TORONTO — Adding some honey to your meals is a great way to include some extra flavor — and some seriously beneficial health effects — in your diet, according to researchers from the University of Toronto. Scientists have discovered that honey improves multiple key measures of cardiometabolic health such as blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Importantly, raw honey from a single floral source appears to offer the biggest health benefits.
Study authors conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials involving honey. That process led researchers to observe that consuming honey lowers fasting blood glucose, total and LDL or “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides, and a marker of fatty liver disease. Additionally, honey also appears to promote increased levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, and some markers of inflammation.
“These results are surprising, because honey is about 80 percent sugar,” says Tauseef Khan, a research associate in nutritional sciences at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, in a university release. “But honey is also a complex composition of common and rare sugars, proteins, organic acids and other bioactive compounds that very likely have health benefits.”
Prior studies show that honey has a link to improved cardiometabolic health, especially in reference to in vitro and animal studies. This latest project is the most comprehensive review to date of relevant clinical trials, and also features detailed data pertaining to processing and floral source.
“The word among public health and nutrition experts has long been that ‘a sugar is a sugar,’” explains John Sievenpiper, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at U of T, who is also a clinician-scientist at Unity Health Toronto. “These results show that’s not the case, and they should give pause to the designation of honey as a free or added sugar in dietary guidelines.”
How much honey should you have each day?
The research team stresses that it is essential to consider the context of these findings; clinical trials in which participants followed healthy dietary patterns. Added sugars accounted for just 10 percent or less of daily caloric intake among the participants.
“We’re not saying you should start having honey if you currently avoid sugar,” Khan adds. “The takeaway is more about replacement — if you’re using table sugar, syrup or another sweetener, switching those sugars for honey might lower cardiometabolic risks.”
The team included a total of 18 controlled trials encompassing over 1,100 participants in this analysis. They assessed the quality of each trial using the GRADE system. This led to the determination that there was a low certainty of evidence among most of the earlier studies. However, analyzed honey samples consistently produced either neutral or beneficial effects, depending on processing, floral source, and quantity.
The median daily honey dose across trials was 40 grams (about two tablespoons), and median trial length was eight weeks. Raw honey specifically appeared to drive many observed benefits in the studies. Also, honey taken from monofloral sources such as Robinia (also marketed as acacia honey) — a honey from False Acacia or Black Locust Trees — and clover, which is common in North America, appeared especially beneficial.
Pasteurization could weaken honey’s benefits
Study authors explain that processed honey seems to lose many of its health effects after pasteurization. More specifically, 65 degrees Celsius for at least 10 minutes. Still, Khan believes that the effect of a hot drink on raw honey depends on numerous factors, and probably wouldn’t destroy all of honey’s beneficial properties. There are, of course, plenty of other ways to enjoy some unheated honey, such as with yogurt, as a spread, or as salad dressing.
Khan says future studies should focus on both unprocessed honey and honey derived from a single floral source. More high quality evidence can help modern science form a more comprehensive understanding of the many compounds in honey that are beneficial to health.
“We need a consistent product that can deliver consistent health benefits,” Khan concludes. “Then the market will follow.”
The study is published in the journal Nutrition Reviews.