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The bittersweet truth about honey’s health benefits

Honey. You can think of it as “meal prep” for bees.

Just like you might meal prep for the week ahead, bees work tirelessly during the spring to prepare food for the winter months. One might say bees are quite the overachiever, as they typically produce two to three times the hive’s honey needs per year. This means the remainder can be harvested for human use. And harvest it, we do.

But are these praises of honey warranted? Can we “bee” healthier by making this simple swap?

Popular long ago (as far back as 7,000 B.C.) before the rise of refined sugar, the resurgence of honey can nowadays be attributed to modern day wellness culture. A heightened awareness of the qualms with a sugary diet has led many people to turn toward more natural-seeming sweeteners. In addition to honey, this includes agave nectar, stevia, maple syrup, coconut sugar… the list goes on.

But are these praises of honey warranted? Can we “bee” healthier by making this simple swap? Let’s see what all the buzz is about by addressing seven common beliefs about honey.

Honey contains powerful antioxidants. Refined sugar does not.

It’s true — honey does contain enzymes, antioxidants, non-heme iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. But in amounts typically consumed (let’s say about 1 tablespoon), honey is not considered a “good source” of any of these vitamins and minerals. It has less than 1 percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) per serving.

So, while this belief isn’t necessarily incorrect, I wouldn’t base your decision to eat honey solely on its antioxidant properties.

Nutrients are good! I’ll just consume more honey to help meet my daily allowance…

Not so fast. While, yes, eating more of a food will give you more of the nutrients found in that food, honey is still a sugar. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons, or 3 tablespoons, of sugar per day for men and no more than 6 teaspoons, or 2 tablespoons, of sugar per day for women.

But honey is a natural sugar. I’m only worried about added sugars.

If we’re getting real technical here, all nutritive sugars are technically natural sugars. When you hear medical professionals say they are not as worried about naturally-occurring sugars, they are usually referring to the sugars found in fruits and vegetables. These foods are accompanied by fiber and a plethora of other vitamins and minerals that are extremely crucial to our overall health.

So honey isn’t considered a natural sugar like the sugar in fruit?

Honey is considered a natural sugar. In its most basic form, it is created without the insertion of human hands. But honey does not occur naturally in food products — it is the food product.

When honey is added to foods, it typically undergoes some kind of processing that will strip honey of its naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals, similar to refined sugar. So while honey may be natural, it’s not quite as natural as you might think after processing.

But I heard the body processes honey differently.

There’s some footing to this, but not really enough to stand on. While refined sugar is made from 100 percent sucrose (glucose + fructose), honey is made from 75 percent sucrose. The other 25 percent is made up of mostly water.

This means that, gram for gram, honey is slightly less calorically dense than refined sugar. But, keep in mind — most of us don’t measure our foods by weight. Volume measures such as teaspoon, tablespoon, etc. are more readily available. Since honey is denser than granulated sugar, tablespoon for tablespoon, sugar and honey are calorically similar at about 50-60 calories per tablespoon.

Okay, I’ll just eat raw, unprocessed honey then.  Isn’t that good for allergies?

Though the idea of using local honey as a form of immunotherapy sounds pleasing, there’s not strong evidence to support this theory. More research is needed. One study found this effect at very high doses of 1 gram of honey per kilogram of body weight when also combined with over-the-counter allergy medications. Though current science does not support the effect of honey on allergies, you may have experienced these benefits first-hand.

Science may chalk these benefits up to a placebo effect, but you can only do what you feel works best for your body. A healthy diet is an important part of any healthy lifestyle, but always talk to your doctor first before trying anything new on your own.

Now you’ve got me all confused. What should I do?!

If you like raw, unprocessed honey and you prefer its taste in place of syrups or other sweeteners, then use it so long as it fits within any other genuine dietary and medical restrictions. But to use it simply because you believe it will “improve your health” is misleading. In the end, remember this: honey is still sugar.

As with anything, be sure to research any health claims that sound too good to be true, and don’t rely on one food as a cure-all. Food is powerful, but always trust your gut.

Interested in learning more about what makes up a healthy diet? Consult with a registered dietitian or talk to your primary care physician about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

About the author

Lauren Maxwell, MPH, CHES, CPT
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Lauren Maxwell, MPH, CHES, CPT, is a wellness coordinator for Baylor Scott & White Health. Her primary areas of expertise include behavior and environmental change related to nutrition, tobacco, stress and physical activity. Lauren earned her bachelor's in nutrition at the University of Texas and completed her Masters of Public Health from the University of South Carolina. She is also a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and is committed to continually improve her knowledge and skills in the field of health and wellness. Lauren believes that small, short-term goals serve as stepping stones that lead to the desired long-term outcome. As a wellness coordinator, she aims to help her clients realize that health is a lifelong journey with many milestones along the way.

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The bittersweet truth about honey’s health benefits