NECTAR OF THE GODS

The sticky truth about honey

From a metabolic point of view, honey is still sugar.

In Summary
  • The body will not treat it any differently to table sugar. If it is consumed to excess, metabolic disease will be the likely consequence.
  • If consumed in small quantities, the micronutrient composition is virtually negligible.

Many of us feel less guilty spreading our bread with honey, rather than sugar or jam. We believe that it is a safer, healthier alternative. But is honey really superior to table sugar as a sweet alternative?

For centuries, honey has been extolled as a ‘nectar of the gods’ a natural healer of all manner of afflictions. More recently, it has been awarded ‘superfood’ status. We’ve been told that honey is packed with a multitude of beneficial compounds and we spare no thought in spending hundreds of shillings for the best of the best.

When it comes to honey, it is important to make the distinction between its utility as a healing or health supplement, and its effects on the body from a metabolic perspective.

 
 

Honey has been used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years. In modern medicine, it is used as an alternative to antiseptics and gauze to heal wounds. This is based on its antibacterial properties which have been recognised for centuries. There is high-quality evidence that honey heals partial thickness burns more quickly than conventional dressings.

Honey’s therapeutic value has been said to be wide ranging, from treatment of eye diseases to anti-cancer effects, mainly due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, due to a lack of good quality evidence of its superiority over conventional treatments, the use of medicinal honey has not been adopted widely.

The internet is awash with anecdotal reports of users testifying to its utility in treating a variety of disorders. However, it is worth noting that in science, anecdotal reports are relegated to the bottom barrel when it comes to strength of evidence. For many of these claims, the evidence remains weak and inconclusive.

There are hundreds of different types of honey available, each with its own unique flavour, colour, texture or aroma, depending on the blossoms the bees feed on. This also impacts the quality of the honey, in terms of its supposed health benefits.

Therefore, substituting sugar for honey is not metabolically beneficial. If you are struggling with your weight or are diabetic, you should be significantly cutting down on all sugars, including honey – raw or pasteurised. The hallmark of Type 2 Diabetes is insulin resistance and it is abundantly clear that glucose-fructose combinations are major contributors.

Honey is often sweeter than table sugar, because it contains more fructose than glucose. These are simple carbohydrates. Fructose is many times sweeter than glucose. Table sugar (sucrose) contains equal parts of fructose and glucose.

Honey is mainly composed of sugar, in fact, 75% of honey is composed of a mixture of glucose and fructose. The remainder is water and a wide variety of organic acids – which contribute to the colour, flavour, antibacterial and antioxidant effects of honey. The water makes it sticky, unlike table sugar which is devoid of water. Table sugar contains none of these compounds and is 100% pure sucrose.

Nutrition databases list a variety of vitamins and minerals found in honey. In truth, the concentrations of these micro-nutrients are minimal from a practical point of view. When it comes to natural sweeteners, their micronutrient and antibacterial properties often overshadow the real issue – the high sugar content and the consequent metabolic effects. 

Honey, Agave and Maple Syrup do have traces of micronutrients. But if you consume a single serving, the traces of vitamins and minerals disappear to register zero contributions of virtually every micro-nutrient.

It is understandable that honey is believed to be more superior to table sugar. However, from a metabolic point of view, honey is still sugar. The body will not treat it any differently to table sugar. If honey is consumed to excess, metabolic disease will be the likely consequence. If consumed in small quantities, the micronutrient composition is virtually negligible.

 

Therefore, substituting sugar for honey is not metabolically beneficial. If you are struggling with your weight or are diabetic, you should be significantly cutting down on all sugars, including honey – raw or pasteurised. The hallmark of Type 2 Diabetes is insulin resistance and it is abundantly clear that glucose-fructose combinations are major contributors.

For everyone else, be mindful of the quantity of sugar in honey and consume it sensibly.

Consuming excess sugar, from any source, is harmful. However, it is ubiquitous in processed foods and can be very difficult to avoid. A common trick manufacturers use is to add sugar from multiple sources, such as maltodextrin, molasses or rice syrup. This is why I encourage my patients to read the nutrition labels, so as to make an informed decision on what they are actually consuming.

Until next time.

UK-based consultant physician and obesity management expert. www.insulean.co.uk/ [email protected]/ Facebook: Nyambura Mburu Svendsen, or @insuleanmedical