Honeybees make honey from the nectar of flowers. Because honey has antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other health-promoting properties, this naturally sweet substance is favored for its nutritional and medicinal benefits. Raw honey is commonly believed to be superior to honey that has been heat processed or filtered, although more research is needed to tease out the effects of processing on honey's nutritional and medicinal profile. However, raw honey appears to have several benefits and minimal risks.
Over 300 types of honey have been recognized, with unique flavors, colors and nutrient profiles depending on the specific nectar collected by honeybees. This fact makes honey more diverse than people realize, and a challenge to research. Honey gets its calories and sweetness from carbohydrates, its main ingredient. In addition, pure honey contains over 200 other substances, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and phytochemicals -- or beneficial plant chemicals.
Small amounts of pollutants may also be present, such as lead, cadmium and arsenic, and unfiltered honey contains particles of wax, pollen and propolis, a resinous substance the bees use to hold their hives together. Most commercial honey is treated with heat and filtered in order to prevent fermentation, avoid crystal formation and provide a more clear appearance. However, raw honey is increasingly favored by consumers since unprocessed honey is thought to retain higher amounts of protective substances and provide more health benefits.
Throughout history, honey has been slathered on wounds to clear infections and speed healing, and taken orally to treat sore throats or infections. Raw, unprocessed honey is commonly believed to be superior in this regard, however not all of honey's antibacterial properties are impacted by processing. For instance, any type of honey is high in sugar, low in water and acidic -- all properties that inhibit bacterial growth. Most types of honey also generate hydrogen peroxide when diluted, which contributes to its antimicrobial activity.
Honey contains nutrients and plant chemicals such as flavonoids and phenolic acids which enhance immunity via anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, and the impact of processing on these benefits is unknown. Some studies have shown that both raw and processed honey exhibit antibacterial properties, although the antimicrobial activity varies considerably among different types of honey. While processing may linked to this variation, botanical source -- or the plants the honeybees derive the nectar from -- plays a significant role in the levels of these protective plant chemicals.
Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Honey has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which are a category of substances that can relieve swelling and pain. Honey is also known to possess antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals, which are damaging substances that contribute to heart disease, cancer and many other diseases. However, the botanical source of the honey is believed to be the main influence on antioxidant content. For instance, dark honey is especially rich in antioxidants, particularly honey derived from buckwheat, chestnut and manuka plants. The impact of heat treating or filtering on honey's antioxidant content is not known, but even heat-treated honey has been shown to increase blood levels of antioxidants, according to one research study.
Risk for Infant Botulism
Raw and heat-treated honey may contain spores of the bacteria that causes botulism, a rare but serious illness that attacks the nerves and causes paralysis, difficulty breathing and may even cause death. Honey can be a source of Clostridium botulinum spores and a few other causative bacteria as these are commonly present in the environment. These spores are harmless if ingested by most children and adults, but the digestive system of infants is not mature enough to prevent this bacteria from forming toxins. Because of the risk of infant botulism, any type of honey should not be given to infants under the age of 12 months.
As a rule, honey is safe to consume for people over the age of 12 months. However, if you have had an organ transplant, your doctor may recommend an antimicrobial diet in order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. These guidelines may recommend the avoidance of raw honey, according to post-transplant guidelines published in February 2016 by the American Academy of Family Physicians. However, in the U.S. there is no federal definition of raw honey, and it's not clear that heat-treating of honey actually reduces the risk of foodborne illness. So if you have had an organ transplant, ask your doctor about including honey in your diet.
Although raw honey can be a safe and beneficial part of a healthy diet, it has rarely been linked to illness due to the presence of natural toxins. Raw and processed honey both have health benefits, although more research may help clarify the difference between these types of honey. If you plan to use honey to treat any wound, infection or medical condition, talk with your doctor first. While honey has health-promoting properties, it may not be a reliable treatment and it's essential to understand the most effective way to treat your condition.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
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