Because it comes from nature — from bees, no less — honey has a health halo. But is honey really healthy? Here’s what dietitians say about the health benefits of honey.
What is honey made of?
Honey is made from nectar. “Bees collect the dilute-sugary nectar of flora plants, produce an enzymatic activity after ingestion, regurgitate it into honey cells and evaporate a high percentage of the water out of it, producing a super-sweet viscous liquid known as honey,” explains Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
The sweet substance is mostly fructose and glucose — simple sugars that are easily converted by the body into energy — and water.
Honey also contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, enzymes, amino acids and flavonoids, says Jenny Friedman, a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian. “These compounds are responsible for some of honey’s potential health benefits and part of what distinguishes the sweetener from more traditional ones like sugar.”
Is honey healthy?
Research has linked honey to an improvement in gut microbial balance, coughing and other respiratory conditions. Because of honey’s trace nutrients, the sweetener has been thought to have antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, along with healing potential for ailments such as sore throats, digestive disorders and burns, Friedman says.
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But it’s important to consider the full nutritional picture. To get many of these benefits, “we’d have to eat a lot of honey,” says Friedman. “And unfortunately, consuming a lot of honey means consuming a lot of calories.”
Remember: Honey is sugar — something that Americans consume in excess. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to about six teaspoons per day for women and about nine teaspoon per day for men, but the average American adult consumes about two to three times more than this.
“Consuming sugar in excess amounts has been implicated in causing increased weight gain as well as increased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes,” says Meredith Price, a registered dietitian at Priceless Nutrition & Wellness in New York.
Is honey an added sugar?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently required that food labels start differentiating between types of sugar: specifically by calling out added sugars, or sugars that are added to foods when they’re processed or prepared.
And even though honey comes from a natural source, it is still an added sugar, like corn syrup or cane sugar. “A lot of people feel better when they read a food label and see honey instead of sugar,” says Friedman. “However, in the long run, the nuance is more meaningful to the mind than the body. The body pretty much perceives sugar and honey added to foods the same way.”
Certain terms on products — like “natural sugars,” “no artificial sugars” or “naturally sweetened” — are often simply marketing tactics, says Price.
What’s the healthiest way to eat honey?
It’s important to consume honey in moderation, experts say. A little goes a long way. Think of a serving size of honey as about a tablespoon (the size of your thumb or a poker chip), says Friedman. This much honey has about 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar, according to the USDA’s food composition database. Aim to keep your daily intake from any added sugar under 100 calories a day for women and 150 calories a day for men, suggests Hunnes.
Because honey’s flavor is largely what distinguishes it from other sweeteners, Friedman recommends using it in ways that highlight flavor. Drizzle up to a tablespoon into tea, on top of yogurt, into morning oats or on peanut butter toast. Honey also works well in dressings, she says.
The main types of honey are organic, dark, light, raw and filtered, says Friedman, but there are over 300 varieties of honey. “The variety refers to where the honey comes from, basically the types of flowers bees have fed on,” she says. “The color, flavor and major nutritional properties of honey all depend on the nectar that the bees used.”
So what’s the best type to buy? “It depends on what flavors you’re looking for and how you’re using it. Manuka honey has a stronger and distinct taste that might not make it great for using in baking, for example,” she says. Darker honey is also said to be higher in antioxidants, she notes, but it tends to have a more intense, bitter flavor that not everyone enjoys. “Buckwheat is one variety that has been highlighted for a robust nutrient profile.”
When it comes to buying honey, it’s important to do your research. Honey — especially when it’s imported — can be cut with other sweeteners like corn syrup. “Always read the label to determine what you’re getting,” Friedman says.
It’s also easier to detect a genuine product if you can actually get your hands on the honey itself, she says. “True honey is thick and slow moving (though the texture of honey may differ depending on whether it is raw or unfiltered). It shouldn’t spread out like syrup and actually won’t feel too sticky on your hands. The smell is distinct, usually floral.”
When possible, try to buy locally produced honey from a place where you can see the honeybees or how the honey is produced, Hunnes says. Doing this makes it more likely that the honey you’re buying is actually honey.
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