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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. It’s great to use in tea, coffee, or milk. Love honey!

    Paul Alexander wrote on February 8th, 2012
  2. 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”

    (one of many references to this topic)

    Joy Mather wrote on February 8th, 2012
  3. 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
  4. Every morning a coup of tea of chamomile and thyme and a spoon of honey to reduce/ decrease inflammation from the previous day and heal inside out my body after a good night sleep. My trick!

    Would appreciate any comments, feedback and suggestions.


    Amar wrote on February 9th, 2012
  5. I found out all honey is raw in Bulgaria, if you buy it outside a supermarket. We’re still too uncivilized to know you are not supposed to get it directly from hive to jar.

    Some of the more medicinal varieties are forest honey (made of little drops of sap on forest leaves- very dark and delicious) and chestnut honey, which is bitter, but full of active ingredients.

    Hipparchia wrote on February 9th, 2012
  6. When you really crave honey you could make yourself a traditional russian treat: pickled cucumbers with honey and smetana. Those of you who haven’t tried I tell you, it is delicious!

    Sami wrote on February 9th, 2012
  7. What about Silan (date honey)? Does anyone know anything about that?

    Sari wrote on February 9th, 2012
  8. I try to avoid fructose like the plague. Fructose is a poison, no matter where you mix it with. Like every other carby foodstuff: all the good things in honey can be found elsewhere- without the nasty sugar attached.

    André wrote on February 9th, 2012
  9. In our eagerness to use/add h9ney in our lives, have we forgotten that honey has been corrupted (by China) just like the olive oil (by Italy)? What we’re getting of both these substances is not the real thing.

    For a reminder:

    Until honey comes back to America, and I can actually TRUST what I’m buying, no honey is entering this house!

    Wenchypoo wrote on February 9th, 2012
  10. My family loves coleslaw, I make it once a week. Dressing is homemade coconut oil mayo ( sometimes with evoo, too) & honey! I buy local honey and maple syrup, Yeah Michigan!

    LPJohnson wrote on February 9th, 2012
  11. That video with the guy climbing the tree is truly awesome. I can’t imagine ever climbing that high (afraid of heights), not to mention all the bees 😮

    Kristjan wrote on February 9th, 2012
  12. Interesting details about honey, it’s good to know.But I don’t agree with this article because honey is just glucose(and fructose in lower concentration) with small amounts of vitamins,minerals and amino-acids. So if you even if you want to see the positive effects on health you need to eat almost a bucket per day.But that’s crazy,right?I’m not against honey because I take a teaspoon blended with 4-5 egg yolks and butter right after my workout/sprint routine.And one more interesting thing that I didn’t see it in this article.Real/natural honey cristallizes after a few days, even after 1-2 weeks.If it doesn’t,then is just glucose syrup/HFCS.

    Alex wrote on February 9th, 2012
  13. My father started keeping bees after he retired. My mom liked to plant interesting “bee crops” and they sold their honey to a local health food store. Daddy and Mama both died last year, and I cherish the 2 jars of their honey, with Mama’s hand-printed labels. I’m not much of a sweet-eater, but every once in a while, when I’m really missing them, I’ll take half a teaspoon full of their “family honey” — honey with chunks of comb packed in — and feel a sunny-sweet happiness. Daddy referred to his bees as “his girls” and could, in emergencies, work around the hives without a suit. They seemed to sense that he was there to help.

    KWM wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Thank you for sharing this touching family story :-). I can just imagine your parents smiling.

      Its means so much when children appreciate what parents do for the family, even its something they do out of a personal interest in the activity.

      One of my sons is a chef. He recently asked me to collaborate with him on creating a family cook book. I have family recipes going back several generations and crossing many regional /national cuisines.

      I had thought recently that no one in the family would care to have these recipes when I died – and even considered discarding them during a recent stint of de-cluttering/simplifying. Now I am so glad that I kept them, even if some of them are not primal adaptable.

      I happily agreed to collaborate with him – but I also mentioned that I wanted equitable time given to low carb/primal recipes that I might develop as that was our part of the family’s current tradition. He agreed. He does love the proteins. I would love to see him develop the primal approach as part of his own cuisine – and maybe this cookbook project can promote that notion. Hopeful.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  14. I am a veterinarian and use honey for wound treatments with great success. It is amazing for large wounds that cannot be closed and need to heal over time. Honey is a natural antibiotic because it has such a high osmolality that bacteria cannot grow in it. The sugars – and probably other beneficial substances as well – nourish the tissue and encourage growth and healing. If is that good on the outside of an animal, it must be awesome on the inside of it!

    Lynn wrote on February 9th, 2012
  15. I just know that when I eat raw local honey at the end of summer I have no allergy symptoms at all come fall/winter and next spring.

    Arty wrote on February 9th, 2012
  16. As a beekeeper I eat honey alot. I agree honey is a food by any definition. Thanks for this article I learned some things. I gathered together health benefits of honey and put it into a pamphlet for my nutritional therapy certification project. One more thing, is that beekeeper are know to live long lives! And it does not have the effect in the stomach if eaten within an hour before bed, maybe with tea, it does help with sleep and feeds the brain.

    Melinda wrote on February 9th, 2012
  17. Great article, I included it in my latest issue of Paleo Weekly:

    Jeff Schoolcraft wrote on February 9th, 2012
  18. You can’t do this without giving us a post on pure maple syrup! :)

    glorth2 wrote on February 9th, 2012
  19. Depends.

    Honey is primal if we eat it in the same amounts and as often as people ate it 30,000 years ago, and if the bees are pollinating the same wide variety of wild flowers that they did back then. I’m guessing most humans would have been fortunate to enjoy honey once or twice a month.

    Amy wrote on February 9th, 2012
  20. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence about honey and seasonal allergies, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work. But plants either have wind-born pollen or pollen that must be spread by bees/bats/whatever. The pollen (or derivatives thereof) collected by bees is what would be in honey, while the wind-born type would contribute to allergies. So the pollen eaten in honey and that contributing to allergies would be from totally different plants. Anybody know how this would confer protection from seasonal allergies?

    Danielle wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • That’s a good question – but, IMO, oversimplified statement of the case.

      Most pollen bearing plants are cross- pollinated by some sort of organism. Bees are only one of those organisms, though.

      Wind born pollens end up all over cross pollinated plants, so bees also could carry some of these pollens back to the hive. For example, anyone living in pine forest areas in the US SE knows how everything gets a yellow coat of pine pollen in the spring.

      Pine pollen, btw, is NOT allergenic. The grains are too big to trigger an allergic reaction. Subjectively, what happens is that other small pollens – like oak or maple – that do cause allergies have an overlapping pollen period with pine. When people see the yellow pollen and have allergy issues, they make that connection/assumption.

      Anyway, the best way to settle this question is to do a controlled study. And, I do mean controlled. The honey would have to be analyzed for actual pollen counts, the participants would need to be sequestered in an allergen free environment 24/7 for a long period, and so on. Not practical but maybe doable if there is enough funding available.

      Another issue is that allergies demonstrate generalize inflammation as well as specific allergic reactions. Reducing one set of allergies can reduce the over all inflammatory state – thus reducing allergic reactions across the board. One approach to treating air born/inhalant allergies is to focus on removing foods that cause allergies or intolerances.

      So, if honey is effective for directly reducing allergies to some cross pollinated plants, it might also help reduce allergies to wind born pollens indirectly.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Just from my experience with my raw honey, eaten before bed has helped alot of children with their allergies. However I do suggest nasal breathing which would be the Buteyko Breathing Method. The dandelion for instance will be blooming shortly, the bees love it and it can be airborne. Like you said the honey from my wild bees is always different and therefore each jar will effect the allergies eventually reducing much of the symptoms along with nose breathing, it can eliminate them. I also make mead and have some raspberry mead ready to bottle.

        Melinda wrote on February 9th, 2012
  21. What about agave? Any similar “good” characteristics of honey?

    Rachel Fischer, MD wrote on February 9th, 2012
  22. Agave is seriously processed and has a huge fructose load.

    pat wrote on February 9th, 2012
  23. More medical information on honey.

    J Periodontol. 2012 Feb 6. [Epub ahead of print]

    A Comparative Evaluation of the Anti-Bacterial Efficacy of Honey, In Vitro and Anti-Plaque Efficacy in a 4 Day Plaque Regrowth Model In Vivo – Preliminary Results.

    S A, S S, Malgi V, Setlur KP, R S, Setty S, Thakur S.

    Senior Lecturer. Email: .


    Background: Honey has a potent broad-spectrum antibacterial action which may make it suitable for “anti-infective” treatment of periodontal disease. Aim: 1) To evaluate the anti bacterial efficacy of honey against oral bacteria and compare the same with 0.2% chlorhexidine 2) Compare anti-plaque efficacy in vivo with chlorhexidine. Material and Methods: The study was conducted in two parts: an invitro part wherein the inhibitory effects of three test agents, 0.2% chlorhexidine gluconate, honey mouthwash and saline, against 6 oral bacteria at concentrations of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 and 512 micrograms per millliter were tested in duplicate. The MIC (minimum inhibitory concentration) was set as the lowest concentration of the agent that completely inhibited the growth of the test species. The in vivo part consisted of a double blind parallel clinical trial based on a 4 day plaque regrowth model. Sixty six volunteers aged 20-24 years participated in the study and the plaque scores were compared at baseline and at the end of 4 days. Kruskal Wallis test was used for significance and Mann Whitney U test was used for pairwise comparison of the groups. The mean plaque scores were 1.77±0.86, 1.64±0.90, 3.27±0.83 for groups 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Results: The honey mouthrinse effectively inhibited the 6 tested microorganisms. The chlorhexidine gluconate rinse had the lowest MICs in comparison with honey and saline rinses, for all test species examined. The in vivo results revealed that plaque formation was inhibited/ reduced by chlorhexidine and honey rinses. Conclusion: Honey has antibacterial action against tested oral microorganisms and also has anti-plaque action.

    Microbiology. 2012 Jan 31. [Epub ahead of print]

    Manuka honey inhibits the development of Streptococcus pyogenes biofilms and causes reduced expression of two fibronectin binding proteins.

    Maddocks SE, Lopez MS, Rowlands RS, Cooper RA.

    Cardiff Metropolitan University.


    Streptococcus pyogenes (group A Streptococcus; GAS) is always of clinical significance in wounds where it can initiate infection, destroy skin grafts and persist as a biofilm. Manuka honey has broad spectrum antimicrobial activity and its use in the clinical setting is beginning to gain acceptance with the continuing emergence of antibiotic resistance and the inadequacy of established systemic therapies; novel inhibitors may affect clinical practice. In this study, the effect of manuka honey on S. pyogenes (M28) was investigated in vitro with planktonic and biofilm cultures using MIC, MBC, microscopy and aggregation efficiency. Bactericidal effects were found in both planktonic cultures and biofilms, although higher concentrations of manuka honey were needed to inhibit biofilms. Abrogation of adherence and intercellular aggregation was observed. Manuka honey permeated 24 h established biofilms of S. pyogenes, resulting in significant cell death and dissociation of cells from the biofilm. Sublethal concentrations of manuka honey effectively prevented the binding of S. pyogenes to the human tissue protein fibronectin, but did not inhibit binding to fibrinogen. The observed inhibition of fibronectin binding confirmed by a reduction in the expression of genes encoding two major fibronectin-binding streptococcal surface proteins, Sof and SfbI. These findings indicate that manuka honey has potential in the topical treatment of wounds containing S. pyogenes


    Med Sci Monit. 2010 Nov;16(11):CS138-42.

    Application of manuka honey and GENADYNE A4 negative pressure wound therapy system in a 55-year-old woman with extensive phlegmonous and necrotic lesions in the abdominal integuments and lumbar region after traumatic rupture of the colon.

    Rudzka-Nowak A, Łuczywek P, Gajos MJ, Piechota M.

    Department of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Therapy, Military Medical Academy University Hospital in Lodz, Lodz, Poland.



    Antibiotic resistance of bacteria is on the rise and thus, the discovery of alternative therapeutic agents is urgently needed. Honey possesses good therapeutic potential, including wound healing properties and antimicrobial activity.


    The authors report on the case of a 55-year-old woman with extensive phlegmonous and necrotic lesions of the abdominal integuments and the lumbar area following traumatic colonic rupture, treated with Manuka honey wound dressings and the GENADYNE A4 negative pressure wound healing system.


    The application of the Manuka honey and the GENADYNE A4 negative pressure wound healing system in treating phlegmonous lesions of the abdominal integuments after rupture of the colon brought good effects, ultimately enabling skin autografting on the wound site and complete wound healing.

    Mike Peraaho wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • YES! Thanks :-).

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  24. One day I got up with the infected throat and could not get a breath without coughing. It was that obvious feeling that somebody liked your environment down there. I sucked on two teaspoons of very conventional honey. It did magic: I was free from itching and discomfort in seconds.

    Marina wrote on February 9th, 2012
  25. I have started using Stevia extract as a sugar substitute in recipes and in coffee. It comes from the Stevia plant and its leaves have the sweet taste that is 1000 times sweeter than sugar -but no calories.
    What are your thoughts on Stevia?

    Mara wrote on February 9th, 2012
  26. I haven’t read all the comments. Someone may have posted this link already. If so, I apologize.

    If I remember correctly, this guy comes from West Africa, somewhere around the equator.

    Fred99 wrote on February 9th, 2012
  27. I don’t agree with you on this one. Sure, honey might be primal and paleo, but it sure is a pain in the ass with all that fructose – visceral fat, bad teeth and besides that stomach problems, candida and so on… aaand although it is not the same as sugar, being natural and unrefined it contains small amounts of micro nutrients. Yes, it is a natural sweetener but that is all the benefits stops. There is an entire folklore about the healing powers of honey and that is why many abuse it and many give it to children in high amounts. Not good.

    Alia wrote on February 10th, 2012
  28. I’m particularly impressed with honey’s ability to sterilize wounds and skin in general.


    Mark wrote on February 13th, 2012
  29. Remember to buy only raw, non-pasteurized honey. Otherwise, you’ll get only a different kind of sugar, and you’ll miss all the healthy compounds you can find in raw honey.

    Max wrote on February 14th, 2012

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