World of Honey

Honey and Nutrition

Introduction

Honey is a complex, nutritious food and this page has some fascinating information on what it can do for your body when you eat it.  In this article I am going to concentrate on honey’s nutritional value as a food rather than on what it can do to heal wounds by external application, so if you are looking for information on its healing properties, please skip to the health benefits of honey.

You need to understand that any honey has nutritional benefits, but raw, unheated, unprocessed honey is far better for you.  This is because when it’s heated, the vitamins,  enzymes and other nutrients that make honey so unusual are either greatly reduced or destroyed entirely, leaving a product that is little better than a manufactured syrup.

What’s In Honey?

Honey’s main ingredients are simple sugars (or monosaccharides) such as glucose; fructose and galactose, and complex sugars (oligosaccharides) such as sucrose.  The biggest components are glucose and fructose.

The high level of simple sugars make honey a good pre-exercise food, because these sugars are “pre-digested” and easily absorbed into the blood, but that absorption is sustained and gradual.  But actually honey’s high glucose/frustose level is fairly similar to that of synthetically produced inverted sugar syrup which is approximately 47% fructose, 47% glucose and 5% sucrose.

(By the way, did you know that Tate and Lyle’s “Golden Syrup” with its distinctive green and gold tins is Great Britain’s oldest brand?)

Anyway, because sugar syrup has similar fructose and glucose levels as honey, in theory you can get the same easily-digested, slow-release effect of sugar into the bloodstream.

So if you can get the same easily-digested sugars from syrup, why would you want to buy honey, which often costs a little more?  Well, the thing is, honey is a whole lot more complicated than that, and we still don’t fully undertsand all of its properties.  What we do know is that it’s far more complex than manufactured syrup, and contains many ingredients aside from the sugars.  In fact, raw honey is a real treasure chest of vitamins, enzymes and minerals.  Let’s take a quick look.  First, the sugars:

Sugars in Honey
fructose    38.5%
glucose    31%
sucrose    1%
other sugars    9%

But that’s just the start. Honey also contains many minerals, for example:

iron
calcium
magnesium
copper
manganese
sodium
phosphorus
potassium
zinc

- and lots more besides.

As for vitamins, all of the these can be found in honey:

Thiamin (Vitamin B1)
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)
Vitamin B6
Folate (Vitamin B9)
Vitamin C

But before you get excited, you have to know that these vitamins and minerals are present in small amounts.  Think of them as a bonus.

Honey also contains enzymes.  Enzymes cause or speed up chemical reactions in the body.  Human enzymes are vital for the digestion of food, for example.  You will read a lot of claims along the lines that the enzymes in honey are used to aid digestion in the human body.

I am here to tell you that the enzymes in honey have no such benefits.  They are broken down by the digestive system like any other protein, and their benefit to the human body is actually nothing to do with the enzymes themselves, but as a source of amino acids.  Without amino acids we could never grow, think, or even breathe.  Although honey produces only small amounts of amino acids, it is unique amongst foods in giving us so many: 18 of the 22 amino acids that humans use come from honey, and these include some so-called essential amino acids, which the human body cannot produce itself.  As I said though, the amount of amino acid you will get from a serving of honey is very small, so don’t be deceived by all all those wild claims you read.

Something of an exception is the New Zealand honey known as Manuka honey which seems to have something special about it.  This honey has additional antibacterial agents that are not yet fully understood.  I have compiled a meaty article all about Manuka honey if you are interested.  Research and many published papers by Professor Peter Molan and others of the University of Waikato in that country strongly suggest that this honey’s unique properties make it especially useful in treating wounds.

From a nutritional point of view, Professor Molan’s findings strongly suggest that unlike the antibacterial agents in normal honey, those in Manuka honey are not broken down by the human digestive system. This means Manuka honey may have wound healing benefits inside the body as well as on external wounds, whereas normal honey’s wound healing properties are soon destroyed by digestion when it is eaten.  All of this may explain why this honey has become such a valuable commodity with such a massive presence in the marketplace.  I suggest you read my article on Manuka honey so you can, as always, get the facts before buying.

Now let’s turn to antioxidants.  Honey certainly contains antioxidants – and usually, the darker the honey, the more it contains.

Antioxidants have been long suspected of destroying harmful so-called free radicals.  These harmful free radicals can damage healthy cells and cause disease.  Normal digestive processes; exposure to pollution; smoking; sunburn – all these cause free radicals to be present in the body, and if there are too many, it can harm you.  That’s why there’s so much fuss and hype about antioxidants.  Oh, and there are some claims out there about them being anti-ageing too, but I can’t verify that one.

Now look, the reason I don’t want to go on about antioxidants and honey is because, well it’s like this –  if you’re only after antioxidants and you don’t care about the other properties of honey, you’re better off with a carrot or kiwi fruit or one of the many fresh fruits and vegetables that are far higher in antioxidants than honey.  There, I’ve said it.

To sum up this section, you may be as amazed as I was to hear that all of the above components of honey are, believe it or not, just the tip of the iceberg.  In all, honey has an estimated 600 component according to an article in the Nursing Times in 2008, by Stefan Bogdanov of the Swiss Bee Research Center – and we’re learning new things about this fascinating substance every year as new research papers come out, so it pays not to be too cynical.

And another thing:

A serving of honey may only have modest amounts of the above nutrients – but table sugar on the other hand has NONE.  That’s right – ordinary sugar has NO nutritional value AT ALL.  Shocked?  I was.

Honey and Dieting

You will also see many articles out there about honey and dieting.  Here’s the bad news: honey is relatively high in calories, about 65g in every tablespoon, so if you eat enough of it, you’re going to get fat.  It’s not rocket science.

There is some good news though – as a sweetener, honey has a lot to offer if you take on board the fact that it adds a good helping of calories to your balanced diet.

OK, so what benefits does honey have as a sweetener?  Please read on:

Weight for weight, honey has on average 75% of the calories of ordinary sugar, and most people rate it sweeter too.  This means you can use less, take in fewer calories and still get the same sweetness – but you better make sure you DO use less!
Honey contains (admittedly low levels) of nutritious vitamins and minerals.  Sugar has none.
Most of the sugar from honey enters the bloodstream gradually, so you get a sustained release of energy and not a fast-burning sugar rush.
Honey is easy for the body to digest, whereas ordinary sugar has to be broken down into simple sugars first.

Something else that makes me laugh – you will often read banners proclaiming that honey is totally fat free and contains no cholesterol.  Well, this is true, I can’t deny it, and if you’re trying to reduce your cholesterol, it’s a serious point.  But guess what?  I’m here to tell you that just about every brand of fancy mineral water is fat-free too – and believe me if it’s calories you need to reduce, you better reach for the water instead of the honey, honey.

So there you have it, and we’re nearly at the end of my honey and nutrition article.

Undeniably, if you’re just looking for vitamins or antioxidants, get yourself to the greengrocers for a good helping of fresh fruit and vegetables with far fewer calories than  honey.  But if you’re looking for more than that, remember, the thing about honey is that it has an estimated 600 components, many of which have yet to be identified, and this mix of components makes it unique amongst the foods of the world.   We still don’t fully understand all of the benefits of honey on the human body, and new research is being published all the time.  Of course, as a natural sweetener, honey is in pole position, being not only very sweet, but also totally natural – and with some proven nutritional value thrown in!

I’ve tried to give you some food for thought here – if you’re a regular reader you will know that I’ve no time for wild claims and over-hyped sales pitches and I wanted this article to reflect that.  I hope I’ve given you enough solid facts so you can now go out there and make a sound decision on whether to use honey as part of your diet.