Prior to the 2011 introduction of "MyPlate," the USDA used the Food Guide Pyramid to teach Americans about healthy eating. The pyramid didn't include a honey food group, but it included visualization of fats and sugars as the very top point, indicating that they're to be used sparingly in your diet.
Although naturally produced by bees, honey is a sweetener that the food pyramid suggests limiting.
Honey is considered an added sugar when it comes to USDA guidelines. It is not classified as a fruit or vegetable. While it does have some health benefits as compared to other sweeteners, it is high in calories and spikes your blood sugar levels.
About the Food Pyramid
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has focused on helping Americans make smart dietary choices since 1916. The Food Guide Pyramid was introduced in 1992 and tweaked in 2005 to be clearer and more user-friendly to readers.
The basic idea behind the pyramid is that you eat mostly foods from the base of the pyramid, consisting of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Next on the pyramid are fruits and vegetables, then dairy as well as meat, poultry, dry beans and eggs. The very top of the pyramid is fats, oils and sweets.
As you move up the pyramid, you should eat fewer servings of each food group. For example, recommendations on the pyramid are:
- Bread, rice and cereal: six to 11 servings daily
- Fruits and vegetables: two to four servings of fruit and three to five of vegetables
- Dairy and meats: two to three servings of milk or yogurt and the same for meats, eggs or beans
- Fats, oils and sweets: use sparingly
The Food Guide Pyramid sought to help people achieve a healthy diet and eat unhealthy foods in moderation. When the pyramid was tweaked in 2005 it was renamed "MyPyramid" and divided vertically for better visualization.
Read more: The 10 Healthiest Fruits and Vegetables
The 2005 version of MyPyramid also added a separate band for oils and one for physical activity. Obvious recommendations for sugar fell off this newest incarnation of the pyramid, but items like honey and other sugars were still encouraged to play a minimal role in a healthy diet.
MyPlate was introduced in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The intention of this version of the dietary guidelines is to remind Americans to eat healthy, but it's not designed to provide specific messages.
Where Does Honey Fit?
Honey is made by bees. It's a natural, sweet liquid that has its origins in flower nectar, which may cause the confusion about where it falls in the food groups. It does come from a natural source, but there's no honey food group. The nectar gathered by the bees is broken down into simple sugars by compounds in the bees' saliva to be stored inside the honeycomb. Honey is a simple sugar.
Honey can take on different characteristics depending on the nectar collected by the bees. For example, the prized therapeutic honey, called Manuka honey, hails from New Zealand and has its origins in nectar collected from Manuka trees. Honey made from orange blossom nectar may be lighter in color and have a slightly different flavor than that made from wildflowers.
Honey is commonly used as an alternative to white table sugar. It sweetens tea, baked goods and sauces. One tablespoon of the sticky stuff contains 64 calories, 17 grams of carbs — 16 grams of which are glucose, or sugar. The current MyPlate recommendations don't include a special section for honey or added sugars, but do suggest you think about them when crafting your diet and limit how much added sugar you consume.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that added sugar, the category at the very tip of the food pyramid, incorporates a number of different ingredients. These include high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and evaporated cane juice. Maple syrup, brown rice syrup and — you guessed it — honey are also considered added sugar.
Doesn’t Honey Have Benefits?
Sometimes, people perceive honey to be "healthier" than table sugar. The true health benefits of honey depend on the processing and the quality of the flowers from which the bees gather pollen. Raw honey is often touted for its health benefits. It's a version that has not been pasteurized, heated or filtered.
Research published in Pharmacognosy Research in the April-June 2017 issue explains that compounds in honey have antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects. Raw honey contains flavonoids and polyphenols, which act as antioxidants to help prevent cell damage. According to the paper, honey may have protective effects for the treatment of health concerns such as diabetes, gastrointestinal problems and nervous system complications.
Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity published new research in February 2018 showing that honey may even have benefits when it comes to managing diabetes and its numerous complications. The benefits allow for better control of the hyperglycemic state (high blood sugar), possibly limiting the negative effects high blood sugar levels have on your organs.
The researchers did note that it's unclear exactly how honey should be used in such management and that they can't make recommendations for dosage or long-term effects.
Nutrients in honey, however, are sparse as compared to more nutritionally dense foods, such as kale, carrots and berries. Yes, honey may have health benefits, but that doesn't warrant it getting placed into the same category as categorically healthy vegetables, whole grains or lean proteins.
Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
The Effects of Added Sugar
Added sugar is not the sugar that occurs naturally in fruits or dairy products. Added sugar is what you add to foods that create a sweeter taste — such as the fruit syrup in yogurt, maple syrup on pancakes and sugar packets you stir into your coffee. According to the USDA, the average American takes in 270 calories of added sugar every day — equivalent to 17 teaspoons.
When you add a lot of sugar, including honey, to your diet, you bump up your calorie intake, raising your risk of weight gain. When you eat too much added sugar, it's hard to get all the nutrients you need without taking in too many calories. Added sugars, according to the USDA, include honey. Added sugars can displace foods with a lot of valuable nutrients.
Cut back on honey by gradually reducing the amount you add to your meals. For example:
- Eat pancakes or waffles with fresh fruit, rather than added honey.
- Skip adding honey to iced or hot tea.
- Choose fresh, plain fruit that's naturally sweet when you want a treat.
If you do still choose to include honey in smoothies or other recipes, try to gradually add less and less so with time you're taking in a far smaller amount.
The MyPlate and MyPyramid guidelines don't ban added sugar or honey outright; they merely encourage you to be mindful in your consumption and make sweet treats with honey and other sugars an occasional food.
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: "A Brief History of USDA Food Guidelines"
- Pharmacognosy Research: "Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research"
- National Honey Board: "How Honey Is Made"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Pure Raw Honey"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Looking to Reduce Your Family's Intake of Added Sugars? Here's How"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Cut Down on Added Sugars"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Honey and Diabetes: The Importance of Natural Simple Sugars in Diet for Preventing and Treating Different Type of Diabetes"
- Frontiers in Microbiology: "Therapeutic Manuka Honey: No Longer So Alternative"