Of late, I've been trying to get into the habit of using honey instead of sugar. We buy unpasteurized honey from nearby Honeyflow Farm, which grows U-pick grapes and collects honey from its many hives (they are open only in September and October, but honey, beeswax candles, and honey soap can be ordered on-line). Unpasteurized, not supermarket, honey provides maximum health benefits, as no enzymes or other naturally occurring substances are destroyed. The honey we buy is strained but not completely filtered, and it's darker than most honey offered by supermarkets.
First, unlike sugar, honey contains vitamins, minerals, and amino acids (among other substances). That makes it an actual food, not just a sweetener. In addition, it's recently been discovered that honey is a powerful anti-oxidant, and that the darker the honey, the greater the anti-oxidant effect. Another study shows that eating honey may increase calcium absorption. And yet another suggests that honey does not affect blood sugar levels as greatly as sugar; while it does raise blood sugar levels like any other sugar, the blood sugar level does not rise or drop as suddenly:
A limited study at the University of Memphis Exercise and Sports Nutrition Laboratory found honey to be one of the most effective forms of carbohydrate gels to ingest just prior to exercise. According to Dr. Richard Kreider, the study’s lead investigator, “honey appears to be a carbohydrate source that is relatively mild on its effects upon blood sugar compared to other carbohydrate sources.”
(See this as well.)
We can sum it up this way:
Honey contains at least 15 nutrients whereas sugar has none. Honey is an aid to digestion when taken in the raw state due to its enzyme content while sugar interferes with digestion. Honey enters the bloodstream slowly, 2 calories per minute. Sugar enters quickly at 10 calories per minute, causing blood sugars to fluctuate rapidly and wildly. Sugar causes calcium leakage from bones, contributing to osteoporosis while honey does not.
In addition, at least one study indicates that honey may boost the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut. Supplements to increase probiotic bacteria are a big business, intended to re-establish natural gut flora after a course of antibiotics or the loss of such flora due to other causes, such as stress, disease, or exposure to toxins.
While honey has more calories per tablespoon than sugar--64 vs. 48--honey is sweeter than sugar, so less is needed: about one tablespoon of honey gives the sweetness of one-and-a half tablespoons of sugar, or one-third less sweetener. So in actuality, using honey does not have to mean more calories.
In baking, honey adds moistness (moistness that lasts longer, too) and superior flavor. Advice varies on substituting honey for sugar in a given recipe and is a matter of taste, with some people using a cup of honey for a cup of sugar, and others using 2/3 or 3/4 cup honey per cup of sugar. I find that 2/3 cup works very well. For every cup of honey used, decrease the liquid in the recipe by 1/4. The oven temperature must be lowered by 25 degrees to prevent over-browning. Some people also add 1/4 tsp. of baking soda per cup of honey, because honey is highly acidic and the soda offsets that. I've never resorted to that and so far have had good results.
Of course there are some things for which honey can't be used, such as streusel-type toppings (for that I would look for the least processed brown sugar I could find in the store, such as turbinado [made by steaming unrefined raw sugar]).
Honey does not mold or "go bad," due to its antimicrobial and antifungal properties and its high acidity. It may crystallize, but all you have to do is let the container sit in some hot water and the honey will become liquid again.
According to folklore, there are many other benefits to using honey, some of which may yet be borne out by scientific studies. And honey is also being used in Europe and elsewhere outside the U.S. to treat gastric ulcers and skin wounds, burns, and infections, succeeding even in combating antibiotic-resistent bacteria.
Switching from sugar to honey makes sense, and your taste buds will appreciate it, too. Honey should be a part of your diet, especially if you're trying to cut down on processed foods.