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The Sweet Science of Honey

Honey appears to be on people’s minds. Among the nearly 600 Ask the SugarScientist questions we have received so far, were a few dozen about whether honey is better than other sweeteners. The requests sent us back to PubMed, the premier database of peer-reviewed scientific literature. 

Honey, the sweet liquid produced by honeybees (Apis mellifera), is composed of about 40% fructose, in contrast to the 50% fructose in table sugar and 40-90% fructose in high-fructose corn syrup. Some of the health issues most on our minds these days, such as liver and metabolic disease, are linked to heavy fructose consumption. So the lower concentration of fructose in honey, compared to other sweeteners, gives it some potential health advantages.  

Honey does have more calories per teaspoon than table sugar, with 21 calories per teaspoon in honey vs. 16 in table sugar. But because honey is so thick and hard to pour, we might tend to use less of it.

Here’s the good news about honey. Unlike table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (the most commonly used sweeteners in the U.S.), honey contains other nutrients that studies show to be beneficial to health. The biggest health boost comes from the antioxidants in honey. Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress in our cells, which helps protect our cells from damage.

Honey also contains amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and vitamins and minerals, such as Thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxin, vitamin A, niacin, panthothenic acid, phyllochinon, vitamin E, and vitamin C.1  The mix of these nutrients varies, depending on which plants the bees visited.

Our search of the medical literature turned up several studies over the past few years that have shown a range of health benefits from honey. Those included a number of studies linking honey consumption to reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as blood sugar levels and cholesterol, perhaps due to its antioxidant components. One study showed that maple syrup shared some antioxidant properties, as well.2

Honey also has been successfully used for wound and burn healing. It has been proposed as a sugar alternative for diabetics, but here, the jury still seems to be out. One eight-week study of 48 diabetic patients showed a decrease in body weight, "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels over the study period, as well as an increase in “good” (HDL) cholesterol. However, it also resulted in higher blood levels of hemoglobin A(1c), an indication of poorer control of blood glucose levels.3 One study also dispelled the notion that honey was helpful in reducing red-eye and inflamed sinuses from allergies.4

A few notes of caution: because honey can carry small amounts of the botulism bacterium, health experts advise not giving it to children under 1 year of age.5,6 There also have been rare reports of certain types of honey having a toxic effect on humans and animals, specifically honey made from the nectar of Rhododendrons,7 but it is generally considered safe.

So, as a choice of added sweeteners, honey has some bonus features that table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup lack. But remember that, in the end, honey is still a form of added sugar. So, while honey seems like a healthier substitute for the more common sweeteners, we would advise counting it as part of your daily added sugar intake and keeping the amount you consume under the limit recommended by expert panels: 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men.

  • [1]Al-Waili, N.., Salom, K.., Al-Ghamdi, A.., Ansari, M.J.., Al-Waili, A.., & Al-Waili, T.. (2013, December). Honey and Cardiovascular Risk Factors, in Normal Individuals and in Patients with Diabetes Mellitus or Dyslipidemia. . J Med Food , 16(12), 1063–1078. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.0285. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24328699
  • [2]Phillips, K., Carlsen, M., & Blomhoff, R. (2009, January). Total Antioxidant Content of Alternatives to refined sugar. J Am Diet Assoc. , 109(1), 64-71. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2008.10.014. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1910332
  • [3]Bahrami, M., Ataie-Jafari A, A., Hosseini , S., Foruzanfar, M., Rahmani M, M., & Pajouhi , M. (2009, November). Effects of natural honey consumption in diabetic patients: an 8-week randomized clinical trial. . Int J Food Sci Nutr. , 60(7), 618-26. doi:10.3109/09637480801990389.. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19817641
  • [4]Rajan, T., Tennen, H., & Lindquist, R. (2002). Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol , 88(2), 198-203. doi:PMID: 11868925. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11868925?dopt=Abstract
  • [5]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCIDOD. (1998). Botulism in the United States, 1899-1996. Handbook for epidemiologists, clinicians, and laboratory workers. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/files/botulism_manual.htm
  • [6]National Institutes of Health , U.S. National Library of Medicine. Infant Botulism. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001384.htm
  • [7]Jansen, S.A., Kleerekooper, I., Hofman, Z.L., Kappen, I.F., Stary-Weinzinger, A., & van der Heyden, M.A. (2012, September). Grayanotoxin Poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and Beyond. Cardiovasc Toxicol , 12(3), 208-215. doi:10.1007/s12012-012-9162-2. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404272/

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

(HFCS) A concentrated form of liquid sugar which may contain a wide range of fructose concentrations. Most commonly it contains either 42% or 55% fructose, but may contain up to 90% fructose.

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

Table sugar

Sucrose, also called granulated sugar, is two simple sugars stuck together in a single molecule. Sucrose is made of one fructose and one glucose molecule. On this website, one level teaspoon of table sugar weighs 4.2 grams and has 16.8 calories.

SugarScience Glossary

Toxic

Poisonous, capable of causing damage

SugarScience Glossary

Fructose

A sugar that we eat. Also called fruit sugar. Most fructose comes in sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar), or from high-fructose corn syrup.

SugarScience Glossary

Glucose

Glucose is a sugar we eat. It is found in starch. It is the main fuel for our bodies. It is the sugar measured when we have a blood test to measure the blood sugar.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver

The largest internal organ. It weighs about three to four pounds and is located under the lower edge of the ribs on the right side. It helps us digest our food and remove toxins from our blood. "Hepat" in a word means liver, so an "hepato-toxin" is a liver poison or something that can cause damage to the liver

SugarScience Glossary

SugarScience is the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.

Evans M. Whitaker, MD, MLIS

Evans M. Whitaker, MD, MLIS, is a UCSF expert in comprehensive literature searching and organization of information on medical issues, in database search techniques and evidence-based medicine.

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