Holistic/Integrative Nutrition

Honey’s Holistic Benefits

Honey, with all of its natural golden goodness, has acquired a health halo as a sweetener—and as a folklore remedy for various health conditions. But are any of the sweet tales true? Today’s Dietitian (TD) looks into whether there’s any validity to the claims that honey is a natural therapeutic agent. 

Can honey be a useful antibacterial?
Yes. While it’s likely overpromising to say that honey will become as important as antibiotics, in this time of growing antibiotic resistance, honey could become an essential antibacterial. Several studies on honey as an antibacterial are ongoing. In a recent study in Poland, some of the 144 different honey samples tested exhibited surprisingly high antimicrobial effects, especially against staphylococcal bacteria, and may one day be used as an agent against such infections. Nevertheless, people shouldn’t rely on honey to preserve food.

Does honey contain antioxidants?
Yes. Because honey is evaporated flower nectar, often from a mixture of different flowers, it starts out as phytochemical-containing plant matter. Honey contains hundreds of unique substances including amino acids, flavonoids, and antioxidant phenolic acids. “Darker honeys are usually higher in antioxidants,” says David Grotto, MS, RDN, LDN, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. Darker honeys also have higher protein contents in their nectars, reports author Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Examples of darker honeys with higher antioxidant content include buckwheat, chestnut, and manuka honeys.

Honeys contain varying amounts of antioxidants. In fact, honey producers claim that raw honey contains more of the original antioxidants and beneficial enzymes. The jury is still out on whether and how many beneficial components of raw honey are lost in regular heat processing; however, researchers have shown that heating degrades some beneficial compounds. Thus, some honey harvesters, such as Wedderspoon Manuka honey, have committed to selling only raw and unpasteurized honey. That said, researchers have found pasteurized honey still contains antioxidants.

Can honey help with wound healing?
Smearing antibacterial honey on wounds historically has been a common practice. In one case study, researchers at Children’s Hospital Medical Center at the University of Bonn in Germany used a special type of honey for wound care for three years. Grotto recounts how that research showed significant reductions in even the most resistant wound infections as a result of using it.  

Can honey cure allergies?
The National Honey Board states that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to show that honey can cure seasonal allergies. However, we’ve heard anecdotal stories from people extolling the virtues of eating local honey to introduce small amounts of allergenic pollen into their bodies. We still have much to learn about the gut microbiome and its link to immunity. One researcher speculates that perhaps the enzymes or natural prebiotics in honey may bolster the immune system or benefit probiotics, which, in turn, strengthen the immune system.

And finally, because clients ask: Is honey really ‘bee throw-up’?
Not really. According to McGee in On Food and Cooking, worker bees gather and hold fresh nectar in their honey sacs, which is at the bottom of an esophaguslike tube but isn’t connected to bees’ digestive systems. As the bees travel back to the hive, enzymes in the honey sac begin to break down starches into smaller chains of sugar. Once the nectar is deposited in the hive, bees work to evaporate the water in the nectar until it’s less than 20% water. (This is why honey is shelf stable for years.) “House bees” do this by pumping the nectar in and out of themselves repeatedly (much like blowing a bubble with bubble gum) and then fanning it with their wings. The progression of converting the nectar into honey takes about three weeks. The process involves further enzymatic activity, making honey antimicrobial and ripening the flavor.

Thus, the conversion of nectar to honey is due mainly to bee wing fanning and enzymes, not bee “regurgitation.”

For more information, refer to “Alternative Natural Sweeteners” in the January 2015 issue of TD. To find local honey sources, visit the National Honey Board Honey Locator.

— Serena Ball, MS, RD, is a food writer and blogger at TeaspoonOfSpice.com, where she shares healthful kitchen hacks and recipes. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and @BakeMoreBread on Instagram.

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