Honey gets a great rap from wellness gurus, who tout the healing properties of the gooey stuff, while nutritionists often write it off as just another sugar.
In between these two extremes, scientists have slowly been wasting countless research papers that paint a more measured picture of how and why honey might be good for us.
No newspaper will win the argument.
But in recent years, researchers have looked at the accumulating evidence in systematic reviews and meta-analyses of various clinical trials.
The ‘only sensible option’ against a cold
As we reported in 2020, Oxford University scientists found in a systematic review of 14 randomized controlled trials that honey is one of the few treatments for upper respiratory tract infection symptoms (URTIs) that actually works.
URTI are cough and cold and “influenza-like illness”. These are the tired winter bugs – not a real flu or bronchitis. The common cold is what it is. You feel a little lousy, hide at night, fill a dozen handkerchiefs and you’ll get over it.
Too many of us go to the doctor with our colds and demand antibiotics that won’t work – except to support the rise of the superbug. The more effective treatment is in your pantry.
As the scientists put it, honey is “superior to usual care” for improving URTI symptoms – specifically cough frequency and cough severity.
In fact, their paper suggests that honey is not only the best option, but the nothing but sensible option.
The paradox of controlling blood sugar…with sugar
Canadian researchers are the latest to discover that honey improves key measures of cardio-metabolic health, including blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
These effects are more pronounced, they say, if the honey is raw and comes from a single flower source (one type of flower).
The researchers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of 18 clinical trials of honey and found overall that it reduced fasting blood glucose, total and LDL or “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides and a marker of fatty liver disease.
Honey also increased HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, and certain markers of inflammation.
“These results are surprising, because honey is about 80 percent sugar,” said Dr. Tauseef Khan, corresponding author and research associate in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
“But honey is also a complex compound of common and rare sugars, proteins, organic acids and other bioactive compounds that are very likely to have health benefits.”
Following on from the multiple studies, the sweet spot in terms of dosage is about two tablespoons a day — and as part of a healthy diet.
Low proof certainty
The authors report that many of the 18 studies had “low certainty of evidence” – which may be a result of the study design – and yet honey was consistently shown to be beneficial or neutral.
One problem seems to be that studies have not been limited to one kind of honey – or flower source. The problem is that some types of honey have superior medicinal properties (such as antimicrobial effects) compared to others.
Dr. Khan said future studies should focus on unprocessed honey and from a single flower source. The goal would be higher quality evidence and a better understanding of the many compounds in honey that can do wonders for health.
“We need a consistent product that can deliver consistent health benefits,” said Khan. “Then the market will follow.”
The Canadian newspaper is not the first review to confirm these benefits.
A 2018 paper, “A Review on the Protective Effects of Honey against Metabolic Syndrome,” concluded that honey protects against metabolic syndrome by exerting anti-obesity and anti-diabetic effects, reducing fats in the blood serum and lowering of blood pressure. .
The mechanisms underlying these effects include honey’s “low glycemic index” (GI), which limits weight gain and fat storage accumulation; improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood glucose levels; improved fat metabolism, which leads to the prevention of atherogenesis (the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries); weakening of oxidative stress; as well as protection against endothelial dysfunction, among other things”.
Sugars are not all the same
Lead researcher of the Canadian study, Dr John Sievenpiper, associate professor of food sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, said: “The word among public health and nutrition experts has long been, ‘a sugar is a sugar.’
“These results show that this is not the case, and they should undermine the designation of honey as free or added sugar in dietary guidelines.”