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?

honey 1I 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. I use honey in my skin care salon. Honey is a humectant meaning it attracts water. It dehydrates bacteria and kills them. So while the effects of honey are similar to antibiotics, the bacteria will not become resistant to honey–it’s a physiological process they can’t combat. It’s the same effect of putting sugar on strawberries to make strawberry shortcake in our pre-paleo days.

    Laurie wrote on February 8th, 2012
  2. I have just returned from an all day Beekeeping Symposium in Auburn, AL. I learned a lot about honey and beekeeping. Humans depend on bees and their honey-making either directly or indirectly.

    In the Old Testament, God promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. If God created it, I will eat it.

    The state of AL is home to many experts on beekeeping and honey. (See James Tew’s blogsite: http://www.onetew.com)One thing I learned: Make sure you know that your honey comes from a reputable source, as some beekeepers use homemade pesticides which would not pass a state inspection!

    Carolyn H. wrote on February 8th, 2012
  3. I Love Honey, like Pooh Loves Honey!!!

    Gavin Blair wrote on February 8th, 2012
  4. I use raw local wildflower honey to cook with or to make salad dressings. It doesn’t take much and as you said, far superious to sugar.

    Laura, RD wrote on February 8th, 2012
  5. It’s so important to pay attention to your source! Texas A&M recently released this study. A MUST READ if you are buying honey. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/

    Alyssa wrote on February 8th, 2012
  6. I use honey and coconut oil to make a concoction for my kids when they have sore throats. They hate honey – so I tell them it is medicine, that they have to take it. LOL. I use a bit of raw honey in herbal tea, for baking in place of recipes that use agave, salad drssings etc. I am actually thinking of getting a couple hives because local honey is $$$$$$.

    Thanks to those of you who gave the face wash tip – I’m going to try it!

    MamaB wrote on February 8th, 2012
  7. Raw honey in moderation.

    For medicinal purposes I would mix 1 tsp honey with 1 tsp turmeric and swallow to cure flu like symptoms.

    1 tsp honey in Mark’s turmeric tea is my definition of heaven.

    As long as it isn’t 8 cups of tea with honey a day, you should be ok.

    loligoss wrote on February 8th, 2012
  8. My wife started keeping bees a couple of years ago, so we always have plenty around and plenty to share. We don’t use much actually, but it’s great in tea at night after dinner when I’m craving something sweet. (Helps) keep me away from a beer!

    Dave Pryor wrote on February 8th, 2012
  9. i LOVE this discussion! thanks for posting Mark and all!!!

    meghan wrote on February 8th, 2012
  10. Oh, I forgot a big use I have for honey…..I’m an Ultra Runner…..now, now, that is NOT “chronic cardio”; I am slow enough that it counts as “move frequently at a slow pace”…..Anyway I make a mix of coconut oil and little honey as my fuel on long runs. Primarily fat (medium chain tri’s) and a little sweet.

    Dave Pryor wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • I like the sound of this! i do a little distance (half mari’s) & I do run/walk intervals, so I also think of mine as “move frequently”. I’m gonna mix some of this up for this wknd’s event!

      peggy wrote on February 9th, 2012
  11. Very useful article – thanks!

    Espescially the tip for darker coloured honey.

    I love the natural and unique floral taste to honey but for its superior health beefit, if I want to add a less refined sweetener to my food then I go for Blackstrap Molasses and have shared why I like the stuff so much – http://www.lmdfitness.com/nutrition/cider-vingear-and-blackstrap-molasses/

    Luke M Davies wrote on February 8th, 2012
  12. Just in time! I was thinking of concocting my own version of the Honey Stinger protein bar. I love those when I’m running but there a bit too sweet for me! (my sweet tooth has been gradually diminishing – yay!)
    hmmmm, I haven’t tried any of these “designer” honeys yet, might have to!

    peggy wrote on February 8th, 2012
  13. i started using agave nectar instead of honey because it is lower glycemic.
    But I do occassionally use honey and I buy orange blossom flavored.
    This was a very informative article. I had no idea honey had small amounts of minerals, etc.
    I certainly never even thought about why honey’s come in such a variety of flavors – but now it all makes sense (what the bees feed off of)
    I am passing this article on to my network
    Thanks!
    Jaxi :)

    Jaxi wrote on February 8th, 2012
  14. I only buy raw honey. It’s something that I consider a whole food ( as long as it’s raw and organic ). I’s not man made or artificial in any kinds, so yes it should be considered primal. I use honey in so many different ways, such as for colds, face and hair masks and sweetener, I think if I didn’t have honey to help me with my sweet tooth, then people would have one cranky Russian chick on their hands – honey is a must for everyone ( my personal opinion ).

    Tatianna wrote on February 8th, 2012
  15. I am a great believe in the medicinal properties of honey, alas, even a tablespoon of raw organic buckwheat honey gives me acne. So, I don’t eat it. That’s a pity, but I’d rather have clear skin.

    Leida wrote on February 8th, 2012
  16. Honey skyrockets my blood sugar.

    From a beekeeper:
    “Honey actually contains the same basic sugar units as table sugar. Both contain glucose and fructose. Granulated table sugar, or sucrose, has glucose and fructose hooked together, whereas in honey, fructose and glucose remain in individual units. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is one of the reasons fructose is used in so many food products today. However, fructose does not convert to energy as efficiently as glucose. As a result, processed foods containing granulated sugar high in fructose convert to fat stores more easily than honey.

    Caloric content of honey differs from that of table sugar. One teaspoon of table sugar contains 16 calories, while one teaspoon of honey has 22 calories. While honey may have more calories, people may actually use less of it, since it is both sweeter and denser than table sugar. This being said, you actually may take in about the same amount of calories that you would with sugar or perhaps even less.”

    If you have either high or low blood sugar honey as well as other sweeteners like maple syrup, molasses, agave, etc. you should avoid them completely

    Nancy M wrote on February 8th, 2012
  17. I try to run a marathon every few years (call me crazy) but this year is the first time I’m training for one and eating Paleo. Usually I drink tea unsweetened, but on my long runs, I take a sports bottle of tea with some honey in it to drink. This has been working out pretty well for me, and I haven’t felt totally exhausted after any training run. Is this a good idea? Is there something better out there for Paleo endurance? Thanks

    David wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • I love coconut water myself, but I only do halves. Maybe you could add honey to yours if you want. Just a thought.

      peggy wrote on February 8th, 2012
  18. Mark, I posted a link to this article on my company fan page inviting comments and received this link to a study noted in the NY times. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about it:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/health/10really.html?_r=1

    Zo wrote on February 8th, 2012
    • I wouldn’t have expected these researchers to find any evidence. They formulated their hypothesis on a faulty premise. Honey does not work on allergies like a vaccine – that’s a short term gain. They set up their study to be short term.

      Honey works like an allergy desensitization program. These programs can last several years before the full effect may be achieved – and even then its not always 100% effective. If they had continued their study for several years they might have found some evidence.

      rarebird wrote on February 8th, 2012
  19. I bake with almond and coconut flour now and sweeten with honey – but I am also super confused about the truth about baking/heating honey too much. Does anyone have real hard facts about heating honey too high??????? I use coconut syrup also to bake with but would love to know the FACTS about baking with raw honey………

    Wendy wrote on February 8th, 2012
  20. The way I look at it is, “carbs are carbs”. I try to limit myself to 50g per day and if I go beyond that, I put on weight. Eating just all the vegetables I want to consume daily amounts to nearly half the 50, so I look at 18g of carbohydrate per tablespoon of honey as an expensive luxury. The fact that it is possibly “less bad for me” doesn’t change that. Stevia is virtually zero carbs, so if I feel that I must have something sweetened, that’s what I tend to go with.

    Kala Nui wrote on February 8th, 2012
  21. I have read that if you eat local honey it helps with allergies. I rarely eat sweets as there is a lot of people in my family with diabetes (even two sisters). But i do have a spoonful of honey once in a while and I really feel like it helps me be less allergic to plant pollen. And on the face washing. i am allergic to most soap and all scents. So a long time ago i started using just water and ingesting fish oil, evening primrose oil, flax seed oil, olive oil and natural vitamin E. I am 56 (rarely wear make-up) and people always are shocked because they think i am in my early forties…good thing….my husband is 34 : ) PS…he had horrible skin issues before i started helping him eat more like a primitive man! Thanks everyone for all the good advice here.

    Laurin wrote on February 8th, 2012
  22. Though strongly in the “pro honey” camp, I find myself in the same boat as Kala Nui – honey is an expensive luxury on a ketogenic diet.

    I will sacrifice other carb sources so that I can have a teaspoon of raw, local honey 3 or 4 times a week – only because it helps me with local pollen allergies. The fact that it tastes great in herbal tea is a bonus.

    Personal biases aside, I feel that Mark made a strong case for raw honey as a pro-primal food. And, it was pleasant to note that he did so without disrespect, dismissal….or any of those other D words. Plus, who can resist a little harmless Pooh Hunny Pot humor :-).

    Here’s what I take away from this article:

    1. The prehistorical record shows that humans evolved as healthy honey eaters.

    2. Raw honey promotes a good lipid profile, lower body weight, and greater satiety – all features or goals of a primal food plan.

    3. Raw honey has many beneficial bioactive properties that support wellness, including but not limited to reduction of carcinogens in cooked meats.

    4. Raw honey can support the transition from a high carb/high sugar diet to a low carb, primal diet.

    Other pro-primal uses of honey have been pointed out in the comments.

    The exceptions to the generalities above – making raw honey not so good for some people, some of the time – have also been covered well by the comments here.

    rarebird wrote on February 8th, 2012
  23. Is honey primal? Well after watching this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W_iMve4xvg

    I would believe it is very primal. This man climbs a tree 40 meters high, gets attacked by a swarm of bees just to bring down honey for him and his family. Nothing more primal than that.

    Bryan wrote on February 8th, 2012
  24. So far everything Mark Sisson has said about nutrition has checked out.

    Therefore, as someone who feels he cannot do without sweetener occasionally, and has been resorting to the use of honey despite its high cost, the confirmation that it is basically okay comes as great news!

    Thanks Mark!

    Bevin wrote on February 8th, 2012
  25. I do love honey and only use it occasionally – it always makes me giggle when I tell people what honey really is . . . . Regurgetated plant semen. Haha!

    Lily Marie wrote on February 8th, 2012
  26. most honey isn’t..

    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/

    buy only local honey whose provenance can be verified. Otherwise you might be ingesting Chinese antibiotics and heavy metals rather than micronutrients..

    Doug K wrote on February 8th, 2012
  27. Two things:
    1. Beware grocery store honey (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/)

    2. Mead rules and you can make your own simple batch; directions here:http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f80/joes-ancient-orange-mead-49106/

    Jordan wrote on February 8th, 2012
  28. I use a bit of raw wildflower honey in tea from time to time. Because I’ve stopped consuming sugary foods, the raw honey seems to be REALLY sweet, so I use less of it.

    Elizabeth wrote on February 8th, 2012
  29. I dont eat it but got a jar of local raw honey from a bee keeper last year. I suffer spring allergies and mix one tablespoon with warm water to flush my sinuses with a netty pot. Burns slightly at first but if I do this once a week it literally wipes out my allergies! I’ve tried everything in the past and this is the only thing I’ve found effective come April in Alabama when everything’s coated in yellow pollen.

    Brian wrote on February 8th, 2012
  30. I work at a farm stand in Ventura County, CA and we sell alot of honey from a local producer (raw and unfiltered). The most popular flavors? Avocado and Eucalyptus-people swear by it for their allergies. Both of those flavors are extremely dark and robust. Me, I love honey and would not consider giving it up. And I think stevia tastes as bad as Splenda- can’t stand it!!

    Rene wrote on February 8th, 2012
  31. I am not a honey eater, but i think it is a good sweetener for those who can tolerate it. I am fructose intolerant so really have to moderate my sugar intake otherwise i get a very upset belly! Instead I use natural organic stevia or maple syrup. It may not be 100% primal but it works for me. And life is meant to be enjoyed….desserts and sweets can be a nice luxury to eat every once in a while :)

    Sarah @ The Healthy Diva wrote on February 8th, 2012
  32. Manuka honey’s antibacterial properties is often touted as a plus, but doesn’t also kill of the good bacteria?

    ben wrote on February 8th, 2012
  33. Honey is bee barf….

    Rose wrote on February 8th, 2012
  34. Make sure you get organic, local honey – it tastes better that way.

    Scilla wrote on February 8th, 2012
  35. I first read about raw honey as a highly nutritious medicinal food in a Juliette De Bairacle-Levy herbal manual. She was a vegetarian but centered on raw foods — especially raw milk. She warned repeatedly that pasteurization ruined the foods.

    Oly wrote on February 8th, 2012
  36. Raw buckwheat honey is a godsend. It’s rich, has depth, smells and tastes beautiful.

    I’m sure we’ll be studying it one day the way we study the antioxidant properties of red wine.

    pat wrote on February 8th, 2012
  37. I 1000% agree with Ella: buckwheat honey and full-fat Greek yogurt is the ULTIMATE in sweetness! Best! Dessert! EVAH! (And this is coming from a chocolate fanatic)

    Yes, RAW honey is definitely Primal/Paleo.

    pat wrote on February 8th, 2012
  38. It’s great to use in tea, coffee, or milk. Love honey!

    Paul Alexander wrote on February 8th, 2012
  39. Note that most store honey in the US is ultra-filtered to remove the pollen and hence the ability to determine the whether honey source is legitimate or safe.
    “In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey”
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/

    (one of many references to this topic)

    Joy Mather wrote on February 8th, 2012
  40. White sugar is just sucrose, which is just fructose and glucose.

    No, it isn’t, unlike the simple sugars in the physical mixture high-fructose corn syrup, say. White sugar would have to be a physical mixture to be just fructose and glucose, but it has to be chemically broken down (and water added) by digestion to get those. It’s a (slightly) more complex sugar than fructose and glucose, so it needs that digestion to get the simpler sugars that get used in the blood, which gives it a (slightly) higher glycaemic index than either fructose or glucose or a mixture of them. The difference isn’t much, but it is real and it does make a difference. What is more, sugar tastes significantly sweeter than either of the simpler sugars it breaks down into, so less is needed than if it were a physical mixture.

    Entire colonies of honey bees thrive on the stuff [honey].

    No, they don’t, they need pollen as well (for protein). Drones or worker bees that only get honey can function perfectly well, just using it as fuel, but that is because their biological machinery is already in place. Without pollen the queens can’t lay eggs and the larvae can’t grow, so the colonies die off as soon as the current batch of worker bees wears out. You can switch a colony’s entire stock of honey for sugar syrup with no ill effects, so honey and sugar are entirely comparable.

    [Honey is] clearly superior to refined sugar, and the extent of the damage we normally see from sugar intake doesn’t seem to occur with honey.

    Although the study cited compared various things with honey, including sugar, this article only listed the comparisons between honey and glucose formulations – not sugar. So absolutely nothing here shows that honey is “clearly superior to refined sugar, and the extent of the damage we normally see from sugar intake doesn’t seem to occur with honey”, only that those apply to the comparisons with glucose formulations.

    Basically, sugar is perfectly good for quick energy boosts like those you might need after climbing trees, it is a perfectly adequate substitute for honey for bees, and nothing in this article shows that honey in general is any better than sugar for people. It so happens that some honeys really are better than white sugar when they have healthy varietal components – although unhealthy varietal components can even make honey toxic, particularly when pesticides get involved – but all this article has brought out is that honey in general is better than the simple sugars, not that it is better than white sugar.

    P.M.Lawrence wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Interesting analysis. Food for thought. Thanks for sharing.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012

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