What's so great about honey?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 08 Aug, 2021

Medicinal, antibacterial, anti-fungal, protects against cancer, healing properties – these are just some of the proposed health benefits of honey. So, which are true, and which are unproven? Is it worth forking out for an expensive honey? Let's discuss!

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How is honey made?

Firstly, it's important to consider how honey is produced. We all know that honeybees make honey, but do you know exactly how? Warning! Slightly disturbing content coming up.

Forager bees collect nectar from flowers and store it in a specially designed 'honey stomach'. Back at the hive, they then regurgitate the nectar for other bees at the hive. The hive bees repeat this process of storage and regurgitation, during which time special enzymes start working to break the nectar down, forming a simple sugar.

Once this process is complete, the honey is spread over the honeycomb to thicken. The clever bees use a combination of their body heat and the fanning action from their wings to keep the honey at just the right temperature, so when it is harvested by beekeepers, it has a perfect consistency. Fascinating stuff!

Health benefits

In the case of honey – most of the good things you hear about it are true! Honey really does possess an array of health benefits.

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Honey's antibacterial properties – it's true that honey possesses significant antibacterial properties. This is because the enzymes it contains – courtesy of the bees – produce hydrogen peroxide, which has long been known to kill bacteria. However, research suggests that other properties in the honey play a role in its antibacterial effects too, as even honey varieties which do not contain hydrogen peroxide are antibacterial. So, all in all, honey is a winner in the antibacterial game.

Honey and wound healing – thanks to its antibacterial properties and its consistency, applying honey direct to wounds such as ulcers may speed up the healing process. It was used thousands of years ago for this purpose, but in recent years honey has re-established itself as a healing agent in modern medicine.

Honey and coughs – I'm sure we've all heard that drinking hot water with honey can soothe a tickly throat, but just how effective is this? Various studies have shown that honey can be just as effective, if not more effective, than regular cough syrups in reducing coughing at night. It's not entirely sure what exactly it is about honey that has this effect, but it's thought to be a combination of its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Honey and cancer – There's strong evidence that honey has anti-inflammatory properties and can boost our immunity, which leads us to believe it may positively affect cancer prevention. There has been some scientific evidence to support the anticancer effect of honey; however, more studies are needed to establish the exact mechanism of action.

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Different kinds of honey

The type of honey you buy is particularly important when it comes to the positive health effects. The main thing to look out for is that the honey is 'raw'. This means it hasn't been heated, a process that causes essential enzymes to stop working.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, and this is true for honey too. The more expensive types, such as raw Manuka honey, are worth forking out for if you want to experience the antibacterial properties. Some of the less expensive supermarket brands are likely to have been refined and pasteurised, meaning most of the benefits will have been lost – but that's not to say it won't still taste nice!

Still a simple sugar

One final note – although certain kinds of honey have positive health effects, they are still classed as 'free sugars' and so shouldn't be consumed in abundance. Recently updated guidelines from the Department of Health recommend that 'no more than 5% of total dietary energy come from free sugars'. The guidelines then go on to define free sugars as, 'all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices'.

So based on this guidance, although there are some properties of honey that may be good for our health, it should still be consumed in moderation in the same way as any other sugar. And don't forget, the calories in honey are the same as any other sugar, so be sure you add it to your food diary.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.