You’re walking away from the counter at Starbucks, after the barista has given you your usual Grande Caffe Americano with an extra shot of espresso.
As you take a step toward the door, you hear a woman ask for “a tall coffee with no cream and two honeys, please.”
“Speaking Starbucks” is always a challenge, so you hang around by the display of coffee beans for a minute, to figure out what you’ve misunderstood. But sure enough, the barista adds honey to the woman’s black coffee.
Now, everyone loves honey and coffee is America’s preferred hot drink.
But honey and coffee – together?
Believe it or not, substituting honey for sugar when drinking coffee is something of a fad these days. As with all fads, some people follow suit simply because it is a fad. There’s a method to the madness, though, for people trying to cut processed table sugar out of their diet but can’t stand to drink their coffee black. Honey is undoubtedly better for the body than white sugar, so they use it as a healthy alternative.
But is there enough of a health benefit to justify the odd flavor combination of honey and coffee?
Let’s find out.
The Honey/Sugar Scorecard
For now, let’s put aside the issue of taste, and figure out if there’s enough scientific justification to mix the strong taste of coffee with the equally strong flavor of honey.
We’ll do it with a good old-fashioned scorecard, comparing the attributes of honey with those of the sugar it’s replacing.
Speaking of old-fashioned, let’s first look at the traditional way to judge whether foods are “good for you.”
A teaspoon of white sugar contains 16 calories, while a teaspoon of ordinary honey contains 23.
But since honey is much sweeter than sugar, you don’t need a full teaspoon to equal the sweetening power of a teaspoon of sugar. Half-a-teaspoon of honey is more than enough – meaning we’re really comparing 16 calories for the sugar with 11.5 calories for the amount of honey that has the same sweet effect on your coffee.
Carbohydrates with lower glycemic indexes are better for you than those with higher GIs. That’s because they’re less likely to cause blood sugar to rise significantly as the body converts the carbs to glucose and/or fructose. In other words, foods with a lower glycemic index reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. They also help prevent overeating because they make you feel full.
White (or brown) sugar has a glycemic index of 65. The GI of honey varies between 45 and 53, depending on the variety of honey.
This one gets a bit more complicated. Sugar is made up of “complex” sugars known as disaccharides, or sucrose. The body must break them down into glucose and fructose before each can be turned into energy. Honey is composed of simple glucose and fructose, so each can be burned by the body for energy almost immediately.
Why is that important? Because the longer sugar stays in the body before being “used,” the more likely it is that its fructose will be converted to body fat. The fructose in honey will mostly be converted and burned before it can be turned into fat.
There’s a reason we all know the phrase “sugar rush,” even though that myth has actually been debunked. You really don’t get a quick energy boost from sugar. However, you do feel a sugar crash shortly after consuming it, due to the quick increase and fast decrease in blood sugar associated with its high glycemic index. As honey’s sucrose and fructose are burned, by contrast, energy is released at a steady rate with no highs or lows.
Other Health Benefits
This is an easy one. Sugar is famously known for being “empty calories,” because it doesn’t contain any vitamins or minerals.
Honey, as you probably know, has a wealth of health benefits because of the B vitamins and vitamin C, iron and manganese it contains. They work as antioxidants, have antibacterial properties, and promote bone and cardiovascular health.
No one should be surprised at the final result. Honey is a healthier alternative, by every measure, than sugar when comparing the two natural sweeteners.
However, bear in mind that we’re only talking about teaspoons or half-teaspoons of each one; the real benefits only start to add up over time. One other note: we haven’t done the same type of detailed dive to compare honey to artificial sweeteners, because honey is obviously a healthier choice than sugar substitutes like Splenda or Stevia.
That doesn’t close our discussion, though. It’s not enough for honey to be healthier for coffee drinkers to use honey instead of sugar. What about the elephant in the room: the way that honey tastes when added to a cup of coffee?
Getting Used to Honey in Your Coffee
The mix of two strong and distinctive flavors, coffee and honey, is definitely an acquired taste.
But honey comes in many varieties and flavors. If its health benefits have convinced you to substitute honey for the sugar in your morning coffee or latte, it might be wise to try several different types of honey to see which blends best with your coffee.
Light and mild honeys like acacia, clover or orange blossom are less likely to “fight” with a strong coffee taste. The more distinctive, spicy flavor of sourwood honey or the fruity tastes of blackberry or wildflower honey may add interesting and welcome notes to your favorite coffee blend. The more combinations you try, the more likely it will be that you hit on a winner.
One other suggestion: a Spanish drink called Café con Miel, which actually means “coffee with honey.” It’s made from French press coffee, milk, honey, vanilla extract, cinnamon and nutmeg. It may become your favorite new coffee drink, or it may just be a good introduction to what can be done when combining coffee with honey.
And if the non-traditional mix just doesn’t work for you, there’s always almond milk!