Is Honey Healthy?
Find out how to make this natural sweetener part of a healthy diet.
Added sugar has gotten a bad reputation and honey has been caught in the crossfire. Sure, it's a natural sweetener, but is it actually healthy? We break down the health benefits and risks associated with honey and whether or not you can incorporate it into a healthy diet.
Where Honey Comes From
Honey has been around for thousands of years. In fact, an 8,000 year old cave painting in Valencia, Spain depicts honey being harvested. It’s also been used for food, medicine and much more in cultures around the world.
The true stars in the history of honey are the bees that visit millions of blossoms in their lifetimes, making the pollination of plants possible, collecting nectar to bring back to their hives. The excess honey (about 65 pounds of surplus each year) bees make is removed by beekeepers who then bottle it for humans to enjoy.
Nutritional Breakdown of Honey
One tablespoon of honey provides 64 calories, 17 grams of carbs and a total of 17 grams of sugar. It’s free of fat, protein and sodium. Honey also provides small amounts of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (flavonoids and phenolic acids), which act as antioxidants. In general, darker honeys have been shown to be higher in antioxidants than lighter-colored honeys. The amount and type of the nutrients found in honey depends on the floral source. In the U.S., there are more than 300 different varietals of honey (like clover, wildflower, lavender and citrus blossom), each with a unique flavor that is influenced by the area’s geography and flora.
It should also be noted that honey is up to 50% sweeter than table sugar. So even though honey has more calories per serving compared to table sugar, you need less of it to get the same level of sweetness. Most recipes use half the amount of honey when substituting for sugar.
Honey’s Health Benefits
Honey contains prebiotics (think of prebiotics as food for probiotics) such as nondigestible oligosaccharides. Researchers at Michigan State University found that adding honey to fermented dairy products, like yogurt, can enhance the growth, activity and viability of Bifidobacteria, a group of “good bacteria” (probiotics) thought to be important in maintaining optimal health of the gastrointestinal tract.
In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends honey as a potential treatment for acute cough and cold symptoms (though, never give honey to a child under the age of 1 year old). This study also found that honey can be beneficial in helping alleviate symptoms of the common cold.
Because there is limited research to date on honey and health, in 2018, the National Honey Board launched a nutrition research program to learn more about the benefits of honey related to human health. “Priority areas of research include looking at antioxidants in honey, anti-inflammatory benefits of honey, digestive benefits of honey, honey’s role in a healthy dietary pattern, and stress management-related benefits of consuming honey,” says Catherine Barry, Director of Marketing for the National Honey Board. Currently, three studies are underway in the area of digestive health.
Is Honey an Added Sugar?
Added sugar, according to the FDA, includes sugars that are “either added during the processing of foods or are packaged as such (e.g., a jar of honey, container of maple syrup, or a bag of table sugar)”. Currently, the FDA’s definition of added sugar doesn’t differentiate between sugars added to the diet verses those added to the product, and many folks are interpreting the added sugars label on honey to mean that sugar is added to the product, which is not the case with honey. Honey is a pure product made by bees and doesn’t have sugars added to it.
“The FDA recognizes that added sugars can be part of a balanced diet,” says Barry. “The [FDA’s] concern is that excess consumption of added sugars may make it difficult for consumers to eat enough foods with enough dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals while staying within daily calorie limits.” In addition, the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines recommend no more than 10% of total calories to come from added sugar. This does leave room to use honey in small amounts to enhance the flavor of dishes like oatmeal or plain yogurt.
Raw vs. Filtered Honey
There has been some buzz (pun intended!) that raw honey is healthier than filtered honey (or the jarred honey typically sold at your local supermarket). “While there is no official U.S. federal definition of ‘raw’ honey, it generally means honey that has not been heated or filtered,” says Barry, who feels that this belief started because raw honey may contain small amounts of pollen grains that are often removed during processing or filtering. “Honey is produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants, not pollen. Pollen occurs only incidentally in honey. The amount of pollen in honey is miniscule and not enough to impact the nutrient value of honey,” says Barry. A 2004 study by the Australian government found the percentage of dry weight canola pollen in 32 Australian canola honey samples ranged from 0.15% to 0.433%.
Honey can certainly be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet when consumed in small amounts. As of now, there are several health benefits to using this naturally produced sweetener, but more research is being conducted on the relationship between the unique bioactive compounds in honey and health, so stay tuned for what researchers find!