Have you heard of the term "nutritionism?"
It's the idea that foods are nothing more than the sum of their individual nutrients.
Nutritionism is a trap that many nutrition enthusiast and professionals tend to fall into, and I am guilty of it myself.
The fact is that real foods are way more than just the sum of their nutrients.
They contain various substances (some known, others still a mystery) that can affect health in ways that science has yet to uncover.
Fruits aren't just watery bags full of fructose, and nuts aren't just shells loaded with omega 6 fatty acids.
Even though fructose and omega 6 fatty acids have been linked to health issues when isolated, the real foods containing them can have a completely different effect.
Honey is considered unhealthy in many circles because it contains sugar, specifically fructose. But there is more to honey than can be dismissed with a wave of the hand and a mention of fructose.
Honey is a real food that has been accessible to humans throughout evolutionary history and can still be obtained in its natural form.
Honey bees swarm around their environment to collect nectar, which are sugar-rich liquids from plants.
Producing honey from the nectar takes place in the beehive. It is a group activity consisting of repeated consumption, digestion and regurgitation (expulsion from the digestive tract).
A few cycles of this ends with what we know as honey, but the composition and nutritional properties depend on the sources of the nectar, i.e. which flowers are in the vicinity of the beehive.
According to nutrition data, a typical batch of honey supplies:
- 82% sugar, by weight.
- Half of that sugar (40% of total weight) is fructose.
- Only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.
- Various antioxidants (1).
- Its relative glucose and fructose content can vary greatly and its glycemic index ranges from low to high.
There are certain factors that can be measured in the blood and are strong indicators of health and risk of disease in the future. Cholesterol, triglycerides and blood glucose are particularly important.
Diabetics have big problems with all of these.
In a randomized controlled trial of 48 diabetics, those fed honey for eight weeks lowered their body weight, triglycerides and total cholesterol while their HDL cholesterol increased.
However, HbA1c (a marker of blood glucose levels) also increased, which is bad (2).
Another study in healthy, diabetic and hyperlipidemic subjects revealed that (3):
- Honey raised blood sugar less than dextrose (glucose) and sucrose (glucose and fructose). It still did raise blood sugar, just not as much.
- Honey reduced C-Reactive Protein (CRP) — a marker of inflammation.
- Honey lowered LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides and raised HDL cholesterol.
- Honey also lowered Homocysteine, another blood marker associated with disease.
Unrefined honey contains an abundance of various antioxidants that can have major implications for health. Generally speaking, antioxidants in the diet are associated with improved health and lower risk of disease.
As I mentioned above, the composition of honey depends on the environment that the bees harvested in.
The antioxidant content of different types of honey can vary up to 20-fold. Generally speaking though, darker honeys like Buckwheat honey are better than the lighter varieties.
Should you eat honey? Well, that's for you to decide and as with most other questions in nutrition, it depends.
If you're healthy, active and don't need to lose weight, then having some honey is unlikely to do you any harm and seems to be a lot less bad for you than sugar.
However, people who are overweight, diabetic and struggle with their dietary load of fructose and carbs should probably avoid honey as much as possible.
When it comes to baking some occasional, healthy-ish treats, honey seems like an excellent alternative to replace sugar in recipes.