The product of some extremely determined and industrious insects, this golden, sweet, sticky wonder of nature is a staple in many kitchens. Given the severity of this country’s obesity and diabetes epidemics, most sweeteners have gotten a fair amount of negative press attention in recent years. In contrast, honey’s beneficial role in our culture has remained constant. In fact, its popularity appears to have increased.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about honey is the procession of events its production requires. One source claims that it takes more than 60,000 honeybees in a single beehive traveling some 55,000 miles and dipping into more than two million flowers to collect enough nectar for one single pound of honey.1 Honey differs greatly in both color and content, depending on the region of the country and types of flowers involved in its production.
Technically, honey is composed of glucose, fructose, and water.1 Honey produced in the United States has an average glycemic index rating in the low 70s, making it at least 10 points lower than refined white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.1
Honey also possesses a mild antioxidant capacity, with an oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) up to 17.00 (for comparison, the superfruit acai berry has an ORAC >100,000).1,2 This value tends to vary somewhat by geographic region, but the variation has not been found to be statistically significant.
Fresh from the hive, honey is free of microbial contamination of any kind.1 Because of this trait, it has been used for centuries to aid in food preservation. The perservative property is attributable to the fact that as some of honey’s simple sugars enzymatically degrade, they produce a low level of hydrogen peroxide along with its associated mild antibacterial effect.1
Medically, honey has been used for everything from wound healing to gingivitis treatment. Medical-grade honeys are filtered, gamma-irradiated, and produced under strict conditions. Especially in the area of wound healing, honey is rapidly becoming a standard ingredient in many commercially available dressings. The mechanism by which honey facilitates wound healing is directly related to its chemical and physical properties: When honey generates its own hydrogen peroxide, the mild antibacterial effect and bubbling/foaming action creates a sort of autolytic debridement that attacks necrotic debris.3 Honey also promotes wound healing by adjusting the pH in the wound bed to a mildly acidic 3.8-4.3 range, which discourages microbial growth.3 Thanks to its hyperosmolar nature, honey also acts to absorb and draw out moisture from the wound while maintaining a more homeostatically moist environment.3 These properties make honey ideal for treating diabetic foot ulcers, venous and arterial lower leg ulcers, pressure sores, first- and second-degree partial thickness burns, donor sites, and traumatic and surgical wounds.3 Considering the personal debilitation and immense economic cost of these types of wounds, honey’s arrival on the commercial scene is a welcome addition to our wound-care arsenal.
Researchers experimented with 60 rats that were inoculated with tumor cells into a wound.4 Half of the wounds were treated with honey; the other half were given a plain dry dressing. The findings of this seemingly simple trial were striking. Of the 30 honey-treated rats, only eight developed tumor growth, compared with all 30 of the control subjects.4 In cases of tumor resection—especially within the pneumoperitoneal cavity—tumor replantation is a serious concern. If successful irrigants and/or dressings of honey could preclude these adverse events, it would lead to tremendous improvement in postoperative recovery and long-term survival.
Even though the antioxidant capacity of honey is modest, food-chemistry researchers examined the effect of long-term honey consumption on plasma antioxidant content.5 Forty healthy subjects were randomized to either a low ORAC-value honey or a higher ORAC-value brand. For four weeks participants consumed 1.5 g/kg of body weight in honey daily, averaging four tablespoons per person. At the end of the trial, the antioxidant levels in the plasma of the higher-grade honey consumers were notably increased over the other group.5 Though not large enough to lend true practice evidence, these results raise the possibility that honey’s antioxidant benefits accumulate with use.
Finally, honey is known to enhance growth and acid production of human Bifidobacterium in the gut.6
There are no known drug or other interactions associated with honey. Since honey is a direct product of a number of floral species, anyone with an atopic history (especially to pollens) should use this product with caution. Also, consumption of raw (unpasteurized) honey by infants is not recommended due to their immature immune systems.
It is not often that health-care providers can recommend a product so readily available, palatable, and inexpensive that can have this level of impact on health. Especially for type 2 diabetics and others concerned with refined sugar intake, substitution with honey is clinically appropriate. A number of cookbooks and factsheets are available to explain the multitude of ways honey can be used in food preparation.
- National Honey Board. What is honey?
- Gheldof N, Wang XH, Engeseth NJ. Identification and quantification of antioxidant components of honeys from various floral sources. J Agric Food Chem. 2002;50:5870-5877.
- Wolfensor B. Derma Sciences OTC APIMED, Medihoney Primary and Medihoney 100% Honey Dressings with Active Manuka Honey. June 9, 2008.
- Hamzaoglu I, Saribeyoglu K, Durak H, et al. Protective covering of surgical wounds with honey impedes tumor implantation. Arch Surg. 2000;135:1414-1417.
- Gross H. Effect of honey consumption on plasma antioxidant status in human subjects. Abstract presented at the American Chemical Society, March 29, 2004.
- Honey can enhance the growth and acid production of human Bifidobacterium spp. J Food Protection. 2002;65:214-218.
All electronic documents accessed March 15, 2010.