Is Honey a Hero in Health Food or a No Good-Doer?
There’s plenty of news today on the gloomy health effects of too much fructose in the diet. There have been connections between fructose consumption and obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, increased lipid levels, and fatty liver. High fructose corn syrup is sugar processed in such a way that it could contain harmful chemicals and also makes it harder for your body to break it down. It is often found in low quality foods and has especially been linked to obesity when it is in the form of liquid calories (soda pop).
However what about natural forms of fructose, such as fruit that contains fiber and other phytonutrients? These have actually been linked to lower risk of diabetes and it has been suggested they may not affect weight negatively.
According to many experts such as Dr. Mercola and Chris Kresser, it is the amount of fructose and form ingested (sugary beverages) is more likely to cause havoc more than eating a moderate amount found in whole, unprocessed foods. This dose-response effect may be one of the reasons why the controversy is so heated. Most people in nutrition tend to be a bit extreme. This may be needed initially, but can lead to eating disorders and nutrient deficiencies long-term. It can also lead to dismissing nature’s goodness for one constituent that was found harmful in isolated forms.
This Sticky Source of Fructose May Not Be a Bad Guy After All
Honey is a natural sweetener that has anti-microbial properties. It is rich with antioxidants, enzymes, and nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Furthermore, it may balance out the glucose raising properties of processed sugars by protecting our microbiome. According to the Natural Honey Board (note source), “Honey contains a variety of oligosaccharides that may function as prebiotics. Research conducted at Michigan State University has shown that adding honey to fermented dairy products such as yogurt can enhance the growth, activity, and viability of Bifidobacteria as well as other commercial oligosaccharides.”
A more unbiased source, the International Journal of Biological Sciences, supports that honey is, in fact, power-packed with health promoting properties:
Honey, which comprises predominantly monosaccharides and oligosaccharides, contains at least 181 constituents 8, 9. It also contains other bioactive constituents such as phenolic compounds, flavonoids, organic acids, carotenoid-derived compounds, nitric oxide (NO) metabolites, ascorbic acid, Maillard reaction products, aromatic compounds, trace elements, vitamins, amino acids and proteins 5, 9, 10. Evidence indicates that some varieties of honey contain kynurenic acid (a tryptophan metabolite with neuroactive activity) which may contribute to its antinociceptive and antimicrobial properties 11. A number of enzymes such as glucose oxidase, diastase, invertase, phosphatase, catalase and peroxidase have also been documented in honey 9, 12. The use of honey in folk medicine dates back to 2100-2000 BC.
This same journal also reported on the potential sugar-lowering effect as well. The authors related it to the positive effect of honey on gastric emptying, rate of intestinal absorption, food intake, fructose transporter, and synergism of glucose on fructose. The authors also explain why honey may not be as damaging to the liver:
It is also important to note that fructose is not the same as honey. Honey is quite unique in the sense that it contains more than 181 constituents including free radical scavenging and antioxidant compounds 8, 9. Fructose is just one of these numerous constituents. As evidence has shown, antioxidants do not cause weight gain and hepatic deleterious effects associated with fructose.
Furthermore, in one double-blind study, honey was found to blunt ghrelin (appetite increasing hormone) and lowered glucose response post meal ingestion when compared to sucrose.
I then did a quick search on GreenMed Info for honey and its health benefits and found 45 abstracts (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/substance/honey) that ranged from health benefits of skin, antimicrobial effects, wound healing, immune support, dental health, and blood sugar balancing.
Some other under-recognized positive studies on honey began buzzing around me (pun-included). I found some evidence that honey and bee pollen may be beneficial in supporting menopausal symptoms in breast cancer patients as well as hot flashes. I also found an in vitro study on how caffeic acid, a phenolic constituent of honey, was associated with anti-proliferative effects on colon cancer cells.
So, What Do I think of honey?
1. I think source matters. You want the organic, raw, unprocessed honey, preferably local from a source you trust.
2. Manuka honey is wonderful for skin health and rejuvenation.
3. I’m more likely to recommend raw honey (in those over 3 years of age) as a sweetener, as well as stevia and xylitol.
Hope you learned as much as I did writing this expose’ on this unappreciated and often criticized health supporter… honey.
(This is Part II of my heroes or villains in health series. Click here to read about cholesterol.)
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