Is Honey a Safe(r) Sweetener?
I pride myself on making the Primal Blueprint an easy-to-follow lifestyle. If you were just starting out, I could give you a one-page handout with the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws, the PB Food Pyramid, and the PB Fitness Pyramid, and it would be pretty easy for you to get the gist of everything we’re trying to do here.
That said, once you get past the basics, sometimes things get a little murky. Like with honey.
See, as a general rule, I am against the consumption of refined sugars, especially sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Check out my definitive post on the subject to understand why. But what about the preeminent unrefined natural sweetener, the rich amber nectar that’s been available to humans from the very start (albeit protected by barbed, flying suicide stingers)?1
People have been using honey for thousands of years not only as a culinary ingredient but also for its supposed medicinal properties. Must we eschew honey simply because it is sweet, even if it has numerous (potential) benefits? Are some of the harmful effects of the sugar mitigated by the presence of bioactive compounds?
Personally, I enjoy some honey now and then. Let’s find out if you’ll come down on the pro-honey or anti-honey side of the debate after reviewing some evidence.
Is Honey Good for You?
I get asked this from time to time, and I always respond, “Define ‘good.’”
Better, and more interesting, questions are:
- Does honey have any beneficial effects that make it worth consuming?
- Is honey better for you than other sweeteners?
- Is honey a “health food” that you should make a concerted effort to include in your diet?
I’ll save you time by telling you that I think the answers are probably, maybe, and probably not, respectively. If you want more detail, keep reading.
Types of Honey
Before getting into the question of benefits, you must understand that there are many different types of honey. The attributes of any particular batch —flavor, color, consistency, and nutrient and antioxidant profile—depend on what plants the honeybees pollinated. There’s buckwheat honey, wildflower honey, clover honey, and tupelo honey, to name a few. Don’t forget about the darling of the alt-health world, manuka honey, which comes from bees in Australia and New Zealand that pollinate the Leptospermum scoparium bush. (Fun fact: Australia and New Zealand are locked in a heated battle over whether Australian-sourced manuka honey is the real deal.2) Honey aficionados will want to seek out the rare purple honey and black honey varieties, which, as the names suggest, do not have the characteristic golden hue.
Beyond the assorted varieties, the honey you pick up at your local grocery store or farmer’s market may be raw or refined. Raw honey is only lightly strained to remove debris, typically. It will still contain small pieces of honeycomb as well as bee propolis (aka “bee glue”), pollen, and royal jelly. Propolis and royal jelly are prized in their own right for their supposed health benefits.3 Raw honey often looks cloudy or crystallized.
In contrast, honey not labeled as raw has almost certainly undergone additional filtration plus pasteurization, which can remove or destroy the very compounds that make honey so desirable.4 Worse, the inexpensive honey you find at the store may not be pure honey at all but a mix of other sweet, viscous liquids like rice syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Gross.
All things being equal, I’m always partial to less processed versions of any food. I want access to all the compounds that nature included, and honey is no exception. I also opt for darker honey because it is typically higher in bioactive compounds and has greater antioxidant activity.5 6 It also tastes better, if you ask me.
Potential Health Benefits of Honey
I’m hesitant to make any sweeping claims about the health benefits of honey because there are so many types. Also, honeybees don’t exactly have strict manufacturing standards. The characteristics of a given batch of honey vary based on region, season, and probably other factors I’m not aware of.
That said, there’s quite a lot of evidence that honey and its constituents have antiinflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, and immune-boosting properties, to name a few.7 However, if you’re hoping for something specific, you can’t necessarily grab any jar off the shelf and expect it to deliver the desired effects. 8 You’re going to need to dig into the research yourself and see what types may or may not be the most helpful.
Here, I’ll briefly cover some of the most common uses and purported benefits.
Honey for Sore Throat, Cough, and Respiratory Infections
When I was a kid, my mom would have me swallowing big glugs of honey at the first sign of a sore throat or tightness in my chest. I rarely get sick anymore, but when I do, one of the first signs I’m coming down with something is that I crave hot tea with honey.
It makes sense that honey would be able to knock out a sore throat thanks to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, but there aren’t a lot of studies to back up this folk wisdom.
With regards to cough, the (limited) research suggests that my mom was on to something. A 2018 Cochrane review, which included nine randomized controlled trials and more than 1,000 study participants—all kids—concluded that honey seems to be equivalent to or better than standard pharmaceutical treatments. However, the authors noted that the majority of the studies only followed the patients for one night.9
Another meta-analysis of studies looking at upper respiratory tract infections in kids concluded, “Honey was superior to usual care… It provides a widely available and cheap alternative to antibiotics.”10 Good news for those of us who are leery about rushing to antibiotics at the first sign of illness. Even the CDC recommends using honey for chest colds with cough in adults and kids older than one.11
I’ll stick with my honey tea next time my chest starts to feel tight, although I might try honey in coffee instead. One obscure study found that honey with coffee was more effective than honey or coffee alone and more effective than prednisone for alleviating coughs in adults following upper respiratory tract infections.12
Honey for Cancer
There’s quite a bit of promising data that suggests honey could be useful in fighting various forms of cancer. Much of the current research aims to understand how, exactly, honey exerts antitumor and cytotoxic (cell-killing) effects. Proposed mechanisms include reducing oxidative stress, preventing the proliferation of cancer cells, inhibiting cancer-causing genetic mutations, and promoting apoptosis (programmed cell death).13 14
While the research is fascinating, almost all the relevant studies have been done in vitro, meaning that they looked at cancer cells in petri dishes. It remains to be seen how this might translate into actual cancer therapies in humans. How great would it be if we could just eat fistfuls of honey, Winnie the Pooh style, and solve the cancer epidemic? Alas, that’s too good to be true. Far more likely, scientists will isolate specific bioactive compounds within honey and find ways to harness their effects.
Honey for Skincare
Honey turns out to be great for your skin. It can help with everything from diaper rash to dandruff to wrinkles, again thanks in large part to its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties.15
Honey has long been used in dressings for burns, boils, surgical incisions, ulcers, and other types of skin afflictions. The consensus seems to be that while more research is needed,16 17 honey shows significant promise as a topical wound treatment. Honey produces hydrogen peroxide, which seems to account for much of its infection-fighting capability. Certain honeys are even effective against drug-resistant bacteria like MRSA.18 It seems to stimulate the immune system to speed up the natural healing process and helps the body’s own enzymes break down dead tissues around the wound that can lead to infection, a process known as autolytic debridement.19
You can get over-the-counter honey dressings—bandaids infused with honey, essentially—if you want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself.
(Local) Honey for Allergies
Any hayfever or seasonal allergy sufferer has heard that the best natural treatment is honey. But it has to be local honey, because you need the honeybees to have been collecting nectar from the same plants that are causing your sneezing and itchy eyes. So the logic goes anyway. It’s all very homeopathic, but does it work?
I found three studies that speak to this question, and the results are inconsistent:
- Forty individuals with allergic rhinitis (hayfever) took an antihistamine for four weeks along with a daily dose of either honey or honey-flavored corn syrup.20 At the end of the four weeks, both groups’ symptoms had improved, but the group who ate the honey reported feeling significantly better four weeks after that. In other words, the positive effects seemed to persist only in the honey group. It’s worth noting, though, that the participants were consuming huge amounts of honey—1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight, which equates to more than three tablespoons per day for someone who weighs 150 pounds!
- In another study, 36 patients with allergic rhinoconjunctivitis took one tablespoon of unpasteurized, unfiltered local honey; filtered, pasteurized, non-local honey; or honey-flavored corn syrup.21 The study lasted for 30 weeks, but a third of the participants ended up dropping out, presumably because they couldn’t stand the sweet regimen. At the end of the study, neither honey group reported being any better off symptom-wise than the control group.
- Finnish researchers recruited 44 people with birch pollen allergies.22 They all received unpasteurized, unfiltered local honey that either was or was not fortified with birch pollen. Over two months, both groups had more symptom-free days compared to a control group who got no honey. However, the pollen-enhanced group had significantly fewer total symptoms, and they were less likely to need antihistamines during the study period.
That’s hardly a slam dunk. The Finnish study is promising, but I’m not convinced that eating jars of honey for months at a time is a great trade-off for a modicum of allergy relief, especially if the outcome isn’t assured.
What about the Fructose in Honey? Isn’t Fructose Bad for You?
Honey is 40 percent fructose and 30 percent glucose. The remaining 30 percent comprises water, pollen, and over a hundred other compounds, including enzymes, minerals, amino acids, and vitamins. Table sugar, which is sucrose, contains half fructose, half glucose, and none of the good stuff. So right off the bat, it doesn’t make much sense to uniquely worry about the fructose in honey.
That aside, the ancestral community has long accepted as fact that fructose is the most harmful form of sugar because of the way it is metabolized in the liver. Some folks—members of the carnivore community, in particular—are challenging that notion. They argue (correctly) that honey is an animal product that has long been a part of the human diet. It continues to be a staple for modern hunter-gatherers like the Hadza, who derive between 15 and 50 percent of their calories from honey—or, more precisely, honey and bee larvae. Yet the Hadza remain largely free of so-called diseases of civilization, including diseases linked to excess fructose consumption, such as metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.23
This gets into some thorny science (par for the course in the nutrition world), but when it comes to fructose, it seems the poison is in the dose and the delivery method. There’s no doubt in my mind that consuming large quantities of fructose, especially in the context of a high-sugar, hypercaloric diet, poses significant health risks. High-fructose corn syrup, especially beverages sweetened with HFCS, should be strictly avoided. Nothing about our evolutionary history has prepared our genes for large boluses of highly concentrated, liquid fructose.
I’m far less concerned about relatively small amounts of fructose consumed in the context of low-to-moderate-carb, eucaloric or hypocaloric Primal diets, where the fructose comes packaged in whole foods like fruit and honey. Presumably, you aren’t eating multiple tablespoons of honey at a time day in and day out (unless you’re Paul Saladino, maybe).
I’m not saying anyone needs to consume honey (or fruit, for that matter). People who already struggle with metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes should be mindful of how much they’re eating.24 (I should note here that some scientists believe that honey may actually be antidiabetic, though the jury is still out.25) Likewise, anyone who suffers from fructose malabsorption and intolerance, which can lead to IBS-like symptoms,26 should tread lightly with fruit and honey.
The Verdict: Is Honey Good for You?
Let’s return to the three questions I posed at the beginning of this post:
Does honey have any beneficial effects that make it worth consuming?
Overall, I think the answer is yes, but with a significant caveat.
Honey isn’t a panacea that is going to solve all the world’s major health problems. Still, honey (as well as bee propolis and royal jelly) is clearly anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial, and it seems to have various antitumor and anticancer properties. Another benefit I haven’t mentioned yet is that honey acts as a prebiotic, meaning it can promote gut health by stimulating the growth of beneficial microbes. 27 28
While that’s all fantastic, I wouldn’t venture to make specific recommendations regarding what types of honey, or how much, might be optimal for you. That depends on your goals and your current metabolic health.
Is honey better for you than other sweeteners?
I’d say yes, particularly if we’re talking about honey compared to table sugar or pure glucose or fructose.
Overall, honey doesn’t seem to have the same downsides as other sweeteners. For example, one set of studies compared the effects of honey, sham-honey (a mix of fructose and glucose), dextrose (which is just glucose), and sucrose on several health markers in various groups of people.29 There’s a lot to wade through, but the gist is that honey performed well. Honey resulted in smaller blood glucose spikes (+14%) than dextrose (+53%). Sham honey increased triglycerides, while real honey lowered them (along with boosting HDL and lowering LDL). After fifteen days of honey feeding, CRP and LDL dropped. Overall, honey improved blood lipids, lowered inflammatory markers, and had minimal effect on blood glucose levels.
That said, it surely depends on the context. It’s safe to say that honey is better than table sugar across the board, especially, it seems, for diabetics.30 However, someone trying to maintain a strict caloric deficit may prefer a low-calorie or noncaloric sweetener like stevia, monk fruit, or erythritol. By the same token, the carbohydrates in honey might offset any potential upsides for folks following a ketogenic diet.
Is honey a “health food” that you should make a concerted effort to include in your diet?
I’m not sure “should” is the right word here. I’ll continue to use honey as a home remedy for sore throats and coughs, and I’ll enjoy the occasional honey-sweetened dessert. But will I go out of my way to consume honey to ward off health problems or otherwise stay healthy? No, I don’t think the available evidence justifies that.
Bottom line: Can you eat it? Sure. Should you eat it? It depends. There’s no doubt in my mind that honey is an ancestral food, meaning that our long-ago ancestors enjoyed honey when it was available. So if that’s the criteria you use to decide whether a particular food deserves a place in your kitchen, the answer is yes, go for it.
At the end of the day, I prefer to minimize my intake of all sweeteners, mostly because I choose to prioritize savory foods (mmm, steak). If you’re going to consume honey, which is fine in my book, go for the raw, unfiltered stuff, as dark as you can get.
What do you think? Does honey fit into your way of eating? Is it Primal? Let me know what you think.
FAQs About Honey
Is honey allowed on a vegan diet? What about a carnivore diet?
This is a heated debate within both the vegan and carnivore communities. Many, but not all, vegans say no because harvesting honey potentially exploits or harms honeybees. Some carnivores do eat honey, arguing that it qualifies as an “animal product” since it is produced by bees. Most still do not.
Can honey be organic?
The U.S. has no official standard for certifying honey as organic. Small-scale producers may label their honey as organic, but any certified organic honey must be imported. Nevertheless, in practice, it is difficult to impossible to ensure that honeybees are only collecting nectar from organic plants.
Can you eat honey on a keto diet?
Ketogenic diets allow up to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. A teaspoon of honey only contains 6 grams of carbohydrates, and it seems to provoke a smaller blood glucose response than pure glucose.31 32 Therefore, honey can probably be enjoyed in moderation on keto.
Can I substitute honey for sugar in Primal, Paleo, or Keto recipes?
Yes, though you may need to adjust the recipe. Honey is sweeter than refined sugar, so start with half as much honey as sugar. In baked goods, you will also need to reduce the other liquids in the recipe and add baking soda to counteract honey’s natural acidity.
If you’re using honey in keto recipes, keep in mind that honey is not a low-calorie or low-carb sweetener. You’ll need to count those carbs toward your daily total, and even moderate amounts will add up quickly.
Is raw honey better for you than refined or processed honey?
Raw honey contains pollen, bee propolis, and royal jelly, which have a host of beneficial properties in their own right. Refined honey removes those compounds via filtration and pasteurization. Pasteurization may also damage enzymes and other components you want in your honey. Opt for raw whenever possible.
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