Is Honey Nutritious?
This is a guest post from registered dietician and nutritionist Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
Sugar is a hot topic in our society – it is often villainized by people who lack knowledge in the science of nutrition and body systems, leaving the general public nervous, or at least confused, about inclusion of sugar in their diets. Glucose, the most abundant form of sugar in food and our bodies, is actually the only nutrient that all cells in the body are capable of using. It is preferred by our central nervous system and able to be stored to support activity.1 High-carbohydrate foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and even some sweeteners provide us with many nutrients and should make up 45-65% of the energy we eat each day.2 The human body is able to convert various carbohydrate forms from the foods mentioned into the glucose needed by our cells.
Even though we’re able to obtain carbohydrate from many food sources, including ones that don’t taste sweet, our physiology is wired to get pleasure out of a sweet taste from time to time; this is due to the body’s need for carbohydrate. Rather than feel guilty about this or try to suppress cravings, it’s time to enjoy the foods we love and fuel our bodies and minds without the stress. Due to how the body metabolizes it and converts it to energy, raw honey is an excellent choice for your everyday sweetener.
Chemical Structure of Various Carbohydrates
There are several types of carbohydrates in the diet coming from plant foods, dairy and honey, including both simple and complex sugars. All are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and contain 4 kcals of energy per gram, with simple sugars being smaller in structure than complex. They are made up of either one or two sugar molecules, called mono-saccharides and di-saccharides, respectively. Complex carbohydrates are much larger in structure, made up of hundreds to thousands of glucose molecules. These also fall into two categories – oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.
Our mono-saccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Glucose, as mentioned, is the most abundant form of carbohydrate. Fructose in its natural form is found in fruit but also makes up some of the sugar content of honey. It is our sweetest sugar! The last monosaccharide, galactose, is a part of the disaccharide milk sugar, lactose.
Other than lactose, a simple sugar made of glucose and galactose, the other two disaccharides are maltose and sucrose. Maltose is not widely available in the diet, but when it is, it is a result of fermentation. Sucrose, made of glucose and fructose, is most commonly thought of as table sugar.
Oligosaccharides are the complex carbohydrates the general public tends to know the least about. They are made up of three to ten glucose units and, as you’ll learn later in the article, contribute to positive effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in the vast majority of people.3
Polysaccharides are made up of hundreds to thousands of glucose units. In addition to starch, one of the greatest energy sources of carbohydrate, fiber is also a polysaccharide but is indigestible.
Raw honey happens to contain fructose, glucose, maltose and oligosaccharides.4 This differentiates it from table sugar, which is composed almost entirely of sucrose. Fructose has a significantly lower glycemic effect, or blood sugar effect, as compared to glucose and sucrose, which brings the glycemic effect of raw honey below that of table sugar.5 It also contains roughly 25 different oligosaccharides, which are not present in refined sugars.
Digestion and Absorption
Any carbohydrates larger than monosaccharides must be digested, or broken down, before they can be absorbed. The faster a carbohydrate is digested and absorbed, the higher impact on blood sugar. You may hear that all simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly and all complex slowly, or even that simple are “bad” and complex are “good.” These claims are misleading and do not account for individual differences in carbohydrate breakdown and absorption rates or for the nutrient quality of the food itself. On top of that, there are times when faster carbohydrate absorption is desirable, as is the case right before, during or immediately after exercise.6
When it comes to honey, the fructose and glucose do not need to be digested since they are already in monosaccharide form. The small amount of maltose does need to be digested into glucose. Once they are in the small intestine, absorption of sugar can occur. Fructose though, is absorbed more slowly than glucose, which provides a more steady and longer delivery of energy into the blood, which is why it has a much lower glycemic effect on its own. This in part brings down the glycemic effect of honey versus refined sugar, which may reduce the likelihood of an energy “high” and “crash”. Since glucose and fructose are absorbed by different transporters in the digestive tract, honey also reduces gastrointestinal distress during exercise.7
The oligosaccharides in honey are not digested and therefore not absorbed. Oligosaccharides will pass on to the lower digestive tract where they are fermented in the colon. This produces important short-chain fatty acids which modify the composition of bacteria, helping bifidobactera strains to grow.8 These are strains seen in popular probiotic supplements and have a variety of benefits.
Storage and Use of Sugar
Once fructose is absorbed into the blood stream, it is sent to the liver to be converted into glucose. Then, it will either be sent out to the blood or stored as a compound called glycogen. When blood glucose levels rise, either from glucose being absorbed or it being produced from fructose and sent back out to the blood, signals are sent so that the pancreas releases insulin.
Insulin’s job is to signal the cells in your body that energy is available in the bloodstream for them to take in. We can think of insulin like a button that opens up doors on cells to allow nutrients in for use by cells. As the energy leaves the blood to enter these cells, blood sugar levels decline, and cells are able to use energy immediately and store some for later. Similar to how glucose can be stored as glycogen in the liver, it is also stored as glycogen in the muscles if it doesn’t need to be used for energy immediately.1
The liver has the capacity to store roughly 90 grams of carbohydrate as glycogen and the muscles roughly 300 grams. Contrary to popular belief carbohydrates are not automatically stored as fat as it is not until glycogen stores are maxed out that carbohydrate would be stored in another manner. The glycogen we store in the liver allows us to maintain blood sugar levels in between meals and when we sleep at night, as well as during acute illness when food may not be ingested normally. Muscle glycogen is the muscle’s preferred source of energy for exercise.1
Glucose is constantly supplying energy to the brain and red blood cells and supports many other functions. During movement, muscle cells break down glucose to release energy. When blood glucose levels drop, so do energy levels and productivity. Cravings for sweets are more likely when blood glucose is low, which is common if someone is not eating enough carbohydrate or not eating frequently enough. This may actually lead to overeating later and may impact mood, too.
How Honey Supports Health
As mentioned above, the complex carbohydrates called oligosaccharides are shown to have a positive effect on the microbiota, or bacterial balance, in the digestive tract. Because oligosaccharides are non-digestible, they essentially feed the beneficial bacteria in the lower digestive tract. This promotes growth and functionality of the microbiota, aiding not only digestion but also immune function, nutrient absorption, and more.9 In addition to supporting gut bacteria, the fact that oligosaccharides are non-digestible means that they may also slow down digestion, and therefore absorption, lowering blood sugar responses. While the oligosaccharide content of honey is small, it is worth noting as refined sugar does not include these beneficial carbohydrates at all.
On top of the potential gut health benefits, honey also contains a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Vitamins and minerals are compounds in food long known to be essential to human health and functioning. There is still much research to be done on antioxidants to identify which ones are essential and in what amounts, but generally speaking, we know that consuming a variety of them is important for protecting cells in the body. Antioxidants fall into different categories supporting our aging processes and immune systems to help in preventing chronic illness development in the long-term.10 Honey includes small amounts of most water soluble vitamins, which are the B-vitamins and vitamin C. Additionally, it contains all of the major minerals – phosphorus, sodium, calcium, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, and chlorine. While the type of antioxidants in raw honey will depend on the botanical source, season, and recent weather, it tends to contain polyphenol antioxidants such as flavonoids and phenolic acids (known to reduce inflammation) and catechins (know for supporting metabolism). Processing method also influences antioxidant content. Since sugar consumption is relatively high, by substituting honey in some foods for traditional sweeteners, there is potential for enhanced antioxidant system function. Furthermore, by choosing raw honey, the risk of high heat damaging antioxidants is removed.
Medicinal properties of honey have been noted in some studies as well. While more research is needed, review studies have shown honey to be helpful in wound treatment, diabetes management, cardiovascular disease management, neurological function, gastrointestinal distress, and even bronchial function in asthmatics.11, 12 More specifically, when compared to sucrose, honey was associated with lower elevations of plasma glucose levels in diabetics and reduced levels of blood lipids and C-reactive Protein (an inflammatory marker) in both normal and hyperlipidemic individuals.
Finally, the immune benefits of honey have been long sought out. It’s common for people to reach for a glass of tea with honey when they have a cold, and research has shown honey to be just as effective in suppressing coughs in children as cough medicine.13 The oligosaccharides and antioxidants likely contribute to overall immune benefits, but a study also showed honey ingestion to be associated with lower levels of prostaglandins, which are markers of inflammation.14 The antimicrobial and antibacterial activity of honey has also been compared to those of antibiotics by some researchers. 15
Eating Honey for Health
As you can see, honey offers a variety of benefits versus more refined sugars, but it is suggested that overall added sugar consumption be limited to no more than 10% of energy intake for the average person. While larger amounts are appropriate for athletic individuals, it may be beneficial for regular honey consumption to replace some refined sugar in balanced meals and snacks. Since honey is sweeter than sucrose, it can also be used in smaller quantities, reducing overall sugar consumption further.
Pairing honey with fiber, fat and protein influences the way it impacts blood sugar, energy storage, and satisfaction from intake. It is beneficial to include these nutrients at each meal and snack regardless of honey consumption, but including raw honey in recipes can add the sweetness you or your kids crave while also offering benefits.
Example of balanced meals could include oatmeal made with milk or soymilk, topped with fresh fruit and nuts and drizzled with honey, or honey-glazed salmon over brown rice with vegetables. It is also great to sweeten snacks to offer energy, taste and the satisfaction factor. Add honey to plain yogurt mixed with berries and a honey-sweetened granola or drizzle some over avocado toast or peanut butter toast. When it comes to desserts, honey can be used in your favorite recipes to replace refined sugar, as long as you’re following the correct conversions.
- Klein N et al. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 10th edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
- Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for energy, carbohydrates, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids. National Academies Press, 2005.
- Slavin J. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients, 2013. 5(4): 1417-1435.
- Bogdanov S, et al. Honey for nutrition and health: a review. J Am Coll Nutr, 2008. 27(6): 677-689.
- Harvard Medical School. Glycemic Index for 60+ foods. Harvard Health Publishing Wesbite.https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods. March 14, 2018. Accessed: May 28, 2019.
- Jeukendrup, A. E. Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.” J Sports Sci 29 Suppl 1: S91-99, 2011.
- Ajibola A et al. Nutraceutical values of natural honey and its contribution to human health and wealth. Nutrition and Metabolism 2012. 9:61.
- Roberfroid MB. Fructo-oligosaccharide malabsorption: benefit for gastrointestinal functions. Curr Opin Gastroenterol, 2000. 16(2):173-7.
- Singh S et al. Prebiotic oligosaccharides: special focus on fructooligosaccharides, it’s biosynthesis and bioactivity. Appl BIochem Biotenchol, 2017. 183(2): 613-635.
- Schramm D et al. Honey with high levels of antioxidants can provide protection to healthy human subjects. J Agric Food Chem, 2003. 51(6):1732-1735.
- Al-Waili N. Natural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic subjects: comparison with dextrose and sucrose.J Med Food, 2004. 7(1);100-107.
- Samarghandian S, Farkhondeh T and Samini F. Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research. Pharm Res, 2017. 9(2):121-127.
- Goldman R. Honey for treatment of cough in children. Can Fam Physician, 2014. 60(12): 1107–1110.
- Al-Waili N, Boni N. Natural honey lowers plasma prostaglandin concentrations in normal individuals. J Med Food, 2003. 6(2):129-33.
- Mohapatra D,Thakur V, Brar S. Antibacterial Efficacy of Raw and Processed Honey. Biotechnol Res Int. 2011