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. “Entire colonies of honey bees thrive on the stuff. It’s food by any definition.”

    Somehow I think ants would also live just fine on plain table sugar.. I suppose by this definition, that’s also food.

    ben wrote on February 17th, 2012
  2. What is sold as honey is not always real honey! My beekeeper friend sent me this. The article lists the brands that were real honey, and not contaminated.

    According to this Food Safety News article most large brands of honey have been illegally “ultra filtrated” removing the pollen and making it impossible to determine the origin. This process is used to hide adulterated honey from China.

    The Chinese honey is contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics which are dangerous and can even be fatal. Chinese honey is also often diluted with high fructose corn syrup and thirteen other illegal sweeteners.

    Here’s the article:

    bonny wrote on February 17th, 2012
  3. If you need your coffee or tea, and you cant do without sugar in both, then honey would be a great substitute to sugar.

    storm wrote on February 19th, 2012
  4. my friend lets his 11 year old son swallow spoonfulls of honey as a snack because it is “good for the heart”. He is a lean and mean kid, probably 4 or 6% body fat. What would you say to the parent?

    Anne J wrote on February 21st, 2012
  5. Honey is sugar, plain and simple. Best avoid eating too much sugar if possible!

    Ben wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  6. Honey is sugar plain and simple. Best to avoid too much of it!

    Ben wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  7. HI All, Havent read all the posts but have something that may be of interest, My wife works in a foods shop over hear in England and they sell New Zealand produced Manuka Honey, if you google Manuka honey you’ll get lots of hype about antibiotic properties, I was a scientific sceptic at first but she brought some home one day. Now I’m hooked, it has activity levels of the antibiotic nature the higher the level the better, I have used it to sweeten Nettle Tea, one teaspoon per drink and I feel so much better, gut health is improved, less Winter Illness (which I used to loose upto 12 lbs every December) and tastes good too, winner all round, can be used for all the normal honey uses and on burns, cuts grazes like an ointment. may be worth you checking it out. Ross

    RY wrote on February 28th, 2012
  8. I read that people with seasonal allergies could consume local honey with the same pollens as their allergy to help lessen the effects of the allergy.

    Has anyone tried this or know how to do this?

    Michelle wrote on March 10th, 2012
  9. My mum who is a nutritionist has always told me that the active enzymes in honey are destroyed above 60 degrees C, so if you put it in hot tea, you get just sweetness and flavour. Better to eat it off the spoon for health benefits.

    I used to live in New Zealand and there people use manuka honey, honey derived from the plant known as “tea tree” outside NZ, for everything from toast to major wound care. It tastes amazing, and has even more amazing health benefits, from antiviral to antifungal and everything in between. I hear it kills cancer cells in the petri dish. Science isn’t even sure why or how. Anyway, it also tastes great, I heartily recommend it!

    Karin wrote on March 18th, 2012
  10. the honey we eat must be raw and unheated!regullar honey is just sugar…no nutrients…please! emphasis must be placed on quality of foods!!!

    Paula wrote on April 20th, 2012
  11. I put honey in my coffee as a hang-over remedy. Days when I also feel down and feel a lack of energy I put honey in my coffee.

    Rodney wrote on May 20th, 2012
  12. Try and buy honey that is crystalized or crystalizes quickly(dont get confused with creamed). The more crystals the higher the ratio of glucose to fructose. Some honeys can be quite high in fructose more than 60%.

    graeme wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  13. Damn, you take a long time to answer a simple question! That said, I enjoy your site, blog, whatever it is.

    Clay wrote on July 4th, 2012
  14. Haven’t had time to slog through all the replies but I would have though raw honey, in the comb, would have been quite a treat for primal man. All he would have to do is dip his hands into a hole in a tree and pull it out, if the bees didn’t object too strongly. Straight from the comb it is as unprocessed and pure as Nature intended, which is what ‘primal’ is, isn’t it? Manuka honey is lovely, the higher the active ingredients, the darker the colour and the stronger the taste and it does wonders for the skin. I definitely would consider honey primal.

    Jilly wrote on July 28th, 2012
  15. This article isn’t that new and I don’t feel like going through the comments to see if anyone has mentioned this or not, nor do I have actual evidence, but it’s interesting to note that my mother’s dietician from the hospital said that studies had shown that honey, despite the high fructose content, did not spike your blood sugar the way other sugars do. Apparently it’s ok for diabetics to have a very small amount, and it’s considered a superfood. I noticed when I was going off sugar that while even a piece of fruit would ramp up my sugar cravings, honey did not. I still limit myself to a very small amount a day though, and eat less and less sweet stuff. Not primal yet, but might inch towards it.

    WIl wrote on August 5th, 2012

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