Many people with diabetes or who have a high risk of developing it often opt for honey as a healthier sweetener than sugar. But here's the fact: Honey does have some health perks, but it's still full of sugar and carbs. Diabetic patients, especially those on insulin, must keep an eye on their daily carbohydrate and added sugar intake to keep their blood sugar at optimum levels.

Let's explore what researchers, doctors, and experts say about honey and diabetes mellitus.

  • Honey consumption can spike your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes, although it may offer certain health benefits.
  • Although honey is sweeter than refined sugar, potentially allowing for the use of smaller quantities, it contains more carbohydrates and calories. Consequently, the advantage of using slightly less honey may be offset by its higher calorie and carbohydrate content.
  • Although honey has more carbs and calories than sugar, it has a slightly lower glycemic index (58) compared to refined table sugar (60). However, both are within the medium to high glycemic index, which can spike blood sugar levels.
  • People managing diabetes must restrict their added sugar intake, including honey-based sugar.

Can I Eat Honey if I Have Diabetes?

Yes, including honey in your diet is generally acceptable if you have diabetes, but moderation is key. Despite having a slightly lower glycemic index (58) than refined sugar (60), honey still contains natural sugar, which can elevate your blood glucose levels.

Studies suggest that honey has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which could benefit people with diabetes, who typically have increased inflammation. However, many other foods provide antioxidants without raising blood sugar levels. Thus, you have choices that might be more suitable for your health, not honey.

"Honey may have antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, or other health-promoting properties, but still, with its glycemic index being very similar to table sugar, its impact on blood glucose in the first two hours after ingestion is also similar to that of table sugar," says Dr. Chan Tat Hon. "So, people with diabetes, especially those with severe diabetes, or poorly controlled diabetes - that is people with poor insulin response, poor insulin sensitivity, poor glucose tolerance, or overall suboptimal or poor blood sugar control, and people with diabetes with poor diets, who are already taking excessive amounts of sugar and carbohydrates - may still get unhealthy levels of blood sugar spikes from taking honey," he added.

While it's okay to enjoy a bit of sweetness in a healthy diet, if you have diabetes, counting your carbohydrate and sugar intake, including honey, is crucial for managing your health better. By limiting sugar (and honey) intake, you get to avoid unnecessary, persistent high sugar levels, which can lead to health complications.

Is Honey an Added Sugar?

Added sugar is any sugar not inherently present in food but introduced during processing. Therefore, incorporating honey into your food for sweetness is considered added sugar.

Glycemic Index and Honey

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a metric that measures how fast carbohydrates in a food item can elevate blood sugar levels. Foods are assigned a numerical value on the GI scale, with higher values indicating a quicker and more significant increase in blood sugar. Low-GI foods cause a slower, more gradual rise in blood glucose, while high-GI foods trigger a rapid spike.

The impact of honey on blood sugar levels is influenced by its Glycemic Index. Generally, at a GI score of 58, honey has a moderate glycemic index, varying based on factors like its floral source and processing. While it's considered to have a lower GI than some other added sugars, honey can still lead to increased blood glucose. The natural sugars in honey, primarily fructose and glucose, contribute to its glycemic effect.

People with diabetes need to understand their glycemic response and manage it accordingly. Consistently high blood sugar levels can lead to complications over time. We recommend choosing foods with a lower GI to maintain more stable sugar levels and reduce the risk of sudden spikes and crashes.

Monitoring the glycemic impact of honey and other sweeteners is especially important for people with diabetes who regulate their blood sugar with insulin injections.

Nutritional Components of Honey

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), here is the nutritional information for 1 tablespoon (21 grams) of honey:

  • Water: 3.59g
  • Calories: 63.8kcal
  • Sodium: 0.84mg
  • Fat: 0g
  • Carbohydrates: 17.3g
  • Fiber: 0.042g
  • Sugars: 17.2g
  • Protein: 0.063g
  • Potassium: 10.9mg
  • Iron: 0.088mg
  • Calcium: 1.26mg

Remember that honey's nutrients can differ depending on where it comes from, the kind of flowers the bees visited, and how it was processed. Even though honey has some good stuff and can be healthy, it's best to eat it in moderation.

Comparing Honey With White Sugar

Here's an overview of how honey compares to table sugar:

Natural vs. Refined:

  • Honey: Natural sweetener produced by bees from flower nectar, containing small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • White Sugar: Highly refined from sugarcane or sugar beets, stripped of most nutrients during processing.

Sugar Profile:

  • Honey: Composed of 40% fructose and 30% glucose, with the remaining content including water, pollen, and minerals like magnesium and potassium. These additional components could contribute to the health benefits associated with honey.
  • White Sugar: Contains 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. The higher glucose and fructose content of white sugar compared to honey is probably why it has a slightly higher glycemic index than honey.

Carbohydrate and Calorie Profile:

  • Honey: A tablespoon contains about 17.3 grams of carbs and 63.8 calories.
  • White Sugar: A tablespoon of sugar contains about 12 grams of carbs and 46 calories.

Nutrient Content:

  • Honey: Contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, contributing to potential health benefits.
  • White Sugar: Lacks significant nutrients due to its refining process.

Flavor Profile:

  • Honey: Unique and varied flavor profiles depending on floral source, ranging from floral and fruity to earthy.
  • White Sugar: Neutral sweetness with no distinctive flavor.

Glycemic Index (GI):

  • Honey: Moderate GI, potentially causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
  • White Sugar: Moderate to high GI, leading to a rapid spike in blood sugar.

Processing:

  • Honey: Raw or minimally processed, maintaining natural enzymes and compounds.
  • White Sugar: Extensively processed, often involving refining and chemical treatments.

Calorie Content:

  • Honey: Calorie-dense, with approximately 64 calories per tablespoon.
  • White Sugar: Similar caloric content to honey on a per-tablespoon basis.

Varieties:

  • Honey: Diverse types based on floral sources, offering various flavors.
  • White Sugar: Limited variety, uniform in taste.

Potential Health Benefits:

  • Honey: Associated with potential antioxidant properties and wound-healing abilities.
  • White Sugar: Provides energy but lacks additional health benefits.

Types of Honey and Variations

Around 300 honey varieties from different flowers or nectar exist today. Examples include blueberry, alfalfa, clover, blackberry, buckwheat, coffee, eucalyptus, fireweed, heather, linden, macadamia nut, orange blossom, tupelo, sage, sourwood, palmetto, manuka, and wildflower. The different honey sources determine its variety of flavors, creating diverse tastes and colors for consumers to explore.

Despite the multiple honey varieties, they can all be categorized into Raw, processed, and organic honey.

Raw honey is typically pure and unfiltered. It is extracted from a beehive and then strained to remove large, visible impurities.

Processed honey usually undergoes stages of filtration and, in some cases, is exposed to high heat (pasteurization) to extend its shelf life. Unfortunately, the heat from the pasteurization process also destroys most of the honey's nutritional properties.

Organic honey is sourced from flowers uncontaminated by pesticides or chemicals.

It's noteworthy that different honey types may be more helpful or less beneficial to people with diabetes, depending on their processing. Heavily processed honey is usually blended with additional sugar syrups (added sugar), making it a less healthy choice. These mixed kinds of honey typically have a higher Glycemic Index than pure honey. That's why you must scrutinize labels to determine if the honey has such unhealthy additives. Processed honey has also been found to lack certain beneficial nutrients and antioxidants in raw honey, making it less helpful.

However, no matter the health benefits raw honey may offer, every honey type (whether raw or processed) can spike your blood sugar levels and must be taken in moderation.

Which Honey is Best for Diabetics?

Although no single honey type is considered the "best," certain honey varieties are highly recommended by doctors and dieticians. An example is Manuka honey, sourced from New Zealand's Manuka trees and renowned for its potent antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

According to reports, another healthier option is acacia honey (also known as black locust honey), which has a lower glycemic index (around 32) than the average honey GI score of 58.

Regardless of the variety you prefer, we recommend raw honey (without any additives) if you must include honey in your diet as a diabetic. Although overconsumption will increase blood sugar to unhealthy levels, raw honey generally has a lower glycemic index than processed types.

Potential Benefits of Honey for Diabetics

Honey contains significant sugar and carbs and can elevate blood sugar levels. However, research over the years has shown that it may also have a few beneficial effects on diabetics.

For instance, a recent study highlighted the promising impact of antioxidants in honey on pancreatic regeneration and underscored its beneficial role in addressing diabetes mellitus. Another report suggests that honey is favored for its antimicrobial properties. Moreover, the oligosaccharides in honey may benefit the gut microbiome's health.

People with diabetes may also benefit from honey's anti-inflammatory properties, which can potentially help reduce complications related to diabetes. This is mainly studied in the context of wound healing. However, experts don't recommend honey to treat diabetic inflammation or as the best source of antioxidants because other sources won't spike your blood sugar as much as honey.

"Most of the time, actually, we'd recommend (diabetic) patients to eat honey if blood sugar is too low due to insulin or Sulfonylureas," says Dr. Ahmet Ergin, an endocrinologist specializing in hormones and diabetes management. "Research also shows that honey has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. So yes, that is important for people with diabetes because they typically have higher levels of oxidative damage and inflammation in their body. But remember, many foods also deliver a lot of antioxidants without driving up your blood sugar sky-high. So, you definitely don't need honey to get those nutrients. You have a lot of other options that will be just better for you," He concluded.

NOTE: The initial findings on the benefits of honey for people with diabetes are inconclusive. More research is needed to fully understand the extent of honey's helpfulness for people with diabetes.

Risks and Considerations

The risk of honey consumption for individuals with diabetes goes beyond causing blood sugar spikes; it's pretty high in calories, with a tablespoon delivering about 64 calories, which, compared to sugar's 49 calories, is quite a lot. Besides, processed honey from stores may include added sugar, which may worsen the effects of honey on blood sugar.

Doctors are also cautious about recommending raw honey for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems to avoid dangerous infections.

While honey offers nutritional benefits like antioxidants, you should consult your doctor for personalized guidance if you are living with diabetes or a related condition.

Safety Tips for Incorporating Honey into a Diabetic-Friendly Diet

If your diabetes is well managed and you can count your carbs diligently, incorporating honey into your diet may be an option.

However, remember that honey is sweeter than sugar, meaning you can achieve the same sweetness as sugar with less honey when used as a substitute.

While we always recommend consulting your doctor before incorporating honey as a sweetener, here are some general tips to guide your honey consumption as a diabetic:

  • Consider choosing pure, organic, or raw natural honey (if not pregnant or immunocompromised), as these types generally lack added sugars, making them potentially safer options.
  • Be mindful of portion sizes when using honey. Due to its natural sweetness, a little can go a long way. Use measuring spoons to control the amount and keep track of carbohydrate intake.
  • Be aware of the glycemic index of honey. While it's generally higher than some other sweeteners, choosing honey with a lower GI might have a lesser impact on blood sugar levels.
  • Use honey in balanced meals with fiber, protein, and healthy fats. This can help mitigate the impact on blood sugar levels and provide a more sustained energy release.
  • Consuming it as an occasional treat rather than a daily indulgence can help manage overall carbohydrate intake.
  • Explore alternative natural sweeteners, such as stevia or monk fruit, which have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
  • Regularly monitor your blood sugar, especially when introducing honey into the diet. This can help you understand how your body responds to honey and make necessary adjustments.

Healthy Ways to Include Honey in a Diabetic-Friendly Drink

Honey with Green Tea

  • Ingredients: 1 cup of water, 1 green tea bag, 1/2 teaspoon of Honey
  • How to Prepare: Boil the water, seep green tea, stir in your honey, and drink hot

Honey and Cinnamon

  • Ingredients: 1/2 teaspoon of Honey, 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon, 250 ml of boiled water.
  • How to Prepare: Mix, stir, and drink hot.

Honey and Yogurt

  • Ingredients: 1/2 teaspoon Honey, 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt
  • How to Prepare: Mix and consume on an empty stomach.

NOTE: These recipes offer a diabetic-friendly way to enjoy honey, but seeking medical advice is crucial before incorporating them into your diet.

How Much Honey Can a Diabetic Have?

Experts say honey should be consumed sparingly and only under appropriate medical guidance. A person with diabetes can take half a teaspoon (3.54 grams) of honey with lemon tea or lime water on low-sugar days. This small amount is suggested to achieve a more stable blood sugar level. Your doctor will factor in your health conditions or comorbidities when recommending the right honey.

Conclusion

Incorporating honey into a diabetic diet requires careful consideration. While honey offers potential health benefits, it also significantly impacts blood sugar. This emphasizes the need for moderation.

People with diabetes should consult their doctors for personalized guidance on honey usage. Your doctor is in the best position to suggest the right amount of honey and how to integrate it effectively into your diet based on your health goals as a person with diabetes.

Most importantly, be aware of the potential risks associated with processed honey—for instance, the risk of higher calories and added sugars. Opting for raw and pure honey can contribute to a health-conscious approach.

Sources

To ensure that we give you correct, accurate, and relevant information, all articles on Diabetic & Me are backed by verified information from academic research papers, well-known organizations, research institutions, and medical associations.

  1. Medical News Today Is honey better for you than sugar?
  2. USDA Honey
  3. National Library of Medicine Honey and diabetes mellitus: Obstacles and challenges – Road to be repaired
  4. ScienceDirect Pancreatic regenerative potential of manuka honey evidenced through pancreatic histology and levels of transcription factors in diabetic rat model
  5. National Library of Medicine Antibacterial activity of Manuka honey and its components: An overview
  6. National Library of Medicine The Potential of Honey as a Prebiotic Food to Re-engineer the Gut Microbiome Toward a Healthy State
  7. BMC Honey and its nutritional and anti-inflammatory value
  8. Hindawi The Effects of Oral Consumption of Honey on Key Metabolic Profiles in Adult Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Nondiabetic Individuals: A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials
  9. LinkedIn Dr. V. Mohan Diabetes Specialist
  10. DR CHAN TAT HON DR CHAN TAT HON
  11. LinkedIn Ahmet Ergin, MD, FACE, CDCES, ECNU

About the Author

Inez Briand

Inez Briand is the partner of a type 1 diabetic (Ely). She has always been interested in traveling and cooking, and now that she has a partner with diabetes, her interest in cooking even more healthily has skyrocketed. She loves finding new recipes for her partner and family and sharing any food and nutrition-related articles on Diabetic & Me.

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