Brown sugar vs Honey vs Jaggery
The most trustworthy source of food and
fitness journalism in the country.
‘Excuse me, can you replace this with brown sugar/jaggery please’, he said, handing back to the waiter, a packet of white.
‘Green tea with a teaspoon of honey please’, she said, feeling proud that today she’s made a healthier choice.
‘Can you please deposit another gazillion dollars into my bank account please’, the marketer said, knowing that today, once again, he’d made a billion people buy slightly ‘brown-er’ stuff, for slightly more money.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s begin with some basics for this discussion on jaggery vs sugar vs honey. Quick concepts we’ll need to answer this question:
Calorie Density : It’s the amount of calories/ gram that a product has. If your goal is weight loss, then net calorie intake is the only metric for you to track. And to do so, knowing a product’s calorie density is key.
Insulin : When you eat anything, your body breaks the food down into its constituent sugars. These sugars get absorbed into the bloodstream and travel to all cells, giving them energy. Insulin is the hormone our body produces to regulate these changes in blood sugar.
Eat too much sugar, too often, and blood sugar spikes abnormally all day. Do this over a long period of time, and the body’s insulin response gets broken. That’s diabetes.
Glycemic Index (GI) : GI is a measure of how big a spike in blood sugar a particular food will cause. Lower the GI, lower the spike, better that food is for diabetics (and for everyone in general)
High-fiber foods have a very low GI. Sugary foods have a very high GI. So which of these sweeteners is better?
First up, we need to define ‘better’.
Apart from ‘it seems more natural’, there are two other reasons people generally quote, when I ask them why they chose brown sugar/honey/jaggery over regular sugar.
It’s better for weight-loss
It’s healthier because it’s more natural and raw
So let’s examine them on both these planks.
1) It’s better for weight-loss
Testing this is easy. To be better for weight loss, a food product needs to have lower calorie density. Simple.
Brown Sugar : Sorry to burst your bubble, but both brown sugar and white sugar have almost the same calorie density. 375kcal and 390kcal per 100gm. Bring that down to ‘per teaspoon’, and the difference practically vanishes.
Honey : Honey does have a slightly lower calorie density. At about 330–340kcal/ 100gm, it is about ~12% less calorie-dense. But again, at a ‘per teaspoon’ level, that difference is negligible. And most often, I see people adding a bit extra honey (or licking the bit stuck to the spoon), thinking they’re making the healthier choice. That extra 2g, and your calorie difference vanishes.
Jaggery : Unfortunately, the news for jaggery is the same as Honey and Sugar. Jaggery has ~380kCal/100gm. So there’s very little difference in calorie density.
By now you’d be seeing a common thread. Quite simply:
If it sweetens like sugar, it has the calories of sugar.
That’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact that you need to factor into your daily calorie count. Don’t let anyone fool you into having more sugar than you need to, saying that jaggery or honey are lower-calorie alternatives. They are not. If limiting calorie intake is your goal, then (this will hurt), there is no difference between the three.
2) It’s Healthier
I don’t know what ‘healthier’ means. I don’t think most people do either. I assume that it comes from honey and brown sugar and jaggery looking more natural, which, somehow, is seen as an indicator of being more nutritious. At this time, allow me to first bust some massive myths.
What is brown sugar?
Brown sugar is White sugar + Molasses. Molasses are a by-product of sugar production. So, in most cases, the factory-produced brown sugar you’ve been using as a replacement for ‘processed’ white sugar is actually that same white sugar — with one extra step of processing!
In some cases, the manufacturer might stop the refinement process midway and let a bit (~5%) of molasses remain in the mixture. These are the slightly more ‘artisanal’ demerara sugars etc. But in both cases, there is, literally, NO difference between the two. Neither nutritionally, nor calorie-wise. The only difference is color and taste. What a scam!
So is honey more nutritious?
I know, right now you’re looking for some hope that morality isn’t totally lost in the health-marketing world. Well, I have both good and bad news. Constitutionally, honey is a bit different from sugar. Sugars are generally half glucose and half fructose. Honey, is a larger proportion of fructose.
Hence honey is sweeter than regular sugar. It has lower calorie density because ~15% of honey is water. Given that it’s sweeter, one should be consuming lesser of it, compared to sugar. The reality though, as we discussed, might turn out to be different.
Also, since it comes from a more natural, unadulterated source, honey does contain many anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals. But I won’t go into the details of what they are, because when consumed at 2–3 teaspoons a day, these nutrients are present in just trace amounts. So nutritionally, if you seek to reap the benefits of honey, you’d need to consume about half a glass every day- In which case you can kiss weight-loss goodbye.
So yes, theoretically, honey is more nutritious. Given its composition, it has many allied benefits too — from curing coughs to healing wounds. But unfortunately, if you’re looking at it as a healthier substitute for sugar in your weight-loss battle, then you’re in for disappointment.
Lower GI: Honey does have a slightly lower GI (~50) as compared to sugar (~65). So, for what it’s worth, honey gets absorbed a bit slower and hence causes a lower blood-sugar spike when consumed in the same amount. So if you are diabetic, and you must have one of the two, honey would win.
What is Jaggery?
Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made by boiling concentrated sugar cane extract until it hardens. It is then rolled into patties or chopped into blocks, or powdered and sold as sugar. If you speak to an expert, they might refer to it as a ‘non-centrifugal’ sugar. This is just a fancy way of saying that, unlike refined sugar, jaggery isn’t spun while processing to separate the molasses. That’s all.
Fun Fact: While a product like jaggery is found in many cultures across the world (all over Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean), India produces about 70% of the world’s jaggery!
Similar GI: Jaggery isn’t any better than sugar. That means it causes a similar insulin spike when consumed in a similar amount.
I must admit here, that jaggery does have the highest ‘nutrient density’ of all the alternatives we’ve considered till now. Here’s a quick lowdown of what all it contains, per 100gm:
1. Protein: 4 grams.
2. Fat: 1 grams.
3. Iron: 11 mg, or 61% of the RDI.
4. Magnesium: 100–150mg, or about 30% of the RDI.
5. Potassium: 1050 mg, or 30% of the RDI.
6. Manganese: 2–0.5 mg, or 10–20% of the RDI.
As you can see, it has a lot of nutrients in decent amounts. Now, let’s say, you substitute your entire sugar intake with jaggery. If you’re on a weight-loss/ maintenance diet, I’d assume you’re not consuming more than 20–25gm sugar a day (across tea, coffee, sweets, etc) At these levels, switching to jaggery gives you about 8% of your magnesium and potassium and about 15% of your iron requirements. That’s significant.
Now bear in mind, I am NOT suggesting you make jaggery your go-to medium to get magnesium and iron. Please. Have spinach. But at these levels, it is better than having the same amount of sugar.
In Ayurveda, jaggery is used in many a medicine as a sweetener to make the medicine palatable. It’s also claimed to solve many everyday ailments like activating digestion, fighting a cold (taken with black pepper), reducing flatulence (which is why it’s used as a quick dessert after meals in many Indian households), curing mild headaches…the list goes on.
Here’s a complete lowdown if you’re interested. I’m not qualified to prove or disprove these. But I must say this — given its nutritional composition, I wouldn’t be surprised if this cocktail of vitamins and minerals creates some magic in our body. Magic, because I don’t think traditional western science can decode it (yet). Not to mention, having grown up in a middle-class North-Indian household, I’ve seen, first-hand, ‘gur’ used in various forms to cure various ailments. Empirically speaking, I’ve seen it work (same for honey in curing coughs).
Verdict: So what do I do?
1. Work on reducing your sweet craving. That’s the only reliable, long-term method of getting fit and staying so. And be very wary of marketers trying to sell you brown stuff.
2. But if you’re going to have sugar, replacing it with jaggery or dates would be my go-to option. Far lesser chemicals, far more nutrients, and perhaps some magic formula that has many ancient cultures believing in them. Good deal.