Is honey good for you?
Sweeter than sugar, could this natural syrup be the ultimate sugar alternative? Registered nutritionist, Jo Lewin, explores the highs and lows of this popular ingredient.
What is honey?
Honey is the gold-coloured syrup created by bees following the collection of nectar from flowering plants. It's stored as honeycomb to provide food for the beehive during the winter months.
In ancient Greece, honey was described as the ‘food of the Gods’, while in China it’s classified as a medicine.
In its raw form, honey consists of amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and sugar. It has a high fructose content, making it sweeter than sugar but with a moderate glycaemic index (GI).
Figures per 1 tablespoon (20g) of honey:
• 58kcal / 246KJ
• 15.3g carbohydrates
• 15.4g sugars
• 0.1g protein
• 0g fat
What types of honey are there?
Commercial honeys undergo a filtration process and are heat-treated to prevent the sugars from crystallising as well as kill microbes before storage. This extends the shelf life and makes the product more attractive in the jar. However, it negatively impacts the honey’s antioxidant content and its potential health benefits. Raw honey on the other hand is unprocessed and hasn’t been pasteurised or filtered.
Thought to be the ‘queen’ of honey, manuka honey is a popular yet expensive option which is produced from the nectar of the flowering manuka tree. It is high in a chemical called methylglyoxal, which has been claimed by researchers to be the source of honey's antibacterial properties.
Is honey a healthy choice?
The health benefits of honey depend on its processing as well as the quality of the flowers the bees collect from. Raw honey has not been heated, pasteurised, clarified or filtered in any way, and this form typically retains more of the health-promoting nutrients that can be lost to standard processing methods.
Honey has been used topically as an antiseptic for years. It is believed to speed up the healing process in mild, superficial wounds, ulcers and burns. Because honey is composed mainly of glucose and fructose, two sugars that strongly attract water, honey absorbs water in the wound, drying it out so that the growth of bacteria and fungi is inhibited.
Honey, particularly the darker varieties, is a rich source of chemical compounds such as flavonoids. Flavonoids have been reported to have antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties. Due to the flavonoid content, some view honey as a healthier alternative to sugar and a source of antioxidants.
However, although honey has a lower GI than table sugar, it is still high in calories and causes increases in blood sugar so should be consumed in moderation.
Is honey better than sugar?
Honey has a lower GI than sugar, meaning that it does not raise blood sugar levels as quickly. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you may need less of it, but it does have slightly more calories per teaspoon so it's wise to keep a close eye on your portion sizes.
If you do prefer honey, try to choose a raw variety, which contains more vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants and other nutrients than white sugar, and use it in moderation. It is worth remembering, however, that any nutritional benefit from consuming raw honey is negligible.
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Is honey safe for everyone?
Honey is classed as a ‘free’ sugar, the type we are advised to limit in our diets – so although it may be safe for most adults it should be consumed within guideline amounts.
For diabetics, or those trying to manage their blood sugar levels, there is no real advantage to substituting sugar for honey as both will ultimately affect blood sugar levels.
In addition to this, all infants under the age of 12 months should not eat raw or commercially produced honey. This is because they may be at risk of a type of food poisoning called botulism.
Although most of us may enjoy honey in our diets, it’s not acceptable to all. Honey is not vegan, this is because harvesting honey is seen as detrimental to the bees, who have worked hard to manufacture it and support their own survival through the winter months.
Always check with your GP or other health professional if you have concerns over honey's suitability for you or your child.
Healthy honey recipes
And check out more of our honey recipes
This article was last reviewed on 27 June 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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