Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Feb

Is Honey a Safe(r) Sweetener?

I pride myself on making the Primal Blueprint an easy lifestyle to follow. If you were just starting out, you could easily read a few articles, do a couple hours of research, and start making positive changes to your diet, exercise routine, sleep schedule, or daily life immediately. You could ditch grains or replace some chronic cardio with weights or switch to grass-fed meat, and even if you did nothing else, you’d have made a significant improvement to your life and eventually your health. I often receive thank you emails for putting together a program that Internet-illiterate grandmas and grandpas can get into and actually understand. That said, sometimes things get a little confusing.

Like with honey.

See, as a general rule, I am against the consumption of refined sugars, especially sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. To understand why – if you’re still wondering – check out my definitive post on the subject. 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)? How are we to approach honey? Because while refined sugar and particularly fructose are to be avoided, alone those are refined, manmade, processed “foods.” White sugar is just sucrose, which is just fructose and glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is just fructose and glucose. Isolated fructose is just fructose. Those aren’t even foods, though they can be eaten; they’re just disaccharides and monosaccharides, with zero minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, flavonoids, and other micronutrients.

Honey, on the other hand, contains over a hundred different compounds, not just fructose and glucose. It has a small amount of minerals, amino acids, and vitamins, but the point is that it’s not just sugar. Entire colonies of honey bees thrive on the stuff. It’s food by any definition. And whole foods are different than refined foods, and especially refined food-like products. They have different effects when you eat them. Eating an almond is not the same as taking a shot of rancid seed oil. Eating a handful of berries isn’t the same as sprinkling an equal amount of berry-extracted sugar in your water and drinking it.

The question, then, is whether or not this holds true for honey. Is honey “better” than sugar or HFCS? Are some of the harmful effects of the sugar contained therein mitigated by the presence of bioactive compounds? Let’s take a look.

(Speaking of which, I won’t get into the individual compounds found in honey, because each batch of honey is unique. Besides the whole vomiting thing, honey bees don’t really have strict manufacturing standards, and which bioactive compounds end up in the honey depends on the variety of flowers visited by the bees, as well as the season. I might refer to different honey varietals, like buckwheat or wild flower, but keep in mind that buckwheat from area to area and even harvest to harvest will have different pollen concentrations, giving the honey different qualities.)

Humans have certainly been figuring out ways to get their mitts on the sticky mess for as long as we’ve realized it tasted good: a 6,000 year-old cave painting from Spain even depicts a honey hunter climbing a ladder, stick in hand and satchel at its side, gathering honey as bees swarm. Modern day people, like the San bushmen and the Ache of Paraguay, are honey hunters, with the Ache getting upwards of 10% of their calories from wild honey (and the larvae found in the honeycombs). For a visceral idea of the great lengths some people go to for honey, check out this incredible video of a tribesman from the Congo scaling a 40 meter tree to get at the hive. That’s dedication. After that climb, I imagine his muscle and liver glycogen stores were rather depleted and the honey was a welcome fuel source.

Studies on honey paint a pretty favorable picture, actually, especially when it’s compared to table sugar or other more refined sweeteners. Let’s dig in to a few, shall we?

In one study (PDF), researchers compared the effects of honey and refined fructose feeding on rats. Using equal amounts of fructose – just different sources – the authors explored the effects on several health markers. Feeding fructose raised triglycerides more than feeding honey. Feeding fructose decreased blood levels of vitamin E, while honey did not, suggesting less oxidative stress. Feeding fructose also promoted more inflammation than honey. All in all, honey did well for itself.

Another 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. 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.

In rats, honey produced lower triglycerides, less body fat, and greater satiety (as indicated by the spontaneous reduction in food intake) when compared to sucrose.

Looks like wildflower honey might go well in a meat marinade, too: wildflower honey inhibited lipid oxidation in ready to eat beef patties. I’m not sure what a ready to eat beef patty is, and I don’t think I want to know, but the honey info is good to have. Wildflower honey, which comes from bees dining on a wide variety of wild plant life, outperformed clover honey in the study.

Although discerning the full effects of individual honey-based compounds is many research years out, it looks like honey with lower levels of bioactive compounds acts more like regular sugar while honey with higher levels of compounds acts more like a whole food. In one study (PDF), buckwheat honey was found to be the richest in phenolics and flavonoids, while rapeseed (yes, canola) honey was found to have the lowest number of compounds. The researchers didn’t explore the metabolic effects of the two honeys, but another study did find that people who ate rapeseed honey, but not acacia honey, displayed highly elevated levels of serum fructose. The same thing happens when you eat HFCS. That tells me the bioactive compounds are probably responsible for the “benefits” of honey.

Darker honeys are typically higher in bioactive compounds and show greater antioxidant activity. They also taste better, if you ask me. Buckwheat is a personal favorite of mine and ranks quite highly in antioxidants, even showing some beneficial effects on serum antioxidant status in those who consume itWhen in doubt, choose the darker honey.

Now, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t go out of my way to dip my paws in a jar labeled “Hunny,” but I keep some raw buckwheat honey around. The last pound I bought has lasted me well over six months, and there’s still plenty left in the bottle. And in the past, it has certainly proven useful. Can you eat it? Sure; you can do just about anything you want. Should you eat it? That depends. Are you active and in need of liver glycogen repletion like the guy who climbed the Congolese tree? Then raw honey might be a nice choice for a treat. It’s clearly superior to refined sugar, and the extent of the damage we normally see from sugar intake doesn’t seem to occur with honey.

What do you think? Does honey fit into your diet? Is it Primal? Let me know what you think.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Honey is good. I would say that as I keep bees. :)

    Onge wrote on February 8th, 2012
  2. I keep my own bees, but last year was my first season with them so no honey yet. I’m excited for it for allergy treatment, sweetener to eat, beeswax for all kinds of uses, and propolis to make tincture for fighting colds etc.

    We also tap our maple trees but just for fun, we don’t get enough maple syrup to really last us (we boil it down over a turkey fryer burner on the porch).

    Lauren wrote on February 8th, 2012
  3. If you are going to eat honey, eat raw, unpasteurized honey. Pasteurization destroys the beneficial enzymes in the honey.

    SteveO wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Correct.

      Onge wrote on February 8th, 2012
  4. I use raw honey in treats for my kids (birthdays, special occasions). I love to make custards/clafoutis/puddings with eggs, coconut milk, raw honey, and fruit. It helps them feel like normal kids that get treats.

    Karen C. wrote on February 8th, 2012
  5. For medicinal purposes, I prefer Manuka Honey with a high Unique Manuka Factor (UMF).

    For raw honey, I always go for a variety. I like the raw honey made in my area to combat seasonal allergies. It’s dark orange, and full of flavor. I have heard that a few people have gone into anaphylactic shock whose bodies were not ready for the pollens, although very, very rare. I have heard some warn to start small if ever your first time with raw honey. To me, if you can go into shock over raw honey, it’s better to know now than find out later unknowing or not being prepared.

    I love raw Buckwheat and Wildflower Honey as well. We have a local farmer’s market that sells all different types of raw honey from various flowering plants, from all over the world, so I have collected and sampled many.

    One part that I found interesting, and mentioned in the blog, is that not all honey is inherently healthy, depending on where the bees are getting their nectar as bees can fly many miles from their hive. If the flowers are toxic to humans, they will be toxic to humans in the honey. I know from my late father’s bee keeping days that flowers likes the Jessamine is very dangerous to humans. Then many other common plants are not enough to be deadly, but are still mildly toxic including many nightshade vegetable plants like tomatoes & chili peppers and fruit tress like the Apple & Cherry Trees.

    I am also curious how pollution will effect humans, because the bees are moving within it, even effecting their own colonies with the dreaded Colony Collapse syndrome. I suppose their fate is ours, even if we avoid their wild honeys. These days, I avoid all processed and filtered honeys. They might as well be Sham Honey when you lose all those wonderful compounds and qualities about honey.

    Quincy Brown wrote on February 8th, 2012
  6. Someone asked about eating the honeycomb. I keep bees and use our honey in my coffee. If you’re buying “organic” honey with comb, ok, you could eat it. Why, I don’t know. It’s just wax. The wax, though, will hold any chemicals the bees come across while gathering pollen and nectar. That’s why there isn’t any true organic honey produced in this country unless the beekeeper lives more than five miles away from anything and anyone. Wind blows chemicals onto flowers and the bees don’t know or care that the beekeeper is trying to run an organic apiary. I lived in MS for a while and someone gave me some actual sugar cane to try. It was like…chewing wood to get sugar out of it. I view eating beeswax the same way.

    Liz wrote on February 8th, 2012
  7. When I was about 41 years old, I suffered from seasonal allergies for the first time in my life. I started eating local, raw honey daily and, six years later, have never had a reoccurrence.

    I love honey so much that I started keeping bees myself. The beneficial properties of honey are so numerous; plus, it just tastes damn good!

    AnnieC wrote on February 8th, 2012
  8. I use Really Raw Honey. I love the stuff, been eating it for 10 years. check out its the real stuff, unfiltered, unpasteurized, You can get it fermented or not.

    CB wrote on February 8th, 2012
  9. I too am interested about the relative values of honey vs both coconut nectar and raw coconut sugar. Both coconut products are supposed to have lower GI and beneficial nutrients. But Honey, for all the reasons pointed out here, particularly when close to a natural source, is as pure a natural substance as one can find. Because of this, data be damned, I want to believe that honey is superior…but I also wonder if there is any data on honey v coconut sweet :)

    I’ve also always heard, but do not know if there is data to support this, that natural LOCAL honey can have the effect of reducing pollen related allergies of some types. The notion seems to be that the pollen acts as a type of vaccine if you eat it regularly, thereby exposing yourself to the pollen in small doses. Again not sure if this is real or not, I have never had pollen related allergies…maybe because I eat local natural honey :)

    Thanks Mark! Always informative.

    Kale wrote on February 8th, 2012
  10. We have a good supplier of local honey here, and since I started eating it my hay fever symptoms have almost disappeared. I have it in tea, and make almond flour cookies that rock. Going off sugar is hard for sure, but not impossible. Life is SO much better after you bite the bullet & go for it — and you won’t believe how good fruit tastes!

    Kitzie Stern wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Kitzie,
      I have been making almond milk and I have a lot of meal in the freezer that I don’t know what to do with. Could you send a link for your recipe? Thanks!

      Karen wrote on February 9th, 2012
  11. I use honey and coconuat oil as binding agents in making paleo granola. Provides a nice sweetness and allows my diet to stay primal.

    Eric J wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • How do you make primal granola bars, without using oats?

      Ania wrote on February 8th, 2012
  12. Please please your grammar It’s not “Like with Honey” its ‘as with honey”!!

    Jennie T wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Please, please!!!

      Shawn wrote on February 9th, 2012
  13. Been using 2-3 tblsps honey in my post-workout shake, along with protein. It’s a great way to replace glycogen and prevent cannibalization of my body’s protein stores. Plus, of course, great taste and it dissolves well.

    jack gott wrote on February 8th, 2012
  14. As a beekeeper and a regular consumer of honey, this post makes me happy. :)

    Clint wrote on February 8th, 2012
  15. I truly believe raw honey to be Primal. I don’t think it advisable if it spikes our blood sugar and only the individual testing the impact on his or her body will be able to determine that. If we are insulin resistant or leptin resistant, we need to check our body’s reaction to any sweet food or diet changes. If we don’t do finger sticks, then we should be aware of body signals, like carb craving, hungry two and a half hours after a meal, irritability (or even panic) with meal delays, and maybe all the way to shaky and jittery before meals. If we are insulin or leptin resistant, then we are not in Primal shape and not ready for that Primal treat of honey, in my opinion.

    Sharon Burress wrote on February 8th, 2012
  16. It’s part of my 20%. I eat it exclusively on the weekends or in replacement of a dessert in the evenings, and never more than a teaspoon or so. I also make sure to buy raw, dark honey. It’s wonderful.

    Steph wrote on February 8th, 2012
  17. “… the Ache of Paraguay, are honey hunters, with the Ache getting upwards of 10% of their calories from wild honey (and the larvae found in the honeycombs).”

    Did anybody else have images of a certain badger running through their head while reading Mark’s line from above?

    Primal Texas wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Not really

      Alvaro wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Honey Badger don’t give a..

      Andrea450 wrote on April 11th, 2012
  18. A friend bought back a pot of Cameroon honey taken from a tree – dark and bitter and delicious.

    Kathy Stephen wrote on February 8th, 2012
  19. Raw honey has been a lifesaver during my switch to eating primally. Even just a tiny spoonful satisfies any dessert cravings. For a Superbowl party this past weekend, I volunteered to bring dessert (and was greated with skepticism from my friends who know my eating habits) — I took dried dates stuffed with a mix of almond butter, raw honey, and a tiny bit shaved dark chocolate. They tasted like chocolate-peanutbutter fudge and were almost gone before the game started. [I know dried fruit is high on the GI, but it was a special occasion and you really only need one or two to feel satisfied :)]

    Kate wrote on February 8th, 2012
  20. Earlier somebody mentioned about honey being one of the top five sattvic (pure and beneficial) foods according to Ayurveda, and this is correct. However, bear in mind that Ayurveda also says that heating honey turns it into a toxic substance (ama), so always buy the raw stuff. Not sure where this leaves putting it in very hot tea etc, as some say damage is done only when it’s heated to over 108 degrees F. More modern opinions also say that heating it destroys many of the beneficial substances in it too. Anyway, something to consider…

    Phil E wrote on February 8th, 2012
  21. I think when it comes to honey, it’s not about it being detrimental to ones health, but it being high in carbs and calories. If you want to lose weight you should use it sparingly.

    Alvaro wrote on February 8th, 2012
  22. Manuka honey’s wound healing properties are astonishing — check out the success stories using manuka-infused bandages to heal MRSA and bad burns. My friend who is a critical care nurse at a hospital said that they may be becoming the wound care antibiotic, anti microbial dressing of choice — in hospitals! What does that tell you?

    I used it to heal a cat bite that antibiotics were not helping with.

    Lauren wrote on February 8th, 2012
  23. 20+ Manuka honey, mixed with coconut manna; also gargled.

    iuvenesco wrote on February 8th, 2012
  24. What about Stevia?

    Melissa wrote on February 8th, 2012
  25. Thank you, Mark, for an article that informs, but allows it’s readers to draw their own conclusions.

    Tallyholly wrote on February 8th, 2012
  26. “After 6 months honey loses almost all antioxidant abilities…”

    I’d not heard this before. Is there a study or other reference you can point us to?

    Chadwik wrote on February 8th, 2012
  27. I’ve also switched from treating myself with an ounce of commercial sucrose-sweetened dark chocolate to a homemade concoction of equal parts (roughly) coconut butter, coconut oil, raw cacao powder mixed together (about 1 c. Worth all together) then I add 1 t or less manuka honey, and usually chopped walnuts, shredded coconut, and some cacao nibs, plus a tiny bit of good salt. Spread on some parchment paper on a cookie sheet, score it so it’ll break easily into pieces, and keep it in the fridge. Once it’s solid I wrap the parchment all around it and store it that way.

    It’s amazingly good. I like it barely sweet, but you could use a bit more honey if you want it sweeter. The coconut and coconut butter also contribute sweetness.

    Lauren wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • This sounds fantastic! I’m going to try it this weekend. Thanks a lot for posting it. 😀

      PrimalPatti wrote on February 8th, 2012
  28. I like to take a shot of local honey during allergy season. The local bees take the pollen that makes me sneeze and then make honey. I find it def helps me during this sneezy season

    Jenny wrote on February 8th, 2012
  29. I’m sooooo Glad to hear that Honey is okay for you , was really hard giving up the Refined sugar … but after understanding what that poison was doing to me, I feel I’m finally figuring out what my Body really needs ! I do take a teaspoon full of honey in my morning Tea … just to satisfy my sweet tooth. 😛

    Narda wrote on February 8th, 2012
  30. I’ve never been able to tolerate the taste of honey. I wonder whether it has to do with being an allergy sufferer. Anyone else? I’m always surprised to hear that people enjoy the taste of honey.

    Lina wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Have you tried some from a local beekeeper or did you get it at the store? Different flowers produce different flavors. Same hive will produce 2 different flavors in summer and fall.

      Clint wrote on February 8th, 2012
      • I’ve eaten it all my life, both mass-produces and locally-produced. I do find that the wildflower tastes better, but cannot get it locally produced.

        Lina wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Have you tried raw honey? I was never a huge fan of regular store-bought honey, but then I tried raw honey…love at first taste!

      Kate wrote on February 9th, 2012
  31. Thing is, the methods of sourcing mass produced honey (just about anything outside of local, free-bee honey)include feeding bees corn syrup. ?!! Yes, that’s right. So you are what you eat/absorb & if you are ingesting regular honey then you are ingesting corn syrup & all the chemicals bees are exposed to. Honey is a miracle in it’s most sacred state: raw & pesticide/toxin free honey produced by unadulterated pollinators. That’s the healing honey!

    Jen wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • I have read that too.

      Julie wrote on February 8th, 2012
  32. I love honey, in warm milk it is just the BEST… And manuka honey is so good for you because the bees feed on the Tea Tree flowers

    Abigail wrote on February 8th, 2012
  33. Yes to honey. It would seem as I continue to research natural alternatives to healing it always goes back to what Mother Nature took time to produce. Honey, cinnamon, tumeric, greens (of course) and more. The less processed the better.

    Give me a dose of that honey. I don’t miss sugar but I’ll every now and then put some in bad coffee if that is all I have at my disposal…and woah I can totally taste a difference. Sometimes you need to do something different to notice something different. And nothing wrong with a sweet tooth. Everything in moderation I say. And great additional information with this thread. Thanks folks!

    Abby wrote on February 8th, 2012
  34. I can’t get enough of Manuka honey, especially if it’s from my home country (NZ)

    Nion wrote on February 8th, 2012
  35. I have 4 bee hives in my backyard and get my own fresh local raw wild honey!
    Since starting primal i have glanced at them sideways and wondered what im gonna do with all that honey, so im loving this post!
    I have some honey just a couple times per week really, just when i want.
    Bees make great pets! The whole idea of a super organism like a hive acts is fascinating. Plus you can go away for weeks and not worry!!

    Corey wrote on February 8th, 2012
  36. As with most things, know the farmer. I read that 85% of bee farmers feed the bees HFCS making the honey not much better. Find a good supplier.

    Julie wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • Good point. Also ask if they treat their bees with Miticides for treatment of mites too.

      Clint wrote on February 8th, 2012
  37. What about organic maple syrup?

    Alexandra wrote on February 8th, 2012
  38. Honey! I have it in my tea everyday! I only use a little about an eighth of a teaspoon in a mug but I haven’t been able to let it go. So glad to read this! It is also an antibiotic. Great stuff

    Primaldiver wrote on February 8th, 2012
  39. I use honey for sweetening, soothing burns, and moisturizing. What can’t it do? It’s like the coconut oil of sweeteners 😀

    D wrote on February 8th, 2012

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