You might not give too much thought to how your food is processed. But when it comes to honey, this small and seemingly insignificant detail is paramount. What happens to this sweet superfood between the beehive and the jar makes a world of difference to its nutritional benefits.
If you don’t know how the honey you buy is prepared, you could potentially be missing out on the myriad health advantages this superfood provides.
What’s the healthiest type of honey?
“Pure'' seems like a pretty good descriptor to see on a honey label. After all, who wants to buy honey that’s been tainted or contaminated? But, honey labels can be confusing and this tag might not mean what you think. Seeing “pure” on a label only means that the substance inside is 100% honey, free from added corn syrups or sugars. It doesn’t mean that it’s unadulterated.
Instead, to get the full nutritional benefit from your honey, look for the term “raw” on its label. Raw honey is about as close to pristine and unadulterated as you can get. Except for some straining, raw honey is what the bees eat themselves. Not only does this method keep the honey’s flavour profile intact, it also preserves its nutritional value.
Why is raw honey so good for you?
Honey might seem like it’s pure sugar, but it’s actually full of tiny compounds that pack a big punch healthwise. Honey contains polyphenols, which are a type of phytonutrient found in plants, as well as vitamin C, vitamin E, and the antioxidant enzymes catalase and peroxidase.
Don’t worry, there’s no test on this later. All you have to know is that these potent substances function as antioxidants. That means that they protect your cells against free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging. With its high antioxidant content, each teaspoon of honey packs a wallop of health, not just sweetness.
Is honey good for you?
Honey has been used for millennia for its healing powers and therapeutic benefits. More recently, modern science has jumped in, helping to establish it as a superfood. Here are just some of the ways nature’s ambrosia benefits your health.
How honey affects heart health
High sugar diets are linked to heart disease and inflammation. Honey, it seems, doesn’t come with the same risks, however. Unlike its refined and granulated friend, honey contains flavonoids, an additional antioxidant compound that has a protective effect on your heart.
For starters, flavonoid-containing foods like honey actually improve your blood vessel dilation, so blood can flow through them more easily. They also thin your blood so clots don’t become an issue. Additionally, these compounds help to stop cholesterol in your blood from oxidizing and forming plaque build-ups inside your arteries.
But honey’s heart health contributions don’t end there. Studies on rats show that honey provided protection against more extensive injury to the heart of rats that were given heart attack-inducing medication.
While scientists would never receive approval for that type of experiment in humans, honey’s cardioprotective benefits are well-documented. That makes it a good addition to a heart-healthy diet.
How honey helps you sleep
It’s hard to believe that a teaspoon of honey helps you sleep better, but that’s exactly what the research shows. One of the ways it likely does this is by stabilizing your blood sugar. If you’ve ever woken up with that sick hungry feeling in the middle of the night, odds are it’s because your blood sugar levels are low.
Honey helps to counteract this by keeping your blood sugar stable. This stops your glucose levels from crashing which means your brain never gets those hunger signals, and you’re more likely to stay asleep.
Beyond that, honey also contains a number of amino acids, some of which your body converts into tryptophan. If that word looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same stuff that famously causes you to get sleepy after your thanksgiving turkey dinner.
But tryptophan isn’t just good for sleep. It’s a precursor for melatonin which helps you sleep, and for serotonin, which is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter. So not only can honey help you drift off, it may also play a role in lowering your anxiety, helping you avoid those nighttime worries.
If you’re looking to test this theory out and happen to be in Saskatoon, the University of Saskatchewan is recruiting participants for a study on this right now. Preliminary results from a previous one show that honey works even better than melatonin for promoting sleep. As a bonus, honey is free of side-effects too.
Is honey good for diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that centres on your body’s inability to process glucose — or sugar — properly. So it’s surprising to think that honey could be in any way beneficial for this condition. But honey isn’t just any old sweetener.
Despite being sweet, honey is low on the glycemic index (GI) so it won’t spike your blood sugar. Low GI foods are digested and absorbed more slowly, keeping blood sugar levels steady. This makes honey a great alternative to sugar for anyone watching their blood sugar — or trying to eat more healthfully.
Beyond being a great sugar substitute, however, research shows that honey can actually help diabetic individuals manage their blood glucose levels.
When you have type 2 diabetes, your cells have increased insulin resistance, which means they don’t respond properly to insulin. This stops them from fully taking up the glucose in your blood which is why you have to watch your sugar intake with the disease.
Honey can counteract this. Ingesting honey actually increases your cells’ sensitivity to insulin. This, in turn, leads to better management of your blood sugar without overworking your pancreas.
Honey may also be beneficial for type 1 diabetes. In this version of the disease, your pancreas either makes very little, or no insulin at all. Consuming honey, however, may help coax the diseased beta cells in the pancreas of a person with type 1 diabetes into producing insulin.
Not only that, but honey may also be able to help reverse some of the consequences of poorly-managed diabetes. In one study, rats given both insulin and honey saw more of an improvement in their diabetes-induced nerve damage than those that were given insulin alone.
This promising research suggests that despite its sweetness, honey could have a role to play in diabetes management.
How honey affects the microbiome
As surprising as it sounds, when you eat a spoonful of honey, you’re not just feeding yourself. Each person contains a microbiome — a collection of bacteria and other microbes that call your body home. Like breast milk, honey contains prebiotics, meaning that it also nourishes beneficial bacteria in your gut.
These prebiotics — a type of carbohydrate chain called oligosaccharides — function as food for healthy bacteria like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Combine these with honey’s natural antimicrobial properties, and you have a mixture that’s perfectly designed to balance your internal microbiome.
This doesn’t just result in better digestion. A healthy gut flora also comes with a host of additional benefits. That puts honey in a position to contribute to boosting your mood, strengthening your immune system, and reducing disease-causing inflammation.
Is honey good for a sore throat?
Probably one of its best known attributes, honey is great at soothing your sore throat. And, if you prefer a teaspoon of honey over cough syrup, you’re right to do so. Studies show that honey is as effective as, or better at treating your cough than over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines.
While this is great news for adults, it’s especially beneficial for kids. OTC cough medications for children don’t work that well and can have a number of side-effects.
A word of caution though — honey should never be given to children under the age of one. Honey sometimes contains clostridium botulinum, a type of bacteria found in soil. While harmless to adults, this substance is toxic for infants and babies under 12 months.
How honey can help your hangover
With the holidays coming up, it’s worth noting that honey isn’t just for colds and preventative health. It also does wonders for hangovers.
Part of the reason you feel so crummy after drinking is that alcohol causes a spike in blood glucose, predictably followed by a big crash. That’s where honey’s blood sugar stabilizing effects come in. Ingesting a little honey can help pump up your blood sugar and keep it in a stable place, helping to ease some of that hangover pain.
Not only that, but honey can actually help you eliminate alcohol from your system more quickly. While it won’t cure your hangover completely, a teaspoon of honey can help to rid your body of some of that leftover alcohol that’s causing you to feel so bad. So don't forget the jar of honey on your shelf the morning after a big night out — it might help provide some relief.
The final word on honey vs. sugar
Most adults are clear that sweet things aren’t healthy, so the idea that honey can be good for you might take some getting used to. But honey isn’t like other sweeteners. Its unique polyphenol and antioxidant content creates benefits beyond your taste buds.
Sugar, on the other hand, is associated with everything from heart disease to tooth decay. The good news is that you can use honey anywhere you’d use sugar. From baked goods to sauces and salad dressings, honey is a great stand-in for the granulated sweetener. It actually rates as sweeter than sugar, which means you can also use less than you would normally if you’re substituting for it in your favourite recipes.
So the next time you’re looking to add a hit of sweetness, reach for that golden jar on your shelf instead and give thanks to those little pollinators for the superfood they’ve created.
How to substitute honey for sugar
Honey is sweeter than sugar, which means you get the same results with less. Use our guide below to experiment with your favourite recipes.