This article originally appeared in Paleo Magazine.
In this case, not all sources of sugar are created equal, and there are several health benefits to eating honey—a functional food with uniquely valuable physiological effects. Let’s explore our ancestors’ relationship with honey, then zoom in on the research to uncover its sweet health benefits.
Honey has been a much sought after food source for thousands of years. Find out what our ancestors seemed to know about this functional food, and get my top five health benefits. #paleo #optimalhealth #chriskresser
Honey’s Place in History: In the Spotlight Since the Stone Age
We know that hunter–gatherers had a wide array of potential foods to choose from, and we know they chose to consume honey. In fact, they went to great lengths to obtain it: rock art dating to about 8,000 BC depicts early humans harvesting honey from a hive at the top of a very tall tree; it suggests they even developed sophisticated ladders in order to accomplish the task. (1)
Although it’s commonly thought that honey was quite rare then and eaten only in small quantities, some researchers have suggested this belief may be myth—that consumption at various points in history may have rivaled our current overconsumption of refined sugar. (2) Anthropologists and others theorize that honey ultimately helped make us human by providing much-needed energy to fuel brain growth. (3)
Looking at the diets of modern hunter–gatherer societies, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that our Paleolithic ancestors enjoyed a great deal of the sticky-sweet substance. When it’s available, the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo can obtain 80 percent of their calories from honey. For the Hadza in Tanzania, this source of natural sugars comprises up to 20 percent of their diet by weight during the wet season—given its caloric density, honey likely represents a much larger portion of their total calories. (4, 5) Yet, the Hadza are lean, fit, and virtually free of modern chronic diseases. (6)
Not So Sweet? Shifting Attitudes toward Sweeteners
For the Hadza, sweetener (honey, in their case) is a highly valued food. Indeed, when asked to rank their five main foods according to preference, they ranked honey highest, most likely because it is so energy dense. (7) In this way, to them it’s a “healthy” choice. Although we can assume Paleolithic hunter–gatherers didn’t see foods as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” like we do, if they did, they would likely have thought of the concentrated sweetener as one of their healthiest foods.
Today, we think of most sweeteners and sweet foods as not only unhealthy but downright harmful. This is a dramatic shift from our evolutionary background. That said, we should be wary of modern refined sugars such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS): they can cause weight gain and bring on all the metabolic and cardiovascular issues that come with excess pounds as well as lead to problems in the digestive tract—the list of associated risks is long. (8, 9) But I believe a fear of honey is unfounded and that the traditional sweetener certainly has a place in a healthy ancestral diet. Here’s why.
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The Top Five Health Benefits of Natural Honey
It is true that honey and HFCS have a fructose-to-glucose ratio that’s much the same, but the similarities end there. Honey also contains enzymes and other proteins, trace minerals, and polyphenols that make it health promoting, not health harming. (10)
But before we get into the specific ways in which it boosts health, I want to stress that I’m not talking about the average bear on supermarket shelves. The health benefits shared below pertain to raw, natural honey that hasn’t been subjected to high-heat pasteurization or ultrafiltration; both processes destroy honey’s valuable nutrients. (11, 12) Raw honey is as close to the beehive as possible, strained of debris, and bottled, free of added, refined sugars.
1. Honey Increases Your Antioxidant Levels
Honey can raise your antioxidants, which may help you stave off chronic diseases, including cancer. Antioxidants fight the oxidation process in cells, called oxidative stress, that’s caused by free radicals. The link between this process and cancer is well established. But oxidative stress can also lead to cardiovascular conditions, neurological diseases, diabetes, and other diagnoses. You may be most familiar with vitamins C and E and beta-carotene; other antioxidant compounds include flavonoids, polyphenols, uric acid, and glutathione reductase. (13, 14, 15)
- In one study, men and women followed a strictly controlled diet for two weeks, then followed that same diet for 14 days but also consumed honey daily. Honey consumption increased participants’ blood levels of vitamin C, uric acid, glutathione reductase, and beta-carotene. (16)
- Several studies have found that buckwheat honey significantly increases serum antioxidant capacity. (17, 18)
- Depending on the particular flower and other conditions, certain honeys can contain nearly 30 kinds of polyphenols. (19)
Honey’s capacity to elevate antioxidant stores could prevent the development of chronic diseases. Specifically, honey could have an antitumor effect, possibly due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (20)
2. It Decreases Inflammation
When inflammation becomes systemic and chronic, it sets the stage for nearly all modern diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, allergies, and even depression. While sugar is pro-inflammatory, animal studies and clinical trials have found the opposite to be true of honey. (21, 22, 23)
- Honey can reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, where it may contribute to a range of digestive diseases. For instance, animal models suggest that honey can help prevent and heal gastric ulcers and reduce inflammation related to colitis as effectively as treatment with steroids. (24, 25)
- In rabbits, inhaling aerosolized honey reduces airway inflammation and effectively manages asthma; other animal research suggests that oral consumption may do the same. (26, 27)
These results could be because honey decreases blood levels of prostaglandins, which play a key role in the inflammatory response: one study concluded that honey lowered prostaglandin levels by as much as 63 percent after 15 days. (28, 29)
3. It Can Lower Your LDL Cholesterol and Raise Your HDL
LDL is typically referred to as “bad” cholesterol because it is implicated in cardiovascular disease, while HDL is labeled “good” cholesterol for its cardioprotective effect.
- In a study of 55 overweight and obese individuals, those who ate honey instead of table sugar experienced significant reductions in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, as well as an increase in HDL. Those results applied to participants whose cholesterol was normal prior to the study as well as to those who had elevated levels. (30)
- In another study, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, honey was also found to decrease LDL and raise HDL in people at a healthy weight, as well as those with hyperlipidemia and diabetes, after just 15 days of consumption. (31)
These studies showed that honey improved other markers of cardiovascular health as well, including triglycerides, C-reactive protein, and blood glucose.
4. It Stabilizes Your Blood Sugar
Of course, leveling out your blood sugar is important if you have diabetes. But in general, keeping your blood sugar stable helps you control hunger cravings and avoid weight gain, as well as maintain consistent energy throughout the day. Over time, blood sugar spikes can also cause hardening of blood vessels, possibly leading to heart attack or stroke. Although, like exercise, it appears that honey initially increases blood sugar, the uptick quickly gives way to a decrease. The same can’t be said for sugar.
In the Journal of Medicinal Food study mentioned above, researchers also concluded that natural honey lowers blood glucose levels in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic individuals. In the diabetic group, honey caused a significantly lower rise in blood sugar than dextrose; when compared to sucrose, blood sugar was lower with honey than with table sugar at 60, 120, and 180 minutes after consumption. (32)
This same study also showed that honey increased levels of insulin, which helps usher glucose out of the blood. This may be why honey decreases blood sugar.
5. It Has Antibiotic and Antiviral Properties
That means you may be able to use it to heal wounds and infections naturally. Its antibacterial action is due to a variety of factors, including its low acidity and hydrogen peroxide content, as well as a recently discovered protein called defensin-1. (33, 34, 35)
- Honey inhibits the growth of H. pylori, which commonly causes peptic ulcers, as well as E. coli and Salmonella, culprits in food poisoning. (36, 37, 38, 39)
- It also appears honey is effective against staph infections. In fact, one study concluded that typical honeys are roughly eight times more powerful against Staphylococci bacteria than are other methods of bacterial inhibition. (40, 41)
- Although its antiviral properties are less studied, it seems honey may be as effective, if not more so, at managing herpes infections than prescription treatments. (42)
You can now see what makes honey so different from table sugar and just how honey can fit into a healthy diet. Remember, look for raw, natural honey wherever you shop. You can also find local raw honey at your neighborhood farmers market.