Honey is a whole, natural sweetener with a high nutritional profile.
While some dismiss it as unhealthy because it contains fructose, the nutritional profile of this traditional food may surprise you.
Like with every food, including honey, there's more to offer than individual nutrients, because scientists can isolate separate nutrients and tell us how they affect health, but some substances in all foods are still unknown.
Until that changes, if it does, analyzing the benefits of any particular food won’t be take into consideration undiscovered compounds that may affect health in unknown ways.
Labeling honey as a poor food choice because it’s high in fructose could be a mistake; let’s take a look at the health benefits of this age-old, natural sweetener.
To expand on the concept of foods being the sum of their nutritional components, we all understand that fruits can make important contributions to overall health, despite the fact that they are high in fructose.
Nuts, which are usually rich in omega-6 fatty acids, offer much more than these healthy fats tucked into a protective shell, such as fiber and nutrients that may be scarce in other foods.
Honey is a food made by bees through a process many people may not be familiar with, beginning the with collection of sweet nectar from various blooming plants.
All those busy bees bring nectar back to the hive, then eat it, digest it and regurgitate it, or expel it from their digestive tracts. The end-product is what we know as honey.
The nutritional content of honey, as well as color, texture and taste, is different depending on the where the bees gather nectar; each geographical area will offer a unique combination of blossoms from plants that grow nearby.
Even the glycemic index of honey can vary greatly between batches of honey, from low or moderate to extremely high. For these purposes, we’ll offer nutritional data based on a “typical” batch of honey. (1, 2)
- Honey consists of 82% sugar by weight, and half of that is in the form of fructose.
- The ratio of glucose and fructose can fluctuate slightly with different batches.
- Trace quantities of minerals and vitamins can be found in honey.
- Antioxidants are present in varying amounts.
Clinical trials done with honey indicate that certain blood markers can be positively affected by adding honey into the diet, or substituting it for other sweeteners like sugar.
Professionals use blood markers as a tool that can help indicate a patient’s risk for developing certain disorders; triglycerides, blood glucose and cholesterol are among the most commonly measured markers, and diabetics usually show red flags in all of these.
In one randomized, controlled trial with diabetic patients, honey was shown to lower both body weight and blood triglycerides, as well as raising levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind). (3)
However, these patients registered an increase in HbA1c, which is a marker based on blood sugar levels, so that particular outcome was considered negative.
A different study divided patients into groups and tested the effects of different kinds of sweeteners on participants who were healthy, those who were diabetic, and others who had high cholesterol levels.
Here’s what they found: (4)
- Honey raised blood sugar levels, but not as much as dextrose (glucose) or sucrose (fructose and glucose).
- Honey dropped the inflammation marker called C-Reactive Protein (CRP).
- Honey raised HDL cholesterol and decreased LDL cholesterol (a good thing), as well as dropping triglyceride levels.
The antioxidants found in honey may have a significant positive effect on health; dietary antioxidants are usually associated with health improvements, as well as a lower risk for chronic disease.
One reason for this is that antioxidants help prevent DNA damage that can lead to health issues that develop with age, including cancer, strokes and arthritis. Lowering oxidative stress through providing the body with plenty of dietary antioxidants can be a powerful anti-aging strategy.
Animal studies using honey showed that rats suffer less oxidative stress when fed honey; blood triglyceride levels dropped as well. The animals gained significantly lower amounts of fat eating honey than if they were fed purified fructose or sugar. (7)
Environment and surrounding vegetation are important factors in the antioxidant content of honey, which may be as much as 20 times higher in one type of honey than another. (8)
Generally speaking, the darker the color of the honey, the more antioxidants will be present; antioxidants in honey are believed to have a high level of bio-availability to the human system, meaning the body may be able to use these valuable substances to reduce oxidative stress more easily than from other sources. (9)
One example of a darker honey is buckwheat honey, which is the type used in two of the trials mentioned above.
Researchers found buckwheat honey delivers the equivalent of antioxidants found in tomatoes of matching weight, although it would take a lot of honey to provide that quantity. (10)
Pasteurized honey may not contain the same high levels of antioxidants and nutrients found in raw honey, and many honey enthusiasts believe raw honey packs a stronger nutritional punch. (11)
Some believe that eating unpasteurized local honey can help decrease allergic reactions to pollen and blooming plants in spring, a common seasonal problem many people struggle with. However, clear evidence to support this idea isn’t available. (12)
For people who are healthy and active, eating honey isn’t likely to be an issue, and is probably a better choice than sugar.
Those who are struggling with reducing fructose or total carbohydrates in the diet, as well diabetics or anyone who is overweight, may want to give honey a pass, or use it sparingly in place of other sweeteners.
Summary: Honey is a natural sweetener that may have health benefits beyond its separate nutritional components, including the bioavailability of antioxidants that act as anti-aging substances in the body.