Stirring the Pot: Honey and Health


MIREILLE BLACKE, MA, RD, CD-N

Photo from www.aziatische-ingredienten.nl, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo from http://www.aziatische-ingredienten.nl, via Wikimedia Commons.

“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.” [A.A. Milne, ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ (1926)]

“Eat honey, my child, for it is good.” (Proverbs 24:13)

With all of the fall festivals and autumnal celebrations that occur at this time of year, I usually glory at the sight of copious pumpkin piles, the scent of apple cider, and the sound of vintage carnival rides whizzing through the chilled air. In addition to those staples, I have happily observed that honey, in its various jars and other configurations, has been in attendance at many of these events too.

There were many years before I became a Registered Dietitian (RD), where my “honey IQ” was less than impressive. A serendipitous trip to the Savannah Bee Company in Savannah, Georgia, opened my eyes and mind to that. Goodbye plastic honey bear, hello artisanal honey and honey varietals! The honey varietal (color and flavor) spectrum ranges from light and mild (such as acacia) to dark and bold (buckwheat, pumpkin blossom).

If you’ve ever watched bees in a hive, intensely guarding their queen and laboring diligently over the honeycomb, several things become obvious. The honey-making process from floral nectar to shimmering elixir is an arduous one, where the efforts of one bee’s life results in a mere one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Teamwork is clearly the status quo of the hive, and honey is only one precious result.

Honey in Istanbul. Photo by Ukiyoe, via Wikimedia Commons.

Honey in Istanbul. Photo by Ukiyoe, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are over 300 honey varietals in the United States. In addition, honey may be classified as crystallized, granulated, candied, pasteurized, raw, strained, filtered, ultra-sonicated, creamed, dried, comb, and chunk. To make matters murkier, you have the terms raw, real, unprocessed, unfiltered, uncooked, unheated, unpasteurized, and organic honey being compared to the “plastic honeybear” type when they are actually two very different foods. Head spinning yet?

Let’s clarify a bit.

There is no official definition of raw honey; it just pertains to honey that has not been heated, filtered, or processed. Raw honey is considered “more nutritious” because high-heat processing and straining removes bee pollen and enzymes in order to provide a clearer and more liquid consistency seemingly preferred by most consumers. Because the bees’ byproducts are linked to the trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in honey, they may be worth retaining in the raw option.

Often, consumers are overwhelmed with options. When it comes to personal preference of honey color, flavor, and consistency, the growing options of artisanal honey and honey varietals become both tantalizing and confusing. Nutritionally speaking, assuming moderation (as is recommended with sugar in general), raw and unfiltered honey from a single flower source is your best bet.

Photo by George Shuklin, via WIkimedia Commons.

Photo by George Shuklin, via WIkimedia Commons.

Compared to nutrient powerhouses such as blueberries and tomatoes, honey offers relatively negligible nutritional benefits. However, due to its role as a sweetener, flavor enhancer, and emulsifier (binder and thickener), honey can impact overall nutrition and diet as a whole. In cooking and baking, honey is known for its humectant and antimicrobial properties, adding moisture and freshness to baked goods and helping to prevent food spoilage. Because honey is sweeter to the taste than granulated sugar, you can use less of it.

One tablespoon (21 g) of honey provides 64 calories, 17 g of sugar, 1 mg of sodium, and no protein, cholesterol, fiber, or saturated or trans fats. Honey consists mainly of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose, sugars (carbohydrates) that create sweetness. Despite claims to the contrary, honey provides only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and tiny amounts of antioxidants. The exact nutrient composition of honey depends on the flowers available to bees that produce it.

Honey at the Texas State Fair. Photo by Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

Honey at the Texas State Fair. Photo by Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):

  1. Honey is mostly sugar (carbohydrate), and its sweetness is derived from the monosaccharides fructose and glucose, with sweetness level comparable to that of granulated sugar. Commercial brands of honey (the plastic honeybears) are pasteurized and blended for uniformity of taste and texture. But from the flavor and health aspects, stick to raw and unfiltered honey from a single flower source.

  2. Honey should not be given to infants under one year of age, due to the possible presence of Clostridium botulinum spores, which may lead to infant botulism. Babies under one year of age lack the gastrointestinal tract development to protect against such a threat.

  3. Crystallized or solid honey is still “good.” The honey jar can be placed in warm water until the crystals are dissolved, or the honey can be eaten in crystallized form as well. Crystallization does not change the nutritional value of honey.

  4. Because honey primarily consists of simple sugars, for people with diabetes, it should be used sparingly or not at all.

  5. Honey is strongly hygroscopic (it absorbs moisture from the air) and this characteristic is important in processing and storage. A shelf life of two years is common for airtight containers of honey stored at room temperature. If there is any question about the processing, packaging, or storage of your honey, toss it out. Safety first!

Don’t let your “honey IQ” suffer from too much (and often conflicting) information. Myths and anecdotal evidence about honey as a miracle food frequently emerge in magazines and online without corresponding scientific support or unbiased research. Wide-ranging opinions also exist among registered dietitians (RDs) and nutritionists regarding sugar and sugar alternatives. My viewpoint on the topic is one of moderation: if your diet is balanced, and your blood sugar is stable, moderate amounts of sugar are nutritionally acceptable and that goes for sugar substitutes, including honey.

Just try to avoid the plastic honeybears.

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