Honey made headlines recently with news that it’s superior to the usual remedies at improving upper respiratory tract infection symptoms (more on this below). But this isn’t the first time honey has generated some serious buzz—no pun intended. Often referred to as liquid gold, several studies have demonstrated that honey possesses major health benefits.
That’s exciting, since honey is an all natural, readily available, relatively affordable option for most households. Here’s a look at the research on the health-protective powers of honey, how to shop for the best varieties, and ways to incorporate this sweetener into meals, snacks, and drinks.
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In a new paper in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford University researchers looked at 14 previously published studies related to the effectiveness of honey for the relief of URI symptoms. They found that compared to usual treatments (like over-the-counter meds and antibiotics), honey improved both cough frequency and severity, it and may serve as an inexpensive alternative to antibiotics.
The study’s authors conclude that further controlled trials are needed. But the analysis was prompted by concern over antimicrobial resistance, which is linked in part to overprescribing antibiotics for URIs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named antibiotic resistance one of the world's most pressing public health concerns, and another 2017 study found that honey may hold the key. University of Illinois at Chicago scientists discovered that an antimicrobial compound made by honeybees could become the basis for new antibiotics.
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A 2018 paper published in the journal Nutrients reviewed the protective effects of honey for metabolic syndrome (MetS), a cluster of specific risk factors found in a third of US adults. To be diagnosed with MetS, you must have at least three of five conditions: a large waistline (over 35 inches for women and over 40 inches for men); high blood pressure; a high level of harmful triglycerides in the blood; low "good" HDL cholesterol; and high blood sugar.
In the paper, researchers lay out reasons why honey may help improve these conditions. First, honey has a low glycemic index, so it doesn’t trigger a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, and it helps enhance insulin sensitivity. Honey has also been shown to prevent excessive weight gain and improve lipid metabolism by reducing triglycerides as well as total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol, while increasing “good” HDL.
Honey’s antioxidative properties also help to reduce oxidative stress, one of the central mechanisms in MetS. In a nutshell, oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counter their harmful effects. For these reasons, researchers conclude that there is strong potential for honey to be integrated into the management of MetS, both preventatively and therapeutically.
Another recent paper about honey’s benefits explores its ability to combat artery hardening, a leading cause of death worldwide. Published in 2019, also in the journal Nutrients, the authors point out that honey contains over 180 substances—including natural sugars as well as a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Researchers conclude that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in honey, in addition to its ability to counter oxidative stress, are the key factors responsible for its protective benefits.
Older research shows that consuming high antioxidant honey indeed raises blood antioxidant levels, and that replacing processed sugar with honey may help boost antioxidant defenses in healthy adults.
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A recent review of honey’s use in complimentary medicine, published in the journal Integrative Medicine Insights, states that honey possesses prebiotic properties. Prebiotics help to ferment beneficial bacteria in the gut, including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. This shift has been linked to stronger immune function and enhanced mental well-being. The researchers also note honey’s anti-viral activity.
In addition to its natural sugar and antioxidants, honey contains some nutrients. For example, while the amounts are small per serving, 31 minerals have been found in honey—including all of the major minerals, such as phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Honey also contains approximately 600 volatile compounds that are thought to contribute to its potential biomedical effects.
In short, honey won’t supply large percentages of nutrients in your diet, but it’s certainly not empty calories; and researchers are still learning about the functional benefits of its complex makeup.
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The natural protective chemicals in honey largely depend on where and how it’s produced. Over 300 types of honey have been recognized, which vary based on the many nectars collected by honeybees. In one recent study of 90 samples, buckwheat honey was shown to have the strongest antioxidant activity. And in general, dark honeys showed better antioxidant activity as compared to light varieties, with the exception of goldenrod honey, which ranked high.
However, it’s important to note that not all honeys are produced equally. Bees are sometimes given antibiotics to treat bacterial diseases in the hive. They may also be used preventatively, to keep bees healthy during the spring pollination rush, or in low doses as growth promoters. That use is now somewhat limited in an effort to combat the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Giving antibiotics to bees surprises many consumers; research shows that antibiotic, pesticide, and herbicide residues have been found in honey samples.
The best way to learn about the makeup of your honey and how it’s been handled is to talk to the beekeeper, for example at your local farmer’s market. If that’s not possible, always read the ingredients to be sure a honey is pure and hasn’t been cut with other additives.
In addition, honey labeled raw, which hasn’t been subject to any heating, processing, or filtering, may retain the most natural compounds. If your raw honey crystalizes, simply heat a pan of water on low to medium heat, remove from the stovetop, place your glass jar of honey in the heated water, and stir until the crystals dissolve.
You can also look for raw honey that’s USDA certified organic. This means the honey meets standards similar to organic livestock, including restrictions on chemical use and exposure.
One note: honey of any kind should never be given to children under the age of 12 months, due to the risk of Clostridium botulinum spores, which can multiply in a baby’s immature digestive system and cause serious illness.
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Honey can be enjoyed as is, straight from the spoon, or incorporated into a variety of recipes. Use honey to sweeten tea and coffee, or whip it into a smoothie. Whisk honey into homemade vinaigrette dressings and sauces. Drizzle a bit of honey over oatmeal or overnight oats, pancakes, fresh fruit, chia seeds, or avocado pudding. Stir honey into energy balls made with nut or seed butter and add-ins like oats, dried fruit, spices, and chopped dark chocolate. Use honey to make kale chips or to glaze carrots, beets, walnuts, or cashews.
You can also trade sugar for honey in some baked goods. Replace one cup of sugar with one half to two thirds cup honey, and reduce the liquid in the recipe. You can even use honey to sweeten cocktails, like honey lime margaritas, honey kissed cosmos, or bees knees made from honey mixed with gin, ginger, and lemon juice.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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