Pot of honey and wooden stick are on a table.

by Crystal Lauer
Health Impact News

Much of the research available to us today regarding modern-day diseases points to oxidative stress and inflammation. One of the easiest ways to combat this modern-day problem affecting our health is to replace refined sugars in your diet with honey. Let’s take a look at how making this one simple change in our diet, to using honey instead of refined sugar, can have tremendous health benefits.

Chronic diseases run rampant through the American population with approximately 133 million people having at least one condition. 

Projections suggest this trend is only growing, and many believe the future will see numbers affecting upwards of 157 million. More than 80 million people deal with more than one chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, etc., making chronic disease the leading cause of disability and death in the United States.

According to the Center for Disease Control up to 40 percent of deaths from these diseases is preventable.

Research has consistently shown the relationship between oxidative stress and chronic disease, oxidative stress being an excess of free radicals to antioxidants in the body. With modern lifestyles filled with conveniences in the form of highly denatured foods, it is little wonder that so many of us lack the exogenous antioxidants, which at one time, were present in abundance in our foods. 

Phenolic compounds in plant foods can help to neutralize the rampage of electron-stealing molecules doing oxidative damage to our cells and tissues. 

Interestingly, raw honey is just such a food, with its phenolic compounds derived from the plants where the nectar originated, making raw honey a complex combination of bioavailable nutrients and compounds that can positively affect oxidation.

Raw honey’s sweet contribution to your health is complicated and not all the mechanisms are understood yet, but research continues to reveal its positive influence on our physiology, a fact we might have been introduced to in our formative years. 

History of Honey and Refined Sugar

While honey has been an integral part of the human experience from the beginning of recorded history, worshiped, used as medicine and revered as the fabled ‘Ambrosia’ of the Gods, modern man’s relationship with it has been a bit less enamored. 

First there was the rough patch in the 11th Century signaling the end of the honeymoon period of many millennia, during which sugar was purportedly carted home by returning Crusaders, setting Western European taste buds and brain chemicals to buzzing.

The peoples of India had long since refined the techniques needed to turn raw cane into refined sugar, and with its introduction to the Arabs, its successful cultivation had spread across the entire Middle East. The “new spice” was exceptionally pleasant, and as European trade with the East expanded, so did the fame and influence of the much sought-after luxury. 

With the recognition in the 1700’s of the potential profits of growing and trading the now refined sugar, governments began taxing it heavily, leaving it out of reach of the general public. By the late 1800’s, Britain abolished the sugar tax, which suddenly made sugar accessible to the average individual and the sugar rush was on.

While interest in honey continued to wane, wars were waged, armies marched across Europe and sugar beets replaced sugar cane as the number one source of refined sugar, until honey eventually became relegated to the shadows of the culinary arts.

United States Leads the World in Refined Sugar Consumption

But at what price have we embraced refined sugar?

Currently in America, the average adult consumes approximately 126 pounds of refined sugar per year, compared to 200 years ago when he or she would have only consumed approximately 2 pounds of sugar, ranking the United States the highest consumer of sugar per person in the world. 

Researchers believe that individuals now get an average of 20 percent of their daily calories from sugar, which is devoid of any nutritional value. 

This, they surmise, has left recent generations with depleted nutrient levels and an increase in obesity and chronic disease. More and more research points to obesity not being an imbalance of calories, intake exceeding the expenditure, but rather a hormone imbalance in which refined sugar, in its many forms, plays a variety of villainous parts.

Excess sugar consumption displaces nutrient-dense foods and robs the individual of nutrients already consumed, and as if that isn’t bad enough, it damages mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, reducing energy production. 

All this overconsumption of refined sugar results in a sort of starvation of the cells through leptin and insulin resistance.

In contrast to refined sugar’s destructive role in modern health, raw honey is quietly making its way back out of the shadows in research study after research study, which continually proves its intricate relationship and positive impact on the human physiology. 

Raw Honey is a Bioactive Food

Raw Honey is a bioactive food, meaning it is enzymatically active. 

This enzymatic action is no accident. While the worker bee flits from plant to plant sipping up nectar and storing it in a special sack called the honey stomach, glands in the bee’s body release an enzyme called invertase, which begins to split the sucrose molecules of the nectar into two separate simpler molecules, glucose and fructose.

Once the worker bee has filled its honey stomach, it will return to the hive and regurgitate its nectar cargo, allowing the house bees to drink and regurgitate the nectar repeatedly, until a majority of the sucrose is broken down into monosaccharide components. 

Once all the heavy lifting has been achieved to the bee’s satisfaction, the nectar mixture will be deposited in the honeycombs. Over a period of days, the bees will fan the nectar mixture with their wings and reduce the water content from approximately 70% to roughly 17%.  Since its water content is lower than that of bacteria and fungi and its acid level is approximately four, it will not spoil. 

The sweet viscous solution contains at least 180 different types of compounds and is mostly comprised of fructose and glucose, with amino acids, minerals, vitamins, enzymes, phytochemicals, organic acids, pre-biotics and probiotics, as well as traces of pollen. 

Raw, unpasteurized honey is known to be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, anti-cancerogenic, anti-diabetic and cardiovascular protective.

In short, raw honey is a real food with a complex chemistry, which exerts a therapeutic effect on the human body.

Unlike refined sugar, raw honey is teeming with enzymes, one of which is glucose oxidase, which converts glucose into gluconolactone. Gluconolactone, when hydrolyzed, becomes gluconic acid. 

Gluconic acid is the predominant acid in both honey and hydrogen peroxide and is responsible for honey’s antimicrobial benefits.

While enzymes, amino acids and carotenoids do contribute to the antioxidant capacity (AOC) of honey, it is primarily the phenolic compounds that are responsible for this ability.

This is important because, as previously mentioned, oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants tipping in favor of the free radicals, and is involved in a vast array of diseases and even aging.

Free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) are the by-product of numerous cellular biochemical reactions, which may occur naturally in the human body. They can also be produced by outside factors such as pollution, stress, poor lifestyle choices, intense physical exertion, etc., and this is where the antioxidants in honey come into play.

The rather simplified explanation is that antioxidants are molecules which fight the cellular damage done in the body by free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical, thereby neutralizing it.

Oxidative stress has been found to play a critical role in the inflammation process and in corresponding diseases. The radical scavenging and protective compounds in raw honey can reduce and even prevent disease where oxidative stress is a component.  

Refined Sugar and Bone Health

Another concerning area of American health, where refined sugar has been shown to have a direct effect, is osteoporosis.

Approximately 35 million women and 17 million men in the United States suffer from low bone density. According to a recent review of sugars contribution to osteoporosis, researchers concluded that:  

“The overconsumption of dietary sugar has the potential to increase the risk of osteoporosis by: a) increasing the urinary excretion of both calcium and magnesium, b) reducing the intestinal absorption of calcium by lowering the levels of active vitamin D, and c) impairing bone formation by reducing osteoblast proliferation and increasing osteoclast activation as well as lactic acid production.”

Certainly, reducing or eliminating excess sugar in one’s diet can go a long way to improving overall health and the health of your bones, but research also suggests that a diet rich in macro and micro- nutrients is essential for healthy bones. 

Raw honey, while nearly identical in Macro-nutrient composition to sugar, is replete with micronutrients, which are lost to sugar during the refining process.

Interestingly, research has shown that honey may have a beneficial effect on bone mass and bone metabolism markers when combined with high intensity jumping exercises. 

In another study focused around bone resorption, the process of bone tissue being broken down and the minerals being released, resulting in calcium being transferred into the blood stream from the tissue, a combination of aerobic exercise and honey supplementation showed significant potential to reduce the resorption of bone as a result of exercise. This combination also increased muscular power in the lower limbs of the participants. 

Studies like these lead researchers to believe that honey may hold a number of benefits for athletes and those who do high intensity workouts.

With the growing evidence to suggest that honey is not just a pretty face in the crowd of available sweetening options and may in fact be a healthful addition to your diet, it might be the perfect time to give the ancient treat a new try.

So, what’s the sweet spot for honey supplementation?

It’s important to note that one tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories and 17 grams of net carbs, so if you are on a low carb or keto diet, raw honey may not be where you fancy spending your carbs. 

It is possible to eat a high carb food like raw honey and remain in ketosis, by timing your consumption for right before or directly after high intensity workouts and keeping it to a tablespoon or less per day.

If you are not the least bit concerned about your carbs but wish to cut refined sugar from your diet and simply rely on the sweetness of honey, then you should be sure to only consume it raw.

While raw honey is a healthful bioactive food, it is always important to heed your mother’s warning that “too much of a good thing is no good at all.” She was wise and, in this case, correct. Using the sweet stuff in moderation is key to its beneficial effect on your health.

In addition, be aware that most honeys on the market, even “raw” and “local” honeys, are primarily a by-product of using bees to pollinate crops. Research shows that most of the honeys you find on the shelves of stores are contaminated with the same pesticides and herbicides used in commercial agriculture which is dependent upon honey bees to pollinate their crops. For more info, see:

Study: 99% of Canadian Honey Analyzed Contaminated with Herbicide Glyphosate

Look for honey sold by small-scale bee keepers who are more interested in producing healthy honey than they are in renting out their bees to pollinate crops, or look for companies that test their honey for herbicides and pesticides.

Ways to Consume Honey

One excellent method for maximizing the healthful properties of raw honey is to make an herbal or spice infusion.

When these raw honey infusions are used in conjunction with fermented foods, such as raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar, they create a deliciously synergistic amalgam. 

With enough raw honey and time on your hands, you can easily fill a sunny windowsill with mason jars brimming with golden syrup and all your favorite herbs and spices. 

After a few long weeks of impatient waiting and turning of jars, you will end up with heavenly, aromatic, infused honeys, with which to concoct everything from vinaigrettes to electrolyte drinks. 

Good quality, fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, lavender, oregano, lemon balm, ginger, mint, garlic, cinnamon, etc. can be used to create infusions, and ground spices such as maca root, ashwagandha, cinnamon, turmeric and the like can be used to create an electuary, which is simply an herbal paste made with raw honey. 

Because of honey’s preservative qualities, your herbal infusions and electuaries make for remedies with a long shelf life. 

(One caution with honey is that it should not be given to a child under the age of one, due to the possible presence of Clostridium botulinum spores, which babies do not have the ability to digest yet.)

If you would like to try your hand at creating a tasty electuary that is perfect stirred into a cup of tea or simply drizzled over freshly made yogurt, below is a recipe for a spiced raw honey that will transport you back to your childhood days when the simple things were the very best things.

Cinnamon Spiced Honey

Ingredients:

¼ cup raw honey

1 tsp. ground cinnamon (preferably Ceylon)

1/8 tsp ground clove

1/8-1/4 tsp. ground ginger root

1 tsp.  ground Ashwagandha root 

  1. Measure above ingredients into a small glass jar
  2. Stir the mixture until all the spices and powders are well incorporated
  3. Cover with a lid and store at room temperature

If your house is anything like mine, this recipe will not last very long, But now that you have the hang of it, feel free to experiment with your own mixtures.  Undoubtedly, it won’t be long before you’ve created an array of delicious options with your own creative signature on them.

References

“45 Alarming Statistics on American’s Sugar Consumption and the Effects of Sugar on Americans’ Health FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailPrintFriendlyBufferShare.” Thediabetescouncil.Com, n.d. https://www.thediabetescouncil.com/45-alarming-statistics-on-americans-sugar-consumption-and-the-effects-of-sugar-on-americans-health/.

Danila Cianciosi, Tamara Yuliett Forbes-Hernández, Sadia Afrin, Massimiliano Gasparrini, Patricia Reboredo-Rodriguez, Piera Pia Manna, Jiaojiao Zhang, et al. “Phenolic Compounds in Honey and Their Associated Health Benefits: A Review.” Molecules 23, no. 9 (2018). https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23092322.

“Gluconic Acid.” U.S. National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information, n.d. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/10690.

James J. DiNicolantonio, Varshil Mehta, Sojib Bin Zaman, and James H. O’Keefe,. “Not Salt But Sugar As Aetiological In Osteoporosis: A Review.” Mo Med 115, no. 3 (2018): 247–52.

Kristy Mucci. “The Illustrated History of How Sugar Conquered the World From Rarefied Medicine to Colonial Invader to Public Health Menace, the Story of the World’s Most Influential Flavor.” Saveur, January 9, 2017. https://www.saveur.com/sugar-history-of-the-world/.

Marhasiyah Rahim, Foong Kiew Ooi, and Wan Zuraida Wan Ab. “Changes of Bone Metabolism Markers and Muscular Performance with Combined Aerobic Dance Exercise and Honey Supplementation in Adult Women.” Sports and Exercise Medicine 1 (2016). https://doi.org/DOI: 10.17140/SEMOJ-1-129.

Maryam Mosavat, Foong Kiew Ooi, and Mahaneem Mohamed. “Effects of Honey Supplementation Combined with Different Jumping Exercise Intensities on Bone Mass, Serum Bone Metabolism Markers and Gonadotropins in Female Rats.” BMC Complement Altern Med. 14 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-126.