Originally featured in our Sept/Oct 2011 issue
While honey is arguably the one sweetener that causes the least amount of “friction” in the Paleo community, there is still a fair amount of debate surrounding its history and current use. While most people acknowledge the potential health benefits of raw honey – there is evidence that early humans, driven by their innate desire for sweet, hunted honey as far back as 10,000 years ago – there are those that claim even this seemingly benign sweetener isn’t safe due to its high fructose content. If we suppose for a minute that they’re right, and it’s not as safe as we think, why were some of our ancestors so focused on obtaining it? (3)
Just about everyone knows about honey and that it’s produced by bees through a process of regurgitation as their primary food source. Most probably know that honey has been shown to possess antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities. Maybe even less are aware that the health benefits of honey vary widely and it’s very true that not all honey is created equal. For example, did you know that Manuka honey has been shown to have a positive effect against dental plaque development & gingivitis or that the nitric oxides in honey may help protect against cardiovascular disease or that honey has been shown to decrease plasma glucose in diabetes patients?
While honey is primarily made up of fructose (about 40%) and glucose (about 36%), it also contains about 25 other oligosaccharides such as sucrose, maltose and others. (1) In addition to these sugars, honey contains numerous other compounds such as proteins, amino acids, enzymes, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals and all of these compounds work synergistically to give honey its various health promoting properties. However the amount of these compounds, and as a result the beneficial properties of honey, can vary widely, depending on both its botanical origin and the processing methods used.
For example, if you tend to go for the light brown honey you can easily see through in the plastic bear container, chances are you’re missing out on a lot of the health benefits you may be expecting when buying the honey in the first place. Some studies have shown natural honey, defined as honey made by bees free to collect nectar from different kinds of flowers from different regions, to have a higher level of iron than honey produced by farmed bees. (4) In a study conducted by Ropa Science Research, unprocessed honey samples were compared with a final, blended honey to determine how the mineral, antioxidant and enzyme levels changed after going through an industrial processing system. Compared to the unprocessed honey, the processed samples showed a significant decrease in just about every enzyme and one group of samples showed a decrease of up to 45% in the mineral content. (10)
In the Ropa Science Research study, there were some fairly wide swings in the levels of enzymes and minerals and the study pointed out that “due to the nature of industrial honey processing, it was not possible to test the exact same sample of honey both pre- and post-processing.” While this kind of variation makes it relatively difficult to come to any concrete conclusions, the fact is the data showed a reduction in enzymes and minerals, almost across the board. Compare this with the fact that most local, raw honey producers would have no problem being able to test the exact same sample of honey, pre- and post- processing as they go almost directly from the hive to the bottle.
Unprocessed honey’s positive effects on human health have been demonstrated over and over again. These benefits have been seen with healthy individuals as well as subjects with elevated risk factors such as diabetes and obesity. Honey has the ability to increase Vitamin C concentrations, B-carotene and serum iron levels, as well as lower lactic acid dehydrogenase, creatinine kinase and triglycerides. It has also been shown to reduce fasting blood sugar levels – even in diabetics! (5,6)
On top of all this, honey has been shown to possess inhibitory effects against aerobic/anaerobic bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses; (5) the ability to accelerate wound healing with minimal scar formation; treat skin conditions such as dandruff, eczema and psorisasis; and treat urinary and gastrointestinal diseases. (5,7)
While all this sounds pretty good, there is in fact a potential downside. The ratio of fructose to glucose coupled with an overall high fructose content makes some shun honey and declare it has no place in anyone’s diet. While there are studies that have found honey may have a “laxative effect” on some healthy individuals, due to incomplete fructose absorption, one such study notes that a limitation of their study was “that it was not possible to define whether fructose alone or other sugars contained in honey were malabsorbed.” (8)
Still, there is no question that some individuals have issues absorbing fructose – with some estimates as high as 30%-50% of Western populations. This can cause symptoms similar to IBS, such as gas, cramping and diarrhea and these individuals need to be aware of the foods they eat and how much fructose they’re consuming. The question is how much is too much? Unfortunately, that’s hard to say as the threshold can vary from person to person. Consumption of excess fructose is suspected to cause liver damage, gut flora imbalances, help promote bacterial overgrowth, leptin resistance, increase uric acid production, contribute to obesity, and more. (2,9)
Studies have suggested that historical intakes of honey ranged from as little as 2kg/year to as much as 16kg/year. This is in stark contrast to our current sugar intake of as much as 70kg/year! Interestingly, if we use these numbers to examine the consumption of fructose in our past and compare it to how much we currently consume, the numbers are shockingly different. When we look at the amount of fructose we consumed with honey, it ranged from roughly 2g/day to 18g/day. Today, we are averaging about 32g/day of fructose, thanks in large part to high fructose corn syrup. That’s almost double the highest amount we were getting historically with honey!
Most studies have found that fructose absorption can be increased when fructose is consumed along with glucose. Studies have also demonstrated potential nutritional benefits of substituting honey for fructose, as it may protect against the pro-oxidative effects of the fructose. (11) While admittedly, more studies need to be done to confirm this, especially in humans, it does appear that the fructose in honey may be less problematic for certain individuals. This hypothesis is currently attributed to the synergistic antioxidant effect resulting from the complex chemical composition of honey. Attention should also be given to the amount of honey consumed at any given time. Most healthy individuals can only absorb about 25g-50g of fructose at a sitting. With 100g of honey (~5 TBSP) containing about 40g of fructose, it would take quite a bit of straight honey to reach a level that may cause issues.
Now, if we look at honey consumption through a strict “Paleo” lens, asking whether or not honey is beneficial or detrimental to health could be seen as irrelevant. Through this view, it would seem that we are still consuming way too much honey. The argument that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had extremely limited access to honey and that most of our ancestors would have thought better of disturbing the hives, regardless of what golden, sugary bounty was hidden inside is batted around all the time. However, with closer inspection, making the assumption that our ancestors had limited amounts of honey may be completely misplaced.
There is evidence that hunter-gatherers were actively “hunting” and consuming honey as far back as 10,000 years ago, eating as much as possible, with the amount limited only by how much was available in their surroundings. There are also hunter-gatherer societies, like the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo, that consume as much as 80% of their dietary energy from honey during certain times of the year; the Wild Men of Sri Lanka that risk their lives to obtain it and the Guayaki Indians of Paraguay that have honey as the very basis of their diet and culture. (3)
So if many of our ancestors put such a high value on honey, why do we eat so little of it today? Like most things, you just need to look at the cost. At around 1350 AD, honey cost about 7 pence per gallon, or about 1.3 pence/kg, (~$0.02/kg) roughly the same cost as butter, a common and abundant product at the time. During that same time, refined sugar cost approximately thirty times as much at 3 shillings/kg (~$0.60/kg). (3) It was also fairly common for households of this period to do their own beekeeping, making honey even more commonplace and helping to explain its cheap price. At this point in history, it was only the wealthy that were enjoying refined sugar, due to its higher cost, everyone else was still using honey.
However, in the early 1700’s the production of refined sugar finally exploded on the scene, causing its price to fall and everyday people were able to purchase large amounts. With this cheaper, easier alternative, the use of honey gradually began to fall while the use of refined sugar steadily rose. After about 80 years, the consumption of sugar increased from only about 1.8kg/year to 5.4kg/year. In comparison, by 2002, people in England were eating roughly 29kg of sugar per year and only 0.5kg of honey. (12,13)
It could be argued that honey has traditionally been a staple in the human diet, limited in consumption only by location, the seasons and climate. If this is true, then eating raw, local honey is most certainly in line with the Paleo diet and advocating its use needs to be re-evaluated. While some studies have shown honey to have a laxative effect on healthy individuals, blamed on the incomplete fructose absorption, these studies used amounts of honey that would not normally be consumed at one time. Honey has demonstrated the capacity to offer numerous health benefits, both for healthy individuals as well as those with medical issues such as hypertriglyceremia, obesity, diabetes and more.
When looking for a natural sweetener, raw, local, organic honey should definitely be on your list. With an impressive list of potential health benefits, this sweetener does a lot more than just sweeten your food.
- http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/ (Search term “honey”, Measure “100g”)
- Ouyang, X., Cirillo, P., Sautin, Y., McCall, S., Bruchette, J.L., Diehl, A.M., Johnson, R.J., Abdelmalek, M.F. (2008). Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology, 48, 993-999. doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2008.02.011
- Allsop, K., Miller, J. B. (1996). Honey revisited: a reappraisal of honey in pre-industrial diets. British Journal of Nutrition, 75, 513-520.
- Arian, S.I., Kazi, T.G., Bhanger, M.I., Memon, A.N. (2006). Evaluation of the status of iron in different honey samples. Journal of the Chemical Society of Pakistan, 28, 448-450.
- Al-Waili, N. S. (2003). Effects of daily consumption of honey solution on hematological indices and blood levels of minerals and enzymes in normal individuals. Journal of Medicinal Food, 6, 135-140.
- Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R., Gallmann, P. (2008). Honey for nutrition and health: A review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 27, 677-689.
- Al-Waili, N.S. (2004). Natural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-Reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic subjects: Comparison with dextrose and sucrose. Journal of Medicinal Food, 7, 100-107.
- Ladas, S.D., Haritos, D.N., Raptis, S.A. (1995). Honey may have a laxative effect on normal subjects because of incomplete fructose absorption. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62, 1212-1215.
- Tappy, L., Le, KA. (2010). Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity. Physiological Reviews, 90, 23-46. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00019.2009.
- Ropa, D. (2010). Comparison of mineral and enzyme levels in raw and unprocessed honey. Ropa Science Research.
- Busserolles, J., Gueux, E., Rock, E., Mazur, A., Rayssiguier, Y. (2002). Substituting honey for refined carbohydrates protects rats from hypertriglyceridemic and prooxidative effects of fructose. The Journal of Nutrition, 132, 3379-3382.
- Schneider, A. (2011, Aug 15). Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves. Food Safety News. Retrieved from http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/08/honey-laundering/
- Durham, M. (2004, July 21). A bitter taste of honey. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/jul/21/food.foodanddrink
NOTE: While this article references studies that demonstrates honey’s positive effects in those with diabetes, there are also studies that have shown honey can increase hemoglobin A1C levels. We suggest you consult your physician or health care practitioner prior to increasing your intake of honey if you have diabetes.