The Science of Honey: Is It Good for You?

King Solomon exhorted us to eat honey. But does it actually have any nutritional value, even if it's all 'natural'? And is it useful to smear it on wounds?

Honey
Some honey is made from bees collecting natural pollen and nectar from flowers. Other honeys have "alternative" origins. Daniel Tchetchik

"My son, eat thou honey, because it is good," King Solomon coos in Proverbs 24:13, usefully qualifying that: "If you find honey, eat just enough-- too much of it, and you will vomit" (Proverbs 25:16). Words to live by even 3,000 years later, and yes, to most palates, honey is good, but is it good for our bodies?

"Honey isn't almost entirely sugar, it's entirely sugar," says Mariana Urbach, chief dietitian at Clalit Health Services, shrugging at the trace amounts of good things that may be present. "Honey is not a source of vitamins and minerals," she rules. Period.

Honey may also contain tiny amounts of antioxidants but we average Janes and Joes can barely figure out if the honey we're buying is "genuine," let alone whether it has antioxidants, she points out.

Which begs the question, what are we buying?

Pure as the driven artificial snow

Towards Rosh Hashana, Israeli shops offer a vast range of honeys. The claims on the jars can be pretty extravagant and most make Urbach itch.

"Buying a jar of honey has become an art form. You don’t know what's in there," she says, and shoots down one of the most popular words on contemporary honey jars: "pure."  Another buzzword the manufacturers adore, because shoppers do, is "natural."

The snag is, neither word means a damn thing because neither term is defined in Israeli consumer law. But "pure" or "natural" on a jar looks better than "all we can say is a bee made this".

The Israeli law applicable to honey manufacture is the Honey Order-1977, though a bill is in the works to regulate the "natural honey" industry. Neither the order or the bill define what "natural" or "pure" mean.

Urbach tries to help. Pure honey, she says, is supposed to mean that the bees collected pollen and nectar from flowers in nature, as opposed to stuffing themselves on sugar syrup supplied by corner-cutting beekeepers.

Mariana Urbach, head dietitian at Clalit Health Services.
Clalit Health Services

Indeed, the Agriculture MInistry tells Haaretz that the bill will ban beekeepers from feeding their insects on sugar syrup, so the result will be "real honey created by bees from collecting nectar from plants".

It would be nice to be able to buy pure honey because it does have more elements from nature, including trace vitamins and minerals collected from the flower, than honey originating in sugar syrup (which is a convenient shortcut for farmers), she adds.  Also, "pure" honey isn't supposed to be augmented with all sorts of other substances.

Ditto "natural" honey – it isn't supposed to be flavored sugar syrup but that's about the limitation to constraints.

So, does a given jar contain "natural" or "pure" honey? Maybe. Go prove it does or doesn't. Your chances are probably better with the big companies, Urbach surmises. Even then, your "pure" honey may have undergone treatments. And if you heat it, for instance putting honey into tea, you're ruining many natural elements anyway. But here's one useful tip to distinguishing between doctored and relatively natural honey: the pouring test.

If it's winter and you can pour it…

Most of us think of honey as viscous brown liquid. But real honey that hasn't been monkeyed with tends to solidify, says Urbach

If it's liquid at room temperature, especially in the cool of autumn (which is when Rosh Hashana is), either it isn't "real" honey or it's undergone heating, says Urbach.

This bee wants to eat plum flower pollen
AP

Let's do a logic experiment. If it's winter and you see a jar of "natural" honey from citrus flowers, and the honey is liquid – what can we conclude? Citrus flowers in the spring, says Urbach. If the honey is from citrus, by winter, it should be solid. If the honey in the jar is liquid, it was heated, says Urbach. "The fact that the jar says natural doesn't commit the manufacturers to anything," she hammers home the point.

But she cringes at allegations about "fake" honey – the one is sugar, the other is sugar. "There's no great difference. I prefer to call them alternatively manufactured," she smiles.

The good, the bad and the organoleptic

The forms of sugar in honey are fructose and glucose, in varying amounts. Nobody has ever scientifically proven that the sugar in honey is better for humans than the sugar in frosted flakes, and if anything, some people are sensitive to fructose, developing symptoms from tummy ache to loose bowels.

Pediatricians counsel against feeding honey to babies less because of the gratuitous sugar blitz and more because of the possibility that dangerous bacteria, such as Clostridium botulinum, could be present, against which infants have no defense.

Is there no upside to honey, beyond possible antioxidant contributions, the odd trace vitamin or mineral and that lovely taste, albeit with the wise king's exhortation in mind, not to overdo it?

Let's start with a study on rats that investigated whether honey, sucrose, and mixed sugars (as in honey) differed in their effect on weight gain. They did. "Overall percentage weight gain was significantly lower in honey-fed rats than those fed sucrose or mixed sugars, despite a similar food intake," concluded the 2007 paper.

Also, many extol the virtues of honey to relieve coughing and many also feel its organoleptic properties – chiefly its scent – is healing. Sniffing honey can't hurt (don't inhale…).

And though there is no definitive proof that honey has antibiotic properties in the body like, say, penicillin (though it has demonstrated some properties in the lab), it has been used to dress wounds for thousands of years, with some efficacy.

That seems to be chiefly because honey, being concentrated, draws the water out of the bacteria, dehydrating them. But "medical honey" produced from manuka has been shown to have some antibacterial properties in the lab even when diluted with water, so the healing isn't only about dehydrating the germs. That said, science has not figured out what these healthful properties are, let alone whether they work on people, as opposed to germs in a petri dish. So if you have a bacterial infection and eat manuka (a honey made in Australia and New Zealand from tea tree flowers), don't expect it to help.

Drying out the bugs aside, honey also makes the environment of the wound more acid, which can hamper bacterial reproduction – but researchers do beg to stress that different honeys can behave very differently.

Happily, no honey-resistant mutant strains of bacteria have been found, at least yet.

Honey has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which helps reduce pain when changing wound bandages, for instance. How honey achieves that is not clear.

And for Jews, over millennia, honey has symbolized this most important of holidays, the new year, which in modern times we have chosen to usher in by eating apple or bread dipped in honey, reminding us that life can be sweet as sugar.  Which is, basically, what honey is anyway.