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Brown sugar vs Jaggery vs Honey

The Whole Truth Team
5 min read • 
13 March 2023

‘Excuse me, can you replace this with brown sugar or jaggery please’, he said, handing the packet back to the waiter. Brown sugar vs Jaggery- which one was indeed better?

‘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. Because once again, he’d made a billion people buy slightly ‘brown-er’ stuff, for more money.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s begin with some basics for this discussion on brown sugar vs jaggery 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. The bloodstream absorbs these sugars. And carries them to all cells, providing them with 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. Doing this for a long period of time will break the body’s insulin response. 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 or jaggery or honey 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) Which is better for weight-loss, brown sugar vs jaggery vs honey?

Testing this is easy. To be better for weight loss, a food product needs to have lower calorie density. Simple.

Lets compare brown sugar vs jaggery vs honey :

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. Especially if they say 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) Which is healthier, brown sugar vs jaggery vs honey?

I don’t know what ‘healthier’ means most people dont know either. I assume that it comes from honey and brown sugar and jaggery looking more natural. 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 the brown sugar you’ve been using as a replacement 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. Compared to sugar, one should be consuming lesser of honey, given that it’s sweeter. 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 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.

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 the 3. 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.

Allied Benefits

Ayurveda uses jaggery in many medicines as a sweetener to make the medicine palatable. Jaggery claims to cure everyday ailments like activating digestion, fighting a cold (when taken with black pepper), reducing flatulence (which is why many Indian households use it as a quick dessert after meals), 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?  Which one to pick : brown sugar vs jaggery vs honey?

1. The only reliable, long-term method of getting fit and staying so is working on reducing your sweet cravings. 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.

Frequently asked questions :

Q. Is brown sugar and jaggery/gur the same?

No, brown sugar and jaggery are not the same. Brown sugar is White sugar + Molasses. Molasses is a thick dark syrup, a by-product of sugar production) Whereas jaggery or gur is an unrefined sugar made by boiling concentrated sugar cane extract until it hardens. Then, they roll it into patties or chop it into blocks, or powder it. Jaggery isn’t spun while processing to separate the molasses like refined sugar which is why it is a ‘non-centrifugal’ sugar.

Q. What’s the difference between brown sugar and white 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 addition to that 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.

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