The Health Benefits of Honey

How is honey made?

Honey bees collect nectar from plants and flowers and transfer this to the beehive where they turn it into honey. Raw honey is unfiltered and unpasteurised containing, sugar vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytochemicals. Commercially produced honey is often filtered and pasteurised, which reduces some of its nutritional quality. In the UK anything labelled as ‘honey’ should be 100% pure honey. However a recent study found some commercially produced non-EU honey blends on sale may have been adulterated with added sugar(1).

How many different types of honey are there?

There are many different types of honey, however some of the more common ones include:-  nectar honey, named after the type of nectar the honey bees collect e.g. ‘heather honey’ or ‘orange blossom honey,  honeydew honey,  which is made from the excretion of insects that have themselves collected nectar and Manuka honey,  which is made from the nectar of the manuka plant (native to Australia and New Zealand). The geographical location of the bees, climate and type of plant all have an impact on the colour and flavour of the end product.

The texture of honey can be dependent on storage conditions. Unpasteurised liquid honey may crystalise over time at a rate dependant on its sugar content (the higher the content the more quickly it will crystalise). Commercial honey, which is highly filtered,  is less likely to crystalise over time. Soft-set honey is made by forming equally sized fine sugar crystals before packing into jars, which means the honey keeps this texture throughout its shelf life. 

How is honey different to sugar?

The composition of honey differs depending on the source, but is typically up to 20% water, 40% fructose and 30% glucose, with a trace of sucrose. In comparison,  granulated sugar is around 1% water and 99% sucrose (which is one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose combined). When we consume sucrose, our bodies break it down into glucose and fructose before absorption.

As both honey and granulated sugar result in the absorption of fructose and glucose, then why do people consider honey to be a ‘healthier’ option?  The health benefits of honey come from the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytochemicals which are also present.    

What are the health benefits of honey?

Honey has been used as a medicine by many cultures for hundreds of years. Although not used in western medicine, the current interest in healing properties of food has sparked an interest in the health benefits of honey. Here are the top 4 ways honey may benefit our health:-  

  1. Antioxidant – due to its polyphenol content, which includes a number of different flavonoids, honey is considered to have antioxidant properties. If you want to consume honey with the highest levels of antioxidants then choose a darker coloured honey (2). Antioxidants are thought to help our bodies neutralise free radicals, which we are exposed to on a daily basis from pollutants in our environment, as well as a result of our own metabolism. If we are exposed to higher levels of free radicals than our own internal antioxidant systems can deal with, then oxidative stress occurs. Oxidative stress is thought to be involved in accelerated aging and the onset of many age-related diseases including cancer.  
  1. Metabolic Syndrome – studies have found that consuming honey instead of sugar decreases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of symptoms such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high LDL cholesterol and excess weight gain around the stomach. People with metabolic syndrome are at higher risk of going on to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes or suffer from a stroke. This may be because honey has a lower glycaemic index than sugar, which means it does not raise insulin levels as significantly. Studies have found that consuming honey keeps blood sugar levels stable, which in turn prevents excessive weight gain, improves fat metabolism and reduces LDL cholesterol. All of which results in a reduction in the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
  1. Infections – Honey has a potent antibacterial activity and is very effective in clearing infection in wounds and protecting them from becoming reinfected. Most types of honey contain an enzyme which, when activated, creates hydrogen peroxide, killing most microbial activity.  The amount of antibacterial activity and the range of bacteria species that honey is effective against differs significantly according to type and how it has been processed.  The highly pasteurised commercial honey’s show lower levels of protection than raw honey and manuka honey has the highest level of antibacterial activity.  
  1. Healing burns – Honey’s hydroscopic properties create a moist environment for wounds which promote healing, and its high viscosity provides a barrier to prevent infection.

Which type of honey is the healthiest?

Manuka honey has been hailed as the healthiest honey as it contains much higher levels of methylglyoxal, which is very effective against gram positive bacteria including MRSA. Manuka honey is very rare and therefore very costly to purchase, so it may only be worth the investment if you are using it for its anti-bacterial properties. 

Raw honey may have more probiotic qualities than heat-treated honeys, as the heat treatment can kill any live bacteria which may be present in the honey. Studies also showed its antimicrobial properties were higher than processed honey.

Processed honey (filtered and heat treated). Whilst having lower anti-bacterial properties than raw honey, there was still evidence of protection against some microbes.

References:- Mohapatra, D. P. (2011). Antibacterial efficacy of raw and processed honey. Biotechnology research international2011. Alvarez-Suarez JM, (2014) Honey as a source of dietary antioxidants: structures, bioavailability and evidence of protective effects against human chronic diseases. Curr Med Chem. 20(5):621-38. doi: 10.2174/092986713804999358. PMID: 23298140. Anand, S. (2018). Characterization of Physico-Chemical Properties and Antioxidant Capacities of Bioactive Honey Produced from Australian Grown Agastache rugosa and its Correlation with Colour and Poly-Phenol Content. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland)23(1), 108. Trifković J (2017) Analytical Methods in Tracing Honey Authenticity. J AOAC Int. 2017 Jul 1;100(4):827-839. doi: 10.5740/jaoacint.17-0142. Epub 2017 May 19. PMID: 28527183. Ramli, N (2018). A Review on the Protective Effects of Honey against Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients10(8), 1009. Cianciosi, D. (2018). Phenolic Compounds in Honey and Their Associated Health Benefits: A Review. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland)23(9), 2322.