Honey: Did you know?
Honey might be a pantry staple in many households, but it’s far from an ordinary food! In fact, honey is the only insect-derived product eaten across cultures and continents, with health benefits as unique as its history.
Although often considered an animal product, honey is essentially made of modified plant compounds, giving it a fuzzy classification as far as foods are concerned. Specifically, honey is the transformed product of nectar—a sweet liquid secreted by plants, which the honeybees collect, dehydrate, enzymatically break down into simpler sugars, and then deposit into honeycomb cells. This process “ripens” the nectar into the thick, gooey honey we’re familiar with, containing both the initial plant compounds and insect-derived proteins.
Unfortunately, amid growing concerns about the health effects of sugar and carbohydrates, honey is sometimes dismissed as “just another sugar.” This couldn’t be further from the truth! Far from empty calories, honey is teeming with over 200 health-promoting substances including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients.
In fact, long before honey was scientifically studied, humans from cultures across the globe recognized its healing properties—often regarding it as medicine as much as food.
Here are just a few of the unique features of honey.
Honey is mankind’s most ancient sweetener
Unlike the refined and artificial sweeteners that have made their way into the modern diet, honey has been around since the dawn of history. In fact, it’s been part of the human diet for even longer than modern chickens, cows, and pigs!
Cave paintings dating back 25,000 years depict beehives and ladders used for collecting honey—a practice that was likely in place long before being artistically represented. Additional rock art from the Upper Paleolithic era shows gourds for holding honey, numerous honey collection scenes, and images of early humans smoking out hives to make honey easier to obtain.
Some researchers even believe honey helped fuel our ancestors’ brain expansion around 2 million years ago. The ecological changes during this time (such as the spread of grasslands across East Africa), along with the appearance of crude stone tools, suggest increased access to honey—in turn providing a dense source of carbohydrates for our energy-guzzling brains.
Even today, nearly all hunter-gatherer societies in warm climates consume honey as a dietary staple. In some cases, it makes up to 20 to 80% of the daily diet, especially during wet months when honey is most abundant. For example the Efé people of the Congo eat about 1,900 calories of honey and bee larvae per day during July and August, and the Ache of Paraguay consume almost 1,200 calories of honey and bee larvae as a daily average. Similarly, the Hadza of Tanzania consider honey their most prized food source, and it makes up about 15% of their year-round diet.
Nonhuman primates, too, have a penchant for honey: baboons, macaques, gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees have all been recorded harvesting honey with their hands, with probes made of vegetation, or by smashing beehives open. Chimpanzees even use stick tools to extract honey from hives, offering a possible window into early hominin behavior when it comes to honey collection.
Although we can’t know exactly when honey made an appearance in the human diet, or just how much our ancestors ate, evidence points to its presence for as long as we’ve been anatomically human—and possibly long before!
Honey contains the same polyphenols that give fruits and veggies many of their health benefits
Polyphenols are a type of phytonutrient with powerful antioxidant activity. They’re one of the top reasons why foods like berries and green tea are considered so health-promoting.
Honey also happens to be a rich source of these valuable compounds. In fact, the polyphenols in honey give it many of the same disease-preventative properties normally ascribed to fruits and vegetables—including protection against cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Some of the best-studied polyphenols in honey include:
Quercetin: A flavonoid with wide-ranging benefits for cardiovascular health, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and even neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity, reduce blood pressure, boost immunity, quell inflammation, and support wound healing.
Genistein: An isoflavone that can benefit certain hormone-related diseases and conditions due to its phytoestrogen activity, which allows it to displace estrogen in cell receptors. Specifically, it can protect against some forms of breast cancer and reduce symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, insomnia, and bone loss.
Isorhamnetin: A compound that protects heart and artery cells from damage and inflammation, while also helping reduce blood pressure—giving it a powerful protective effect against cardiovascular disease.
Kaempferol: An antioxidant that combats cancer across multiple fronts: reducing tumor growth, inducing cancer cell death, preventing metastasis, and starving tumors of their nutrient supply by stopping them from creating new blood vessels—all while sparing healthy cells from damage. Its consumption is linked to lower rates of skin, liver, colon, stomach, bladder, and pancreatic cancer.
Hesperetin: A beneficial bioflavonoid for the heart. It helps lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, while also inhibiting the formation of foam cells (lipid-stuffed immune cells that contribute to atherosclerosis).
Ellagic acid: A powerful regulator of immunity and inflammation. It can help reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease, while also exhibiting anti-aging activity—especially within the brain.
Galangin: A compound with anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, and anti-tumor properties. In experiments, it’s demonstrated activity against cervical, lung, ovarian, breast, colon, renal, and esophageal cancer cells.
Rutin: A bioflavonoid that has pain-relieving and arthritis-reducing effects, while also influencing the body’s hormonal systems—including supporting thyroid and reproductive health.
And that’s just scraping the surface! In all, around 30 different polyphenols have been documented in honey—with other common ones being chrysin, apigenin, myricetin, rutin, ferulic acid, and p-coumaric acid.
The exact polyphenol composition of honey varies depending on its floral source (that is, which plant species the honey-producing bees collected nectar from). For example, honey made from rosemary plants tends to be high in kaempferol, while honey made from chestnut plants tends to be high in p-coumaric acid.
In every case, though, honey contains a mix of polyphenols that help fight oxidative damage, giving it wide-ranging health benefits on par with those of fruit and vegetables.
Honey is a powerful prebiotic that feeds the good bacteria in your gut
Our intestinal tract is home to the gut microbiome—a massive network of microorganisms that influence nearly every organ and system in the body, ranging from the brain to the heart to the lungs to the immune system. In fact, the gut microbiome plays such a huge role in human health that some scientists consider it to be its own organ.
Just like our human cells, our gut bacteria need to eat—and one of their favorite meals is fermentable carbohydrates that our digestive enzymes can’t break down. Substances that feed our gut bacteria are called prebiotics (not to be confused with probiotics, which refers to the beneficial microorganisms themselves).
Numerous studies show that honey has powerful prebiotic properties. It contains a type of carbohydrate called oligosaccharides, which bypass digestion in the small intestine and become fuel for friendly gut bacteria—particularly lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, some of the most valuable gut bugs known. (Another natural sweetener, maple syrup, contains similar prebiotic compounds.)
Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria have numerous functions in the body, including breaking down food, enhancing the immune system, reducing cholesterol levels, fighting inflammation, protecting against colorectal cancer, lowering blood pressure, and reducing symptoms of gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome. By promoting the growth of these particular bacteria, honey allows us to receive their abundant health benefits!
What’s more, honey has antimicrobial activity against potential pathogens. These include species of Salmonella, E. coli, and Clostridium difficile, all of which can disrupt gut health and promote illness when their populations within the body become too high. Not only can honey directly kill these bacteria, it can also prevent some of them from attaching to the intestinal lining and causing infection.
Honey’s antimicrobial actions appear to work synergistically with its prebiotic effects to create a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. In doing so, honey can improve gut health as a whole, as well as the many body systems that our gut health influences.
Honey has anti-inflammatory effects that can benefit brain health
Honey might not have a reputation as “brain food” in the same way that seafood does, but plenty of evidence suggests it supports our neurological health.
In fact, honey consumption has been shown to improve memory, learning, cognition, and mental well-being through its various antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the brain. Many of these effects trace back to the polyphenols in honey—some of which have been shown to protect neurons from damage and death, as well as influence the body’s memory-related biological pathways.
For example, the polyphenol apigenin exhibits a number of brain-boosting activities. Studies show it can improve memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients, ease symptoms of depression, and alleviate anxiety due to its cortisol-lowering effects. (In fact, apigenin is the compound that gives chamomile tea its reputation for helping people relax and fall asleep!)
Likewise, hesperetin—found in honeys produced from citrus plants—is highly beneficial for the nervous system. It soothes inflammation in the brain and spine, exerts antidepressant effects, and protects neurons from degenerating.
Luteolin, too, has roles in maintaining neuron health—including supporting memory and managing neuroinflammation.
Additionally, honey contains pinocembrin—a compound we don’t usually consume much of, since it’s mostly concentrated in inedible plants like pinewood, eucalyptus, and cottonwood trees. Bee products, such as honey, are some of the few foods rich in this unique phytonutrient.
Although pinocembrin exhibits quite a few health benefits, one of the most noteworthy is its effects on the brain. Studies show it can protect brain cells from damage during impaired blood flow (such as during a stroke), enhance cognition, and specifically target neuroinflammation to keep the brain healthy.
Honey may even be therapeutic for specific neurological diseases. For example, in Alzheimer’s disease, components of honey have been shown to prevent the degeneration of neurons, improve memory, and reduce the formation of amyloid plaques—a key physical feature of the Alzheimer’s-affected brain. Likewise, for Parkinson’s disease, honey components can increase dopamine levels and prevent the loss of neurons.
In all, honey’s ability to reduce neuroinflammation appears to not only enhance brain function, but also helps protect against potentially devastating degenerative diseases.
Honey is beneficial for the immune system
Honey’s immune-boosting effects have been observed for millennia, and are a major reason ancient societies viewed this food as medicine.
We now know that honey can directly modulate the immune system, including stimulating the production of T cells, B cells, and neutrophils that prime the body to combat infection. A particular sugar in honey, nigerose, has even been shown to enhance the activity of natural killer cells—important first-wave immune defenders that remove infected cells from the body.
What’s more, honey has anti-viral activity against the microbes that cause the common cold and flu. Along with altering cell signaling pathways that ramp up immune responses to these viruses, some components of honey can directly interact with the virus structure, rendering it less able to replicate or attach to host cells. Specifically, the kaempferol, quercetin, hydrogen peroxide, copper, and ascorbic acid in honey all have mechanisms for deactivating viruses or reducing their infectiveness.
One meta-analysis even found honey to be more effective than usual care (including a number of over-the-counter medications) for treating symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including the severity and frequency of coughs. However, more placebo-controlled trials are needed to confirm these findings.
Certain types of honey are particularly helpful for fighting infection. For example, manuka honey—made from the nectar of manuka trees in Australia and New Zealand—contains a unique compound called methylglyoxal, which helps destroy the pathogens responsible for chickenpox, shingles, the flu, pneumonia, and a number of other common illnesses. Methylglyoxal can also help T-cells more effectively detect the presence of infections, giving manuka honey a role in immune regulation.
Honey can kill the bacteria responsible for tooth decay and bad breath
Unlike many sugar-containing sweeteners, honey actually has a protective effect on dental health! In fact, it exhibits antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus mutans—a sugar-fermenting, acid-producing microbe that causes the majority of dental cavities. Honey likewise inhibits the growth of Porphyromonas gingivalis, the main bacteria responsible for gingivitis (gum disease) and a major contributor to bad breath.
The compounds in honey responsible for these effects are hydrogen peroxide, polyphenols, and a peptide called bee defensin. Collectively, these compounds help stop bacterial growth, break up biofilms (slimy layers of microorganisms that adhere to tooth surfaces and cause damage), and reduce the production of enamel-destroying acid by bacteria. (Interestingly, despite having a low pH itself, honey doesn’t erode tooth surfaces the way that most acidic foods do.)
Several human trials have even tested the oral use of honey for dental health, with promising findings! One study showed that a mouthwash made of manuka honey significantly reduced plaque formation on teeth. Another trial found that chewing honey reduced bacterial counts and inhibited bacterial growth in the participants’ mouths.
In all, science shows that honey is much more likely to improve oral health than cause the problems usually associated with refined sugars.
Honey varieties, grades, and claims
Although you’ll probably only encounter a handful of different honey types at the store (or as ingredients in the foods you buy), there are actually over 300 known honey varieties! Different types of honey vary considerably in terms of nutritional composition, taste, and color; these features are a product of the type of plant the bees visit, the species of bees involved in honey production, the local climate, and the processing techniques and storage the honey undergoes after being harvested.
Honey varieties are first defined by the type of nectar they’re produced from. This is where you’ll see terms like “clover honey,” “manuka honey,” “buckwheat honey,” “eucalyptus honey,” “acacia honey,” and many others, all referring to the main plant species the bees visited. Similarly, some honeys are labeled “multifloral honey” or “wildflower honey,” meaning the honey came from a blend of different plant nectars.
In addition to floral source, another common honey identifier is its grade. In the United States, the USDA’s honey grading system includes four tiers:
- Grade A
- Grade B
- Grade C
- Substandard Honey (which includes anything lower than Grade C)
These grades reflect criteria such as aroma, color, flavor, visual clarity, and presence or absence of defects. Higher grades indicate higher quality, with Grade A honey being the gold standard, so to speak. However, these tiers don’t indicate anything about the nutritional value or phytonutrient composition of the honey.
Other identifiers often appear on honey labels, too. The most common include:
- Raw honey, which hasn’t been heat-treated and retains compounds that are usually removed in the filtration process—such as pollen, propolis, and waxes.
- Pure honey, which means the product contains 100% honey with no additional ingredients.
- Unfiltered honey, which hasn’t undergone filtration and still contains visible particles from the beehive.
In general, the less processed a honey is, the more phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other health-promoting compounds it contains.
What about organic honey?
Another labeling claim you might see on honey is the word “organic.” In theory, this indicates the honey was collected from organic certified beehives, and made from the nectar of plants that haven’t been exposed to pesticides or herbicides. The reality, however, is a little more complicated.
Because bees can fly long distances, there’s no way to know exactly which plants they visit, and whether all of those plants are truly organic. Bees from hives located in organic fields can still reach non-organic fields miles away.
What’s more, the USDA doesn’t offer an organic certification for honey made in America. When the “organic” claim appears on honey labels, it generally means the honey was produced outside of the US, and was only required to meet the organic standards of the specific country it came from.
In some cases, beekeepers use USDA standards that were established for organic livestock in order to make organic claims for their honey. While some of these standards can indeed apply to beekeeping (such as using only natural feed, not spraying beehives with chemicals, and using organic processing methods), they still can’t account for the possibility of non-organic nectar making it into the hives.
So, while seeing “organic” on a honey label would seem to imply a fully organic product, this isn’t always the case!
We believe honey is a premier choice when it comes to sweeteners. Like maple syrup, honey consistently demonstrates health-promoting properties not seen with refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. We can all become more aligned with natural real foods, while still finding a place for the unique joys of sweet treats.
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