Full text of this article all about how healthy honey is for you - originally published in Good magazine issue 24, May/June 2012.
Putting the spotlight on: honey
By Annabel McAleer
Drizzled over Greek yoghurt; dribbled into a steaming hot toddy; oozing from a hot crumpet ... sticky, golden honey is one of nature's sweet spots
A single teaspoonful of honey is the life’s work of twelve bees, each
venturing as far as ten kilometres from her home hive on a single
flight, collecting half her own body weight in nectar and visiting as
many as 10,000 flowers a day. Back at the hive, the bee deposits her
nectar into honeycomb cells and dances for her fellow workers, her fuzzy
little body waggling incredibly precise compass directions to her
latest floral goldmine.
Borne out of painful childhood experience, many of us are wary of
these armed insects with suicidal tendencies, but bees and humans have
maintained an uneasy, yet mutually beneficial relationship since we
began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians
identified abundant uses for honey, using it to both sweeten their
baking and embalm their dead, while the art of beekeeping has been
practised in China for untold thousands of years.
For most of human history, honey was a sacred and rare resource –
until one fateful event: the invention of refined sugar. The sweetness
of honey was suddenly replicable, accessible, widely available and cheap
to produce. Today, sugar cane is the world’s largest crop.
Although sugar and honey pack a similar calorific punch – both are
simple carbohydrates made up largely of fructose and glucose – the
outcome of substituting honey with sugar in our diets hasn’t been so
Dr Peter Molan, director of the Honey Research Unit at the University
of Waikato, has been researching honey for more than 30 years. In one
recent experiment, rats were fed the equivalent of a typical New Zealand
diet, except half the rats were fed sugar in the form of honey, while
the others ate ordinary table sugar. Over the rats’ lifetime, says Dr
Molan, “the ones on the refined sugar got obese and the other ones
didn’t.” The sugar-fed rats also suffered greater mental deterioration
as they aged, until eventually they all became too fat to fit into the
maze that measured their mental performance.
The implication for us humans is clear: replacing the sugar in your
diet with honey will likely be good news for your body and brain. But
Molan says the results of his experiment probably reflect honey’s
antioxidant action, but could also be explained by honey’s low glycaemic
index (GI) compared to table sugar. Eating foods with a high GI raises
your blood sugar level, Molan explains. “If you’re not a diabetic you
have a strong response to produce lots of insulin to lower that level,
and when it overshoots and your blood sugar level goes too low, you feel
hungry.” If you find that one biscuit inevitably leads to another,
sugar could well be the culprit.
According to a neurobiologist on Molan’s honey research team, sugar
shows all the effects on the brain that you would see with an addictive
drug. “You never see people pigging out on honey like they do on sugary
things,” he points out.
The precise reasons why honey seems to be so much better for us than
sugar are hard to pinpoint. That’s because while sugar and its
modern-day mimics, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are basic organic
compounds, honey is an incredibly complex liquid. It contains a
multitude of micronutrients that vary according to the type of flower
visited by the bee, the season and even the health of the plant.
No two honeys are the same; even those produced by the same hives
vary from month to month and year to year. Each batch of honey contains a
unique mix of sugars, enzymes, amino acids, proteins, polyphenols and
small amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant compounds. While
there are only trace amounts of these nutrients in honey, there are a
large number of them, working together in ways we do not yet fully
Depending on the honey, it can have antimicrobial, antiviral,
antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antitumor effects.
Unfortunately, most of these benefits aren’t gained by scraping a little
honey over a slice of buttery toast come Saturday morning: most studies
in humans are based on consuming around three tablespoons a day, which
would account for about 10 percent of your day’s recommended calorie
“You’re not going to be able to use honey like a dietary supplement –
just take a teaspoonful and get your daily dose of antioxidants,” says
Molan, “but if you start replacing the large quantities of sugar that
are used for sweetening foods and drinks with honey, you will start
getting reasonable levels of antioxidants.”
One rule of thumb is that the darker the colour of the honey, the
higher it is in antioxidants, although Molan points out that all honeys
darken with age.
Honey never really goes off – King Tutankhamun’s tomb contained
3000-year-old jars of honey thought to be still edible – but its key
enzymes do have a half-life that is affected by both heat and time.
Some of these changes happen at ambient temperatures, explains Peter
Bray, owner of Airborne Honey, but heating honey in processing can speed
the process up.
Raw honey contains a multitude of enzymes, but the one that’s
interesting from a therapeutic point of view is glucose oxidase, says
Bray. “That takes the glucose in the honey and it makes hydrogen
peroxide and gluconic acid. That’s certainly worth protecting.”
Hydrogen peroxide is what gives antibacterial activity to honeys
other than manuka honey, Molan explains. When honey is applied to a
wound – your little girl’s grazed knee, for example – hydrogen peroxide
will be slowly released, acting as a mild antiseptic.
Any honey is good for first aid, says Molan, but if your injury is
inflamed (particularly if it’s a burn) or infected then it’s better to
apply manuka honey, “if you can afford to and if it’s genuine”. Manuka
honey has an exceptional ability to clear wounds of infection – even the
deadly MRSA superbug is killed by manuka honey – and it has much better
anti-inflammatory activity than other honeys.
Manuka honey’s anti-inflammatory, infection-clearing and antiseptic
qualities are increasingly being harnessed to work wonders under wound
dressings in hospitals – but they can be put to a more prosaic use
closer to home, such as being used as a zit zapper.
The bacterium that causes acne is very sensitive to manuka honey,
says Molan. “If you can see you’ve got a spot coming up – it’s red and
you know it’s going to end up a zit the next day – put a Band Aid with a
bit of manuka honey on it overnight and it won’t be there the next
In skincare and beauty products, honey’s wholesome, all-natural image
appeals to health-conscious consumers. But behind the appealing yellow
labels, is honey actually useful in cosmetics? Skincare formulations
expert Kate Robertson believes it is. “Honey is a really soothing
ingredient,” she says. “It’s really good for skincare in the sense that
it’s quite a good humectant, so it can be quite moisturising.” While she
hasn’t had consistent results treating clients’ acne with honey, it
seems to be those with the most aggravated skin that it hasn’t suited,
while those with mild breakouts find it healing.
For a gentle, nourishing, calming and soothing mask, Robertson
recommends applying honey straight onto your face. High concentrations
of honey aren’t found in cosmetics, for obvious reasons. “It’s jolly
sticky stuff. If you put it in a formulation at too high a level you’d
end up with a goopy mess,” she says, but “even low concentrations of
honey can add to a formulation. It can work synergistically with the
other ingredients, rather than a single action from the honey.”
Whether we rub it on our skin or eat it on toast, the beneficial
effects of honey often seem far greater than what we should expect from
our current understanding of its constituent parts. And while scientists
continue to explore the medicinal potential of this remarkable food, we
can help ensure that our world continues to buzz and hum with the fuzzy
honeybees that make it, by filling our jars – and our tums – with honey
from good, local sources.
Behind the label
Bees don’t make honey to manufacturing standards, but various labels try to help consumers make good choices:
The Unique Manuka Factor is a measure of the antibacterial activity
found only in manuka honey, which is additional to honey’s usual
peroxide activity. The UMF number is correlated to the phenol standard,
so UMF® 10 has the same antibacterial activity as a 10 percent phenol
solution. “Phenol is an old-school antiseptic material which they used
to use to sanitise hospitals and toilets,” explains Bray, who is also a
member of the Bee Products Standards Council, a national honey industry
group, including a new measurement for non-peroxide activity. The old
measurement is controversial, says Bray. “There’s a lot of money in it
so everyone’s pushing their own agenda.”
Manuka honey can now be tested for its active ingredient,
methylglyoxal (MGO), “but the correlation between the methylglyoxal and
antibacterial activity has been subject to a lot of industry debate,”
says Bray. Different manuka honeys have different levels of MGO, and
those with high levels can be diluted with cheaper, non-manuka honey and
still achieve a UMF rating.
Prolonged exposure to heat during processing reduces the enzyme
activity in honey, indicated by an increase in the level of an organic
compound called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). HMF levels also increase
naturally over time, says Molan. “Just storing honey for years at
ordinary room temperature is enough to get quite high levels. It needs
to be kept cool if you’re storing honey. But HMF has nothing to do with
the honey’s antioxidant levels.”
The EU regulates HMF levels to under 40 parts per million, but HMF is
unregulated in New Zealand. There is also no compulsion to date honey
with its harvest or packaging date.
Just because a label claims its honey comes from a particular
botanical source, doesn’t mean all the nectar came from that plant. To
check the international standards visit:
www.airborne.co.nz/monfloralhoneydef.shtml “We routinely measure other
company’s products and we can tell you that there is product out there
that has been labelled as manuka or clover that is just totally not
manuka or clover”, says Bray.
Manuka honey should contain a minimum of 70 percent manuka pollen,
says Bray, but he estimates that 70 percent of the manuka honey in the
market falls below that, while some major brands fall below ten percent.
Molan also sees problems with the way manuka honey is labelled. “There’s
an awful lot on sale which isn’t [genuine] and its activity, even when
it’s rated, is just hydrogen peroxide activity, like in cheaper honeys.
It probably has little or no actual manuka in it.”
To be sure your honey is from the source it claims to be, look for a
brand that includes the pollen percentage on its packaging.
Honey can be certified organic if it meets certain strict criteria,
such as avoiding synthetic chemicals and antibiotics within the hives,
situating the hives several kilometres from non-organic agricultural
areas, and not replacing the bees’ winter honey with sugar syrup (a
common practice in beekeeping). The word ‘organic’ alone doesn’t mean
anything unless it is accompanied by a third-party certification.
“There’s no definition for ‘raw’,” says Bray. It could mean that the
honey has never been heated or filtered, or merely that is uncooked, or
that it is simply a ‘raw material’.
Molan is planning to develop a measurement of antioxidant activity
in honey, so that each batch can be labelled. New Zealand Honey
Specialties, which produces the NZ Honey Co brand, is so far the only
company to do this, he says. Each 340 gram jar claims to contain the
same antioxidants as 100 cups of green tea.
The glycaemic index of honey is currently not labelled on
honey, but Molan is seeking funding from the honey industry to develop a
laboratory-based tool to be able to measure this a lot more easily than
with dietary testing.