6 Health Benefits of Honey (Some May Surprise You!)
There's a lot of buzz around honey. It was used by ancient cultures as a treatment for everything from healing wounds, to keeping gums healthy and the gastrointestinal tract strong. It may even be the oldest sweetener known to man. These healing practices and stories have been passed down over centuries but do they hold any merit?
We combed through the facts and folklore to bring you these six evidenced-based health benefits of honey.
1. Honey Contains Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants
Just like regular sugar, corn syrup, and powdered sugar, etc., honey is considered an added sugar. But unlike these other types of sweeteners, honey contains a variety of vitamins and minerals. "Flavonoids and phenolic acids, which act as antioxidants are also found in honey. The amount and types of these compounds largely depend on the floral source," Registered Dietitian Maggie Michalczyk explains.
It's true. There are more than 300 different types of honey in the U.S. alone and each stems from a different floral source, according to the National Honey Board. The source determines the color and flavor, as well as nutrients contained. Typically, darker shades of honey mean more antioxidants.
Keep in mind, these nutrients are minimal—they make up less than one percent of the honey pot. So, we don't recommend seeking out the sweet stuff for its vitamins and minerals like you would, say, carrots or kale, but think of them as an added bonus instead (eat more of these top antioxidant-rich foods).
Related: What Is Manuka Honey?
2. Honey Is Sweeter Than Regular Sugar
Honey is natural, similar to maple syrup or molasses, and as long as the label says "pure honey," you can be sure nothing has been added from the bee to the bottle. "Unlike sugars that are processed like granulated sugar, honey is just honey, all-natural and unprocessed," Michalczyk shares. "Once honey bees extract nectar from flowers and naturally transform it into honey inside the beehive, beekeepers take the honey that the bees don't need for food and filter it to remove parts of the beehive or honeycomb."
Also, honey really is sweeter than regular granulated sugar, so you can use less of it, whether you're baking with it, like in these biscotti, or just adding it to a cup of tea.
3. Honey Helps Alleviate Cold Symptoms
It's not just anecdotal or an ancient remedy passed down through generations. Research shows there's cause for adding a little honey to your tea when you have a cold. Clinical studies, including a paper published in the Journal of American Medical Association, have found that honey can significantly reduce the nagging cough you get at night. In some cases, it works better than traditional cough medicine.
"Your mom just might have been onto something when she gave you honey as a child to help your cough," Michalczyk shares. "In fact, the World Health Organization recommends honey as a potential treatment for cough and cold symptoms. It's important to note however that honey shouldn't be given to children under the age of one."
4. Honey Provides Fuel for Athletes
A tablespoon of honey has 17 grams of carbohydrates—that's about the amount you'd find in a slice of bread—and they're primarily simple carbs at that. This makes honey a prime fuel source for athletes whose bodies rely on readily available carbohydrates for energy. In fact, research shows honey may be just as effective as other carbohydrate sources, like sports gels, when it comes to performance and fatigue.
But honey may do more than just provide an energy boost. A recent study looked at all of the research surrounding supplementing athletes with honey and found that the sweet stuff may help protect your immune system from the toll exercise can take. The caveat? It needs to be a part of your regular routine, incorporated over time.
5. Honey May Be Good for Gut Health
This one is still being sorted out but so far, the results are promising. Honey is made up of different types of sugars like fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Oligosaccharides make up a smaller percentage of honey, and this type of sugar can act like a prebiotic if left undigested in the gut.
At least 20 preliminary studies have been done to assess honey's "prebiotic potential," and it turns out, honey does a pretty good job. It's shown to encourage probiotics to grow, as well as protect the gut and probiotics from harmful pathogens. (Try these 12 fiber-rich foods to get more prebiotics in your diet.)
6. Honey May Help Heal Wounds
Honey has been used for years—even dating back to the ancient Egyptians—as a topical treatment for burns and other wounds. And while there was no way of knowing it at the time, it turns out honey acts as a topical antibiotic, and there's current evidence building to support its continued use.
A recent review article published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology concluded that while more studies need to be done, there may be a sweet spot for honey and healing wounds. Honey appears to speed up the healing process and reduce inflammation.
What About Allergies?
Consuming local honey to help ward off seasonal allergies sounds logical, but it appears to be based on stories, not science. "While there are anecdotal stories of people claiming relief from allergies by eating local honey, there is no published scientific evidence to support these claims," Michalczyk says. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and the National Honey Board agree, sharing there's no scientific proof raw honey nips allergies in the bud, and in some rare cases, it can pose a risk.
Healthy Ways to Enjoy Honey
A little goes a long way thanks to its extra sweetness. Add a teaspoon of honey to a cup of hot tea or add a light drizzle to plain oats or unsweetened yogurt. You can bake with honey, too. Incorporate it into more savory dishes like Honey-Chile Glazed Baked Brussels Sprouts or this Honey-Walnut Shrimp recipe.
Keep in mind a tablespoon of honey has 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association set limits for added sugars. Women should consume no more than 100 calories or 25 grams of added sugar and men, no more than 150 calories or 36 grams.
We're sweet on honey. Although though it's natural, honey still considered an added sugar so keeping an eye on portions is key. That said, there are proven and emerging health benefits and this, coupled with its natural sweetness, offers plenty of reasons to enjoy honey.