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 hive 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.

The benefits of honey include:

  • A source of protective plant compounds called polyphenols
  • Has a lower glycaemic index (GI) score than sugar
  • May help wounds heal
  • May suppress coughs in children
  • May support immune function

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and learn more about the health benefits of manuka honey and whether honey is suitable for those following a vegan diet.

Nutritional profile of honey

In its raw form, honey contains amino acids, protective plant compounds, vitamins, minerals and sugar. It has a high fructose content, making it sweeter than sugar but with a moderate glycaemic index (GI).

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Figures per 1 tablespoon (20g) of honey:

• 58kcal/246KJ
• 15.3g carbohydrates
• 15.3g sugars
• 0.1g protein
• 0g fat

What types of honey are there?

Commercial honeys undergo a filtration process and are heat-treated to prevent their sugars from crystallising, as well as to kill microbes before storage. This extends their shelf life and makes the product more attractive in the jar. However, this negatively impacts the honey’s natural antioxidant content and any 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.

Read more about manuka honey in our expert guide.

Bees on honeycomb

Top 5 health benefits of honey

1. A source of protective plant compounds (polyphenols)

Unprocessed honey, particularly the darker varieties, are 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 its rich flavonoid content, some people view honey as a healthier alternative to sugar.

2. Has a lower glycaemic index (GI) score than sugar

Honey has a lower GI than table sugar because its sugar content contains comparatively more fructose than table sugar. However, honey is still high in calories, is classified as a ‘free sugar’ and causes increases to blood sugar so it should be enjoyed in moderation.

3. May help wounds heal

Honey has traditionally been used topically as an antiseptic. It is believed to speed up the healing process in mild, superficial wounds, ulcers and burns. This is 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.

4. May suppress coughs in children

Thanks to its syrupy qualities, honey is a great throat soother. Studies assessing potential treatments for respiratory infections in children, with symptoms ranging from a hacking cough and runny nose to fever, found that a single nighttime dose of honey may have a small but effective influence on their cough and help them sleep better. However, honey shouldn't be given to children younger than 12 months.

5. May support immune function

Unprocessed honey that is rich in polyphenols appears to have anti-inflammatory properties that may support and regulate the immune system. Honey’s influence may include increasing the number of immune cells such as the T and B cells, neutrophils and natural killer cells as well as antibodies.

Is honey better for you than sugar?

Honey has a lower GI than sugar, meaning that it does not raise blood sugar levels as quickly. It is also sweeter to the taste than sugar, so in theory 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 portion sizes.

If you do prefer honey, try to choose a raw variety, which contains vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants and other natural compounds that white table sugar does not have. However, don’t forget the amounts of these beneficial nutrients and compounds are negligible, so honey, like sugar, should be consumed in moderation.

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 because harvesting honey is seen as detrimental to the bees who have worked to manufacture it and support their own survival through the winter months.

Overall is honey a healthy choice?

Raw, unprocessed honey offers several potential health benefits, thanks to the natural plant compounds it contains. However, although it makes a tasty, lower GI alternative to table sugar it still impacts blood sugar levels and has a high calorie content. For diabetics and 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. It's also worth remembering that, like other syrups, honey is classed as a 'free' sugar – the type we are advised to cut back on. If you do prefer honey, try to choose a raw variety, which contains more vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants than white sugar, and use it in moderation.

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

Honey-roast beetroot
Honeyed winter salad
Clementine & honey couscous
Honey-mustard steamed green medley
Puy lentil, spiced roast carrot & feta salad
Moroccan aubergine & chickpea salad

And check out more of our honey recipes

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This article was last reviewed on 20 February 2024 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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