The widespread custom is to dip the challah and then an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah. However, select Sephardic communities have the custom to specifically use sugar, not honey, on Rosh Hashanah.

As explained in Why Do We Dip the Apple Into Honey on Rosh Hashanah? there are many reasons for the custom of dipping an apple into honey, which appears to date back to the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 C.E.).1 Here is why some have a differing custom:

Kosher Concerns

In some places, honey would at times contain added ingredients that posed a kosher concern. Although the final ruling was that the honey was technically kosher, some would avoid it on Rosh Hashanah, following the tradition to be especially careful regarding kosher at this time of year, when we return to G‑d and pray for a good year.2

So if honey was out, what could take its place? Enter sugar, which was a sweet (but grainy) substitute.3

Kabbalah of Sugar

Some point out that the white sugar signifies the attribute of chessed (“divine kindness”), while honey is from the attribute of gevurah (“divine severity”). Thus, they avoided honey, as it is appropriate to stay away from things associated with the attribute of severity and judgment on the night of Rosh Hashanah, when the fate of the universe hangs in balance.4

However, other Kabbalists explain that, on the contrary, honey actually represents gevurah shebechesed, “sweetened severity,”5 which is most appropriate on Rosh Hashanah, when we seek to sweeten any harsh judgements that may have formed on High.

Salt to Sugar?

In the Holy Temple, every sacrifice was sprinkled with salt. There is a minority position that if there was no salt, one could use sugar.6

Conversely, the verse7 states that honey could not be placed on the altar. The commentaries explain that honey is a sign of haughtiness and ego, which should be avoided.8

Thus, some attempt to explain, since our sweetener of choice is taking the place9 of the salt we normally put on our bread (read why here), it is most appropriate to use sugar, which can act as salt in a pinch.

Take this, however, with a grain of salt.  Even Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Chai”), who advocated for sugar over honey, notes that the majority consensus is that one cannot use sugar instead of salt on the altar.10

In addition, when the Torah forbids honey on the altar, it is referring specifically to date honey, not bee honey. And its broader interpretation refers to all sweet things, including sugar, since they signify pleasure and expansiveness, as opposed to salt, which expresses humility.11

Whether you are using honey or sugar, the main thing is that you be blessed with a sweet new year!