Sorting through the claims and science of the health benefits of honey.

Nicci Micco

Sorting through the claims and science of the health benefits of honey.

The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans all considered honey a basic component of any first-aid kit and today, we're hearing more and more about honey's healing power. We sort through the claims and the science.

A Diet Helper?

In a 2008 study in the Journal of Food Science, scientists reported that rats that were fed a honey-sweetened diet gained 23 percent less weight than those that ate food spiked with refined sugar over one year. (One rat year equals about 20 human ones.) "The honey we used was high in antioxidants so it is possible that this led to greater fat burning," says Lynne Chepulis, Ph.D., lead researcher and author of the book Healing Honey (Brown Walker Press, 2008). Chepulis points to research linking other antioxidant-rich foods (e.g., green tea) with speeding up your metabolism. But not all honeys are rich in antioxidants. Another study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that the most common type of honey-clover-doesn't have many more antioxidants than refined sugar.

Bottom line: Research linking honey with weight-loss benefits is preliminary at best. Adding any sweetener to your diet without subtracting another can lead to weight gain.

A Cough syrup?

Researchers at Penn State University tested honey against dextromethorphan-the active ingredient in most cough medicines-as a cough suppressant in children and found honey to be more effective. Sweetness may be honey's "active ingredient." The brain part that registers sweet tastes and the part that causes coughing are located near each other so sensing sweetness may affect coughing, says author Ian M. Paul, M.D., who published the study in 2007 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Bottom line: If you're trying to soothe a child's cough, or yours, try honey. Don't give it to a baby younger than one: honey may contain spores of a bacteria that causes botulism, which an infant's immature immune system can't handle.

Relief from Allergies?

The theory is this: Honeybees gather pollen from the very plants that cause your itchy eyes, so consuming a small daily dose of the local honey-and subsequently these pollens-may stimulate your immune system and reduce allergies, explains Miguel P. Wolbert, an allergist and immunologist at the Allergy & Asthma Care Center in Evansville, Indiana. But the pollens that cause sneezing and congestion-such as ragweed-are windborne, while the pollens bees collect are too heavy to fly in the breeze. Windborne pollens can fall onto flowers, get picked up by bees and end up in honey, says Wolbert, "but it's likely to be a very, very small amount." Not enough to make a difference. And, so far, no clinical evidence shows that honey alleviates allergy symptoms.

Bottom line: It's not likely that honey will help your allergies, says Wolbert, but, "I don't tell my patients not to eat it."

March/April 2009