Honey is one of our oldest medicinal substances. Far from being a mere natural—and delicious—sweetener, honey has been prized for its usefulness as a folk remedy for thousands of years. It has been used traditionally to aid in the healing of everything from open wounds to sore throats. 

In recent years, scientists have discovered that honey possesses some legitimately intriguing properties. Proteins secreted by honeybees, for instance, are intermingled with the flower nectar bees use to produce honey, and science has recently discovered that one of these proteins, called “bee defensin-1” has significant antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

Depending on the flowers visited during nectar gathering, honey may also contain a broad mix of plant chemicals, collectively called phytochemicals, including antioxidants, flavonoids, and phenolics. Some of these complex compounds are also believed to play a role in the potential health benefits of honey.

But What About Honey for Allergies?

Some people have suggested that honey consumption may be linked to a reduced risk of allergies, especially when the honey comes from local bees, which presumably visit many of the plants involved in provoking a local allergy sufferer’s symptoms. According to this popular belief, exposure to local honey works somewhat like a vaccine against local allergens by exposing people to the pollen that ordinarily causes an allergic response.

Perhaps a better comparison would be desensitization therapy; an established allergy treatment in which patients are routinely exposed to extremely diluted (but escalating) doses of offending allergens. This long-term therapy, designed to reduce a patient’s allergic responses to given allergens, relies on gradually familiarizing the patient’s immune system with the offending proteins, in the hope that the immune system will eventually stop overreacting to its presence. In some—but not all—cases, it works.

Inconclusive Scientific Evidence

The notion of using honey as an allergy remedy, while attractive, has not been definitively proven effective. Despite widespread belief that consuming locally produced honey confers protection against allergies to local allergens, little scientific evidence supports the practice.

For instance, in 2002, researchers at the University of Connecticut put this theory to the test. They recruited 36 volunteers who suffered from “allergic rhinoconjunctivitis,” a medical term for seasonal nasal allergies characterized by red, itchy, watery eyes and nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Subjects were divided into three groups. One group received raw, unfiltered, unadulterated, locally sourced honey. A second group received nationally collected, pasteurized, and filtered honey. A third was given corn syrup with artificial flavoring to make it taste like honey. For ten days, all participants consumed one tablespoon of honey (or placebo) and tracked their allergy symptoms, taking medications to control symptoms, as needed. Subjects did not know which substance they were taking. Ultimately, there were no significant differences among the groups in allergy symptoms. Investigators concluded that people who ate local honey experienced no reduction in their allergy symptoms, compared to people who ate inactive corn syrup.

On the other hand, Finnish researchers conducted a study recently in which patients with a known allergy to birch pollen consumed honey with added birch pollen, or ordinary honey, for about five months, before the start of pollen season. Patients who had taken the doctored honey reported 60 percent lower total symptoms scores than patients who did not receive the pollen-laced honey. Investigators concluded that the pollen-rich honey had helped reduce patients’ allergic symptoms. Unfortunately, taking honey with added pollen is not the same as taking local honey for the control of allergy symptoms, so it remains unclear what role, if any, honey may play in allergy relief.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that honey deserves a place in the medical arsenal, and certainly in our kitchens, even though it does not appear to play a significant role in easing the symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis. Honey contains a complex mixture of chemicals that collectively work to destroy a variety of germs capable of causing infection.

Please note that infants under one year of age should never be given honey, due to the risk of a rare but potentially fatal form of food poisoning caused by spores of the clostridium botulinum bacterium. When swallowed, spores in honey may begin to grow in the intestinal tracts of such young infants, where they can release a potentially deadly toxin. After one year of age, giving honey is considered safe.