Humans have been using honey as a sweetener for over 5,000 years. Throughout history, many cultures have also used it as a natural remedy—to treat wounds, ease coughs, and more. While there are many studies looking into a variety of medicinal uses for honey, few offer any sign of efficacy in humans, and honey is not included in any authoritative evidence-based treatment guidelines. A closer look at honey and its components can help us understand why.
Honey Basics: “To make honey, foraging honeybees collect nectar from flowers and bring it back to the hive, where it gets ‘spit out’ into a cell of the honeycomb,” says Rachael E. Bonoan, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher for Tufts University and Washington State University. “Once there is enough nectar in the wax cell, the bees dehydrate it by fanning their wings.”
Honey that comes straight from the honeycomb or is only filtered to remove debris is called “raw” honey. Most honey sold in stores is minimally processed for safety and quality purposes: After filtering it is pasteurized (exposed to high heat) to kill bacteria and yeast cells. Pasteurization also extends the time honey remains liquid before it crystalizes.
Though the exact chemical composition of honey varies depending on the location and type of flowers from which the bees gather the nectar, honey contains a diversity of nutrients, including sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and numerous polyphenols—antioxidant plant compounds. Unfortunately, honey—raw or pasteurized—does not have enough nutrients or other bioactive compounds to make a significant difference in health. “In order to get nutritionally-relevant amounts of these compounds, one would have to eat so much honey that the negative health effects from the sugars would far surpass any potential health benefits from the other nutrients,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, a professor at the Friedman School and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter.
Sweet Risks: Honey is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an added sugar. There is strong evidence that intake of added sugars is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, and it may increase risk for high blood pressure and stroke. The average American adult’s added sugar intake is 77 grams per day, far more than the 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (six teaspoons) for women recommended by the American Heart Association. “Cutting back on all added sugars is an important change to make for overall health,” says Lichtenstein.
Honey may contain spores that cause botulism, a serious paralytic illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves. Although adults don’t typically contract botulism from ingesting spores, infants can. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deem all honey, both raw and pasteurized, unsafe for infants under a year old.
Minimal Reward: Honey has been studied for antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, and for its potential role in treatment of diseases from diabetes to cancer. Unfortunately, few of these studies involved humans, and none prove effectiveness. “As with any sweetener dissolved in water, honey may be of some benefit in soothing a cough,” says Lichtenstein. Honey has also been looked at as a topical treatment for wounds and skin conditions, but it is not recommended for that use at this time. Honey does appear to have antioxidant properties, but fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods provide antioxidants as well.
Eating local raw honey has been touted as a way to help ease seasonal allergy symptoms. There is no research to confirm that eating honey will improve allergy symptoms. In fact, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the pollen in raw honey could cause a negative reaction in people suffering from severe pollen allergies.
Although honey has more nutrients than most other sweeteners, the vast majority of claims for its healthfulness are unvalidated or overstated. Enjoy this natural sweetener in limited amounts for the pure joy of its rich, sweet taste—but do not count on it to boost your health.