey is even mentioned in some of the oldest medical books, aged around 8,000 years².

Until the Western world discovered and experimented with sugar, honey was on top³. After the Greeks and Romans got their hands on sugar, the fates of these natural sweeteners became intertwined for millennia to come. But we’ll get to that.

So our relationship with honey goes way back. Unfortunately, its long-established reputation for health and wellness has led to plenty of contaminated fakes on the market.

The problems with honey processing and labelling

In order to sell honey in bulk at cheap prices, some manufacturers dilute it down with other processed sugars like high fructose corn syrup.

This ingredient is associated with numerous health concerns⁴, largely a hidden additive that goes unnoticed by the average consumer. Worse still, it can be called different things⁵, so even the more astute buyers can eat it without realising.

The honey that has been studied for its health benefits is not diluted, overly processed, or contaminated.

It is raw and as close to fresh from the hive as possible.

To get the best possible honey product, you want verified pure and raw honey.

The safest, most effective honey

Ideally, you want UMF™-graded manuka honey because:

  • It has been scientifically proven to contain around 100 times more of the antibacterial properties than what regular honey offers⁶.

That’s why, for the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on comparing manuka honey vs. sugar.

The story of sugar

Sugar, or sucrose (its scientific name), is simply a molecule compromised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. This makes it a carbohydrate⁷.

Sucrose occurs naturally in most plants, and contains two simpler sugars you’ve probably heard of; glucose and fructose.

Before sugar came along, honey was the only real natural sweetener. It took around 2,000 years for sugar to move from its native New Guinea origins to India³, the gateway to the rest of the world; gaining traction and interest from scientists and colonialists alike.

And like honey, it’s never just been a food.

“If you want to understand Western history, you have to understand sugar. And vice versa. Because sugar’s not just something sweet: over the centuries it’s been a medicine, a spice, a symbol of royalty, and an instrument of disease, addiction, and oppression.”

  • The illustrated history of how sugar conquered the world, Saveur. 

Over the years, addiction to the versatility of sugar, its status, its exotic allure and huge profitability fuelled some of man’s most heinous exploits, including the slave trade.

It wasn’t until mid-way through the 20th century that the message of moderation began to spread.

In 1966, high sugar consumption was associated with diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses. But fat was considered more of a villain, so low-fat, high-sugar alternatives flushed the supermarket shelves and exacerbated the problem further³.

Around this time, sugar alternatives began to develop. Aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, and sucralose (commercially known as Splenda), began to replace sugar in many foods but hadn’t had the same level of testing for long-term health impacts.

Today’s consumer is more aware of the importance of moderation and more natural options.

But is sugar in its purest, rawest form, dangerous? Or is it about the quality and quantity of sugar consumed?

Is sugar dangerous to our health?

Sugar is naturally present in most of the foods that we need for a healthy diet, from fruits and vegetables to wholegrains.

Glucose, particularly, is vital to our survival. It’s the most important food for our brains and gives us energy⁸.

Our bodies generate glucose naturally by breaking down our food.

By sticking to clean foods (i.e. unprocessed), our bodies get the sugar they need along with the dietary fibres and nutrients that help us to use it optimally. Fibre and protein help our bodies to sustain the energy hit from sugar for longer, so we feel full and alert all day long⁹.

Without these nutrients, the energy hit we get from sugar is much shorter, and makes us feel tired and hungry. So sugar in its natural state is important as part of a balanced diet. It’s vital, in fact.

But we’re not consuming it this way most of the time.

How refined white sugar (table sugar) is processed

By extracting and isolating sugar, we lose the buffer nutrients we need to manage the impact of the sugar on our health.

When sugar cane is processed, it is milled and refined to become a purer, more concentrated substance.

This substance is spun to separate the resulting crystals from the liquid juice, and the crystals are spun again to remove any impurities¹⁰. This results in raw cane sugar.

Next comes carbonation.

Sugar is mixed with carbon dioxide gas and calcium hydroxide to produce hard sugar crystals. It’s then filtered to remove its natural colour, boiled, washed with water, and repeatedly spun to get the fine, consistent white table sugar we know today.

Ultimately, the way that sugar is processed isn’t particularly problematic. It’s where and how it’s used, the way it can be misleadingly labelled, and the over-consumption that happens as a result.

Like for example, diluting honey (which already contains naturally-occuring sugar), with additional (and highly processed) sugars.

Manuka Honey vs. White Sugar for Health and Nutrition

Honey and sugar are both safe as part of a balanced diet. But honey offers a lot more health benefits in its purest form than sugar.

So let’s get into the specifics.

The health pros and cons of manuka honey

Manuka honey is a type of honey, made from the nectar of the mānuka plant in New Zealand.

Like regular honeys, it’s high in fructose, which is technically a carbohydrate.

This isn’t a con of manuka honey unless it’s overly consumed. Like any sugar or carb, it can be part of a healthy diet in moderation.

Luckily, the benefits of consuming it in moderation can be extensive, so the pros massively outweigh the single con!

Here’s what the science says about the health benefits of manuka honey:

  • The uniquely high levels of methylglyoxal (MGO) in manuka honey give it superior antibacterial properties. This means that it can be an impactful treatment for just about any inflammation or infection. It works by sealing off the affected area, blocking bacteria from getting in, and providing a moist healing environment for quick relief.

  • The antibacterial properties, high acidity, hydrogen peroxide content, and osmotic effect of manuka honey makes it ideal for protecting and treating burns. When topically applied, the honey seals off the inflamed area, and promotes cell regeneration¹¹.

  • Topical application can also help to relieve and soothe skin conditions like acne and eczema. The same process applies; the area is protected so healing can take place.

  • Thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects, honey has been found to alleviate the negative impacts of oxidative stress (cell damage)¹² which causes a host of unpleasant health problems.

  • As a light carbohydrate containing glucose and amino acids, manuka honey is a great pre- and post-workout snack. It gives the body sustained energy for exercise, and helps cells to repair themselves afterwards.

  • Studies have shown that consuming manuka honey is better than sugar for controlling the body’s hyperglycemic state. This means that the impact of the sugars in honey on blood sugar levels aren’t as dramatic or as threatening to our health¹³.

The benefits of manuka honey are extensive.

Most medical issues that it’s used for involve some kind of inflammation, infection, or lesion. With its high antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, manuka honey is one of the most versatile natural solutions on the market.

It’s so much more than a carbohydrate and sugars.

The health pros and cons of refined sugar

Our bodies need sugar to function.

But nowhere near as much as we typically consume on a daily basis.

There’s no universal consensus on the optimal amount of sugar to eat each day (and every person will be different). But a common recommendation is less than 12 teaspoons per day.

For context, one can of soda supplies 10 of those 12 teaspoons¹⁴.

(Can you see the problem?).

The only real pro of sugar is contingent on how much you consume and the way you consume it.

If you’re getting sugar naturally through foods like fruit and vegetables, with the occasional treat in between, then your body is getting plenty of the nutrients it needs.

The major con with sugar is that it’s hidden in so many foods and labelled in many different ways.

Other names for sugar and similar high-sugar products to watch out for¹⁵:

  • High fructose corn syrup

  • Corn syrup

  • Cane juice

  • Cane sugar

  • Agave nectar 

  • Buttered syrup

  • Maltose

  • Rice syrup

  • Florida crystals

  • Maltodextrin

  • Dextrose

  • Diastatic malt

  • Barley malt

  • Sorghum syrup

  • Sorbitol

Pro tip: The suffix -ose (e.g. sucrose, fructose) is used in biochemistry to identify sugars¹⁶. In Latin, it means “full of”. “Syrup” is also commonly used to describe sugary ingredients. So that may give you a clue when reading labels!

When it comes to manuka honey vs. refined sugar, the message is pretty clear. Sugar is much safer to consume as it naturally occurs in foods (like honey), whereas manuka honey offers many more health benefits.

Which is better for you, honey or sugar?

Whilst both honey and sugar can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet, pure, raw and unadulterated honey is better for you than sugar.

This is particularly true of verified (UMF™-graded) manuka honey, since it offers so many more health benefits than sugar and has the certifications to prove it.

Honey vs. Sugar for Diabetes

NB: Diabetes is a serious medical condition. It’s always best to get tailored medical advice from your doctor before consuming any sugars or carbohydrates as part of your diabetes management.  

Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar.

Diabetes is a condition where a person either doesn’t have enough insulin to regulate their blood sugar (type 1), or they can’t process the insulin properly (type 2). Either can result in hyperglycemia (raised blood pressure), and this can cause all sorts of serious health problems.

Diet is a key factor in managing diabetes and it will be unique to each patient.

Here’s what scientists say when it comes to honey vs. sugar for diabetes:

“Considerable evidence from experimental studies shows that the honey may provide benefits in the management of diabetes mellitus.

The benefits could be a better control of the hyperglycemic state, limiting other metabolic disorders and diminishing the deleterious effects on different organs that may produce diabetic complications…  

It is true that honey may be used as a potential antidiabetic agent that has the potential to reduce the complications of diabetes...” 

- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity study, 2018.

Studies have found that manuka honey may be better for diabetic patients than sugar because it offers more nutrients, and helps with the other damaging impacts that diabetes can have on the body - like pancreatic degeneration¹⁷.

Honey vs. Sugar for Weight Loss

Every body needs different things to lose weight.

How someone achieves their unique goal will depend on their diet and lifestyle as a whole.

Nutritionally-speaking, you lose weight when you burn more calories than you consume¹⁸. So it’s vital to understand what you’re consuming and how you’re using up that energy.

The easiest way to compare manuka honey vs. sugar for weight loss is to consider the impact each has on your body over the course of a few hours:

  • Without fibre, protein or other nutrients, sugar gives you a quick energy spike, and leaves you feeling tired and hungry - neither of which are helpful for an active day.

By consuming sugar in a piece of fruit before a workout, or in a green smoothie with other ingredients, you can help give your body the fuel it needs to be productive.

  • Manuka honey offers more nutrients than plain sugar. But it should also be consumed with fibre or protein to help sustain an energy boost.

The extra benefit of opting for manuka honey over sugar is that its anti-inflammatory properties can help repair muscles after working out.

When it comes to weight loss, manuka honey can give you a similar energy hit to sugar in a more natural way, with additional restorative properties to boot.

Comparing Manuka Honey With Other Types of Sugar

We have largely focused here on comparing manuka honey vs. white table sugar. But there are other types on the grocery store shelves.

How do they compare to honey? Let’s see.

Manuka honey vs brown sugar

White table sugar is typically brown before it’s spun multiple times in a centrifuge to get rid of its natural colour.

So brown sugar is often less processed sugar, or white table sugar that has been mixed with molasses. It makes softer but denser baked goods, and has a different flavour to white sugar.

While brown sugar technically has a few more nutrients and slightly less calories, the differences are negligible¹⁹. So when comparing manuka honey to brown sugar, it’s really the same story as white table sugar.

Manuka honey vs coconut sugar

Coconut sugar comes from the sap of coconut palm trees, which are tapped - similar to how maple sap is collected for maple syrup.

The sap is diluted with water, boiled, dried, and crystallised. It’s less processed than white table sugar, but nutritionally-speaking, it’s almost identical.

Manuka honey still offers more than coconut sugar.

Manuka honey vs granulated sugar

Granulated sugar is simply another way of describing processed sugar that has been made for baking or adding to beverages.

It might be brown or white, and may have slightly different flavour profiles. But nutritionally, it’s the same as refined table sugar.

So manuka honey is the healthier choice over granulated sugar.

Manuka honey vs processed sugar

All sugar has been processed in some way. Some sugar types are processed less than others; like coconut sugar or brown sugar.

But ultimately, the nutritional values are almost identical. And that’s pretty limited.

By opting for manuka honey instead, you’re getting a plethora of added wellness benefits on top of a delicious sweetener.

Uses of Manuka Honey vs. Sugar

We’ve mentioned a few of the ways that you can use manuka honey and sugar, so let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Uses for manuka honey

Whether ingested or applied topically, the health benefits of manuka honey have been scientifically proven time and time again.

So it’s no wonder that this honey has become a versatile ingredient and agent in numerous contexts.

In fact, we listed over 170 ways that you can use manuka honey right here.

Here’s a snapshot of just some of them.

Manuka honey in food

The most obvious place to start: manuka honey as a food.

Delicious on its own off a spoon, in a cuppa, as a glaze, in a summer cocktail or mocktail, on your morning oats, or delicious bliss balls - the options are endless.

Manuka honey in skincare

Providing a moist and protective healing environment for inflammation, manuka honey is a fantastic topical acne or eczema treatment.

It’s easy to make your own lip scrub, body butter, or face mask and add your favourite natural scents and ingredients.

Manuka honey in haircare

That’s right, you can even protect your scalp and nourish your hair with manuka honey!

Our hair mask recipe tells you everything you need to know.

Manuka honey in medicine

Loved by doctors and vets alike for its natural healing properties, you can make your own manuka honey wound dressing to use at home.

It can even be used for dogs and cats - just check with your vet first.

Uses for refined sugar

Is sugar as versatile as honey?

Let’s see.

Sugar in food

Sugar is a staple in many recipes, particularly in baking, and is often added to drinks for an extra sweet kick.

It’s best to check before adding sugar that the food doesn’t already contain added sugar.

Sugar in skincare

Sugar can be added to DIY scrubs for your face as a natural abrasive. We recommend adding sugar to our lip scrub recipe with manuka honey to help clear dead skin cells.

Sugar around the house

Sugar can be used in some surprising hacks around the house. Keep flowers fresh for longer by adding vinegar and sugar to their water. Sugar and warm water removes grass stains from clothes.

You can also use the abrasive crystals to give your coffee grinder a proper scrub.

How to Choose Between Honey vs. Sugar

Sugar is right for you if you have a particular recipe that requires it, you don’t want to alter the flavour, and you’re not interested in any of the extra uses that come with honey.

But if you’re interested in the potential that manuka honey has not just in baking and food, but in nourishing your body from the inside out, then it might be time to give it a try!

The lower UMF™ grades are great for daily use and a little extra wellness kick:

The mid grades give you a heartier amount of antibacterial properties, fantastic for clearing up allergy symptoms or supporting the healing of inflammation:

The highest grades will give you targeted relief from more major medical complaints:

Still unsure which is best for you?

Take the quiz.

Get The Best Manuka Honey from New Zealand Honey Co.

Collected from the wilds of New Zealand by expert beekeepers, our manuka honey is independently tested and UMF™ graded.

Here’s what a few of our customers have said about New Zealand Honey Co. manuka honey:

“Exceptional quality! I have noticed an improvement in my gut health and skin after taking one spoonful a day.”

“I went looking for manuka honey because I have inflammation I need to reduce as well as ulcers in my stomach that I've been trying to heal. I use the honey twice daily in chamomile tea.

So far, it has provided me some relief. I like it so much that I finished my first 4.4 oz container and am going to purchase the 17.6 oz less than one week after my first shipment arrived.”

“I was told by a doctor to use this honey daily to help with my throat, as I had vocal chord surgery and it hurts if I talk too much. It has helped SO much more than any other thing I've tried!”

Check out more authentic reviews.

Shop for your manuka honey now


Honey vs. Sugar FAQs

What’s the difference between honey vs. sugar?

Sugar, or sucrose, is a chemical compound made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It can be separated into fructose and glucose, which are important (in moderation) for our bodies. Honey contains fructose and glucose too, along with other beneficial nutrients.

Manuka honey specifically, also contains antibacterial properties which make it a fantastic versatile ingredient and agent for skincare, healing, and medicine.

Is honey a healthier alternative to sugar?

Yes. Pure, raw, unadulterated honey is better than sugar because it offers more health benefits. It is typically less processed too, if you get the right kind. Manuka honey is the most regulated in the world, and is verified for being raw, fresh, unprocessed, and high in antioxidants.

Is it good to replace sugar with honey?

It all depends on what you want to achieve. Honey has flavour as well as sweetness, where sugar doesn’t. You can replace honey as a sweetener in foods, in your morning cuppa, and just about anywhere else you might use sugar. Honey is special because you can also use it in skincare and medicine, so buying a jar of honey gets you a more versatile product.

Why do people use honey instead of sugar?

Pure, raw honey is less processed than sugar and contains more health benefits. Manuka honey specifically, has been scientifically proven to contain more methylglyoxal (the compound associated with antibacterial activity) than regular honey, and is even used by doctors and vets to help heal serious medical conditions.

Can honey completely replace sugar?

It depends on what you’re using sugar for, but in theory, honey can replace sugar. Honey contains fructose and glucose just like sugar, and can be used in cooking, baking, drinks, skincare, and even in medicine.

Can I replace sugar with honey for weight loss?

Yes. Manuka honey consumed with fruit or yoghurt can not only give you a sustained energy boost to help with exercise, but its anti-inflammatory properties can help muscles recover too. Studies have even found it to be as effective or more so than commercial sports snacks.

Which is safer for diabetics, honey or sugar?

Every diabetic person needs to manage their condition differently, but honey is generally a better idea due to the other benefits that it offers. Not only do you get a slower spike in blood sugar, but anti-inflammatory properties that help alleviate other negative effects that diabetes can have on the body. Always check with a doctor before consuming extra carbohydrates.

Is a spoonful of honey a day good for you?

A spoonful of UMF™-graded manuka honey every day can offer great health benefits. It can help boost the immune system, clear allergy symptoms, aid collagen production, protect against cell damage, and even balance hormones.

What are 3 healthier substitutes for sugar?

Maple syrup, stevia, and honey are healthier substitutes for sugar. These products cause slower blood sugar spikes and are typically less processed (though this depends on the brand). The healthiest substitute for sugar is pure, raw manuka honey, which contains extra antibacterial properties for a superior wellness kick.

What is the safest and most natural sugar substitute?

Pure, raw manuka honey is the safest and most natural sugar substitute that offers the most additional health benefits. From boosting your immune systems to helping fight inflammation and infection, manuka honey has been found to aid healing both inside and out. So next time you reach for a sweetener, opt for nature’s own elixir.

What are manuka honey or sugar alternatives?

Common sweetener alternatives to honey and sugar include maple syrup, agave syrup, and stevia. Maple syrup has been found to contain a few beneficial nutrients. Agave syrup is often so processed that any beneficial properties have largely dissipated. Stevia is a natural sweetener but we don’t know a huge amount about its long-term health impacts²⁰.


¹ Countries that consume the most honey, World Atlas.

² Traditional and modern uses of honey, National Library of Medicine.

³ The illustrated history of how sugar conquered the world, Saveur.

Why high fructose corn syrup is bad, Healthline.

High fructose corn syrup by any other name, NBC News.

Identification and quantification of methylglyoxal, ResearchGate.

What is sugar? Exploratorium.

Sweet stuff, NIH.  

How sugar affects your body, WebMD.  

¹⁰ How sugar is made and why it’s best to avoid it, Naturally Sweet Kitchen.

¹¹ Up to date use of honey for burns treatment, National Library of Medicine.

¹² Honey: a novel antioxidant, National Library of Medicine.

¹³ Honey and diabetes, Hindawi.

¹⁴ Reduce sugar, Heart and Stroke Foundation.

¹⁵ 50 names for sugar, Promax Nutrition.

¹⁶ Sugars come in many guises, Smile Beautiful Dental.  

¹⁷ Effects of honey, sucrose and glucose on blood glucose, National Library of Medicine.

¹⁸ Metabolism and weight loss: how you burn calories, Mayo Clinic.

¹⁹ Brown sugar vs. white sugar, Healthline.

²⁰ What is stevia? WebMD.

Your wellness journey starts with a spoonful a day.


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