Honey is sometimes touted as a "healthy" sweetener, especially when compared to processed white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. The benefits of honey are well documented, but it's best when consumed in moderation.
Disadvantages of honey are due to its high sugar content and potential for contamination in unpasteurized varieties. So, when adding honey to your diet, use it mindfully and sparingly.
Honey has been linked to health benefits as it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Honey contributes to your overall sugar intake, however, so too much can be detrimental to your health.
The Basics of Honey
Honey is made from the nectar of flowering plants. When the gathered nectar mixes with compounds in bee saliva, it turns into a simple sugar that's stored in honeycombs. Honey's flavor and nutritional qualities depend on the nectar from which it's derived.
For example, honey made from manuka trees in New Zealand is purported to have extraordinary healing powers, as reported in research published in Frontiers in Microbiology in April 2016. Other honey, such as that made from orange blossoms, can have a floral quality and be light in color.
Honey nutrition facts are limited as the sticky stuff only contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. One tablespoons of honey contains about 60 calories and 17 grams of carbs — 16 grams of which are sugar.
Honey is classified as an added sugar by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Added sugars don't show up in foods naturally like natural sugar, such as the sugar in fruit or in milk. You "add" the sugars to foods to up the sweetness level. Added sugars include refined white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and evaporated cane juice as well as natural items such as maple syrup and honey.
Honey Has Health Benefits
Honey has numerous health benefits that have been touted in recent studies reports a meta-review published in Pharmacognosy Research in the April-June 2017 issue.
Compounds in honey have antioxidant qualities, which help protect your cells against damage due to aging and exposure to toxins in the environment. The paper points out that darker varieties of honey have higher values of antioxidants.
Much inflammation in the body that puts you at greater risk of developing chronic disease can be eased with antioxidants. A paper published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in January 2018 suggests that honey may be an effective therapy when administered alone or as part of a comprehensive treatment plan to prevent disorders such as diabetes, allergies, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A study published in Molecules in August 2018 found that buckwheat honey had the greatest antioxidant activity, while honey made from rapeseed had the weakest.
Read more: Cut Refined Sugar: Here's How to Get Started
Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity published other research in February 2018 showing that honey could be of benefit to people with diabetes. The antioxidant and other healing properties of honey can help prevent complications associated with the chronic disease. The research notes that honey allows for better management and prevention of high blood sugar, possibly limiting the negative effects diabetes has on your organs.
Honey also has antimicrobial qualities that combat a number of pathogens and fungi when consumed or applied to wounds. Manuka honey is particularly rich in antimicrobial effects, explains the Frontiers in Microbiology paper.
The medicinal value of honey stems from anti-inflammatory properties making it a natural treatment. As noted in the 2018 Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity paper, honey shows anti-inflammatory effects in cells, animals and human trials. The reasons are unknown, but it may result from phenolic and flavonoid properties and its ability to cease release of inflammatory cells and promote growth of cells that repair inflammatory damage.
Honey also prevents genetic mutations in certain cells that are linked to the development of cancer. And, honey's properties can prevent some cancer cells from spreading.
When it comes to heart disease, honey is a winner too. Properties in honey can reduce some cardiovascular disease factors, including high blood glucose, cholesterol, C-reactive proteins and body weight. The glucose, fructose and trace elements, such as copper and zinc, contained in honey are the reason it contributes to a healthy heart.
Disadvantages of Honey
With all these seemingly great medicinal qualities and a sweet taste, it's hard to believe there's a downside to honey. One of the major problems with honey is its high sugar content. This makes it calorically dense, so you can't eat a lot of it without surpassing your caloric goals and potentially gaining fat and experiencing excessive insulin release.
Read more: 5 Easy Ways to Cut Down on Sugar
Americans, in general, tend to eat too much added sugar from honey and other products. The USDA reports that the average person takes in 270 calories of added sugar every day, which is equal to 17 teaspoons.
Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in October 2015 warns that the consumption of fructose-containing drinks can lead to high blood sugar and raise your risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Fructose is the major sugar in honey, so if you're sweetening tea, smoothies or other drinks and foods with copious amounts of honey, you could be putting your health at risk.
Too much sugar in your diet, even from a healthy source like honey, can also endanger your psychological well-being — potentially making it likely you develop mental disorders, including depression. A study published in Scientific Reports in July 2017 showed that excessive intake of sweet foods, beverages and added sugars could have a negative effect on your psychological health.
The New England Journal of Medicine, in a study published in August 2013, reported that higher blood sugar levels could also put you at risk of developing dementia later in life, even if you don't have diabetes. So if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, always talk to your doctor before increasing your sugar intake, even if it's with natural honey.
The 2018 study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity also notes that honey produced from the nectar of rhododendron plants in countries of South Asia and North America could be contaminated by grayanotoxin. This compound can cause symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, excessive sweating, nausea, vomiting and tingling in your limbs.
Read more: The Dangers and Benefits of Raw Honey
Raw honey can contain botulism toxins and is thus not recommended for infants. People with severe allergies to certain types of pollen may also have a sensitivity to some types of honey.
- Pharmacognosy Research: "Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Cut Down on Added Sugars"
- National Honey Board: "How Honey Is Made"
- Frontiers in Microbiology: "Therapeutic Manuka Honey: No Longer So Alternative"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Raw Honey"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Looking to Reduce Your Family's Intake of Added Sugars? Here's How"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Honey as a Potential Natural Antioxidant Medicine: An Insight Into Its Molecular Mechanisms of Action"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cell Longevity: "Honey and Diabetes: The Importance of Natural Simple Sugars in Diet for Preventing and Treating Different Type of Diabetes"
- Molecules: "Antioxidant Activity as Biomarker of Honey Variety"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Fructose and Cardiometabolic Health: What the Evidence From Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tells Us"
- Scientific Reports: "Sugar Intake From Sweet Food and Beverages, Common Mental Disorder and Depression: Prospective Findings From the Whitehall II Study"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia"