THE BLOG
08/26/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Honey: Healthier Sweetener or Just Another Form of Sugar?

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Honey goes way, way back. Researchers found bees made this staple sugar in the country Georgia some 5,500 years ago, about 2,000 years earlier than explorers originally thought with Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb.

Humans are genetically hardwired to want food that's sweet, and from an evolutionary perspective valuing honey makes sense. Our Paleolithic ancestors gorged on ripe summer fruit and very rarely honey to "winter up" for the cold months ahead.

Raw natural honey comes loaded with nutrients, and using this sweetener therapeutically goes back in folk medicine to around 2,100 to 2,000 BC. Science more recently caught up with these benefits.

One study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found honey contains oligosaccharides (a prebiotic that feeds gut flora) as well as small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, trace elements, vitamins, aroma compounds and polyphenols.

Studies show honey provides cardioprotective, antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor benefits.

One in the Journal of Medicinal Food found in normal and overweight people, honey reduces blood lipids, homocysteine, and the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP), whereas in people with Type 2 diabetes honey lowered plasma glucose levels compared with dextrose and sucrose.

Before you stock up, studies show to get many of honey's benefits you'll need to consume 50 to 80 grams, or three to five tablespoons. Especially if you have blood sugar imbalances, that amount's drawbacks quickly outweigh honey's benefits.

Many folks use honey because it tastes good, but also because this sweetener carries a healthier aura than table sugar. Ultimately though, your body breaks down honey just like table sugar, as glucose and fructose.

"Honey is still sugar," writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in his book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. "If you've got blood sugar issues, proceed with caution."

When honey breaks down in your body, its two simple sugars behave differently. Nearly every cell can use glucose, which raises your blood sugar and signals your hormone insulin to either deliver that glucose to cells as an energy source or to store as glycogen or fat.

Honey has a glycemic index, or measure of a food's effect on your blood sugar, between 32 and 85. That's a wide range that, depending on its source, could rank honey in a lower -- or higher-glycemic category.

Lower glucose levels don't necessarily mean healthier honey. Fructose, the other sugar honey breaks down into, doesn't raise blood sugar. Instead, fructose heads straight to your liver.

According to Bowden, excessive fructose amounts can create numerous problems including insulin resistance, high triglycerides, accumulating belly fat (increasing your risk for Type 2 diabetes), and non-alcoholic, fatty-liver disease.

Simply put, honey becomes one of those dose-dependent foods: What can benefit you in very small amounts can become a boon when you consume larger quantities.

Quality also matters. Those cute bear-shaped honey containers you find on supermarket shelves are a far cry from the stuff our ancestors ate. "Many of the phytonutrients and enzymes that are found in honey are destroyed by pasteurization and high-heat processing," writes Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.

While Dr. Joseph Mercola says to "Use organic raw honey in moderation," other experts exercise more discretion, noting foods like honey-roasted peanuts or honey-glazed chicken often undeservedly have a health halo.

"If sugar (by any name, including organic cane juice, honey, agave, maple syrup, cane syrup, or molasses) is on the label, throw it out," writes Dr. Mark Hyman.

As a staple sweetener, you have far better options that don't raise blood sugar or stress your liver and can even provide some health benefits. Especially if you have blood sugar imbalances, small amounts of these sweeteners become a better choice than honey or other so-called healthy sugars like agave.

If you use honey therapeutically, skip the inferior grocery store varieties for locally grown organic raw honey, which comes loaded with nutrients and provides some homeopathic benefits for wounds and allergies.

For immune responses to bits of mold and dust, organic honey can strengthen your immune system and help you handle. Even then, you only need about half a teaspoon to do the job.

If honey remains in your diet, do terms like locally grown, organic, and raw become important when you buy this sweetener? Share your thoughts below.

Additional References
Jonny Bowden, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Massachusetts: Fair Wind, 2007).