Honey gets a lot of hype. But is its su­per­food sta­tus deserved?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words BETH GIB­BONS

For a sub­stance that’s re­ally just liq­uid su­gar – the recog­nised neme­sis of healthy eat­ing – honey has a pretty good rep. Treated as a heal­ing food in an­cient times, and touted by cur­rent science as an an­ti­sep­tic and an­tibac­te­rial com­pound, it cer­tainly ap­pears to be­long at the ‘su­per’ end of the healthy food scale.

Which is all well and good. But the prob­lem with our con­tin­u­ing pen­chant for the golden nec­tar is that, these days, you can pick up bot­tles and jars of the stuff on shelves and web­sites, any­where and ev­ery­where – and not all hon­eys are cre­ated equal. ‘Where the honey orig­i­nates from and its pro­cess­ing can make a big dif­fer­ence to its nu­tri­tional con­tent,’ ex­plains Lily Sout­ter, nu­tri­tion­ist at Nuffield Health. ‘So it pays to be dis­cern­ing when you pick up a jar.’ First things first: from the flower to the pot, by way of bees. Honey is de­rived from plant nec­tar, a sweet treat de­signed to at­tract in­sects and en­cour­age pol­li­na­tion. Bees hoover up the sug­ary solution, stor­ing it in a sec­ond stom­ach where it’s mixed with var­i­ous en­zymes, be­fore re­gur­gi­tat­ing it into the mouths of other bees (let’s gloss over that bit), be­fore de­posit­ing it in a hon­ey­comb cell. Here, the fan­ning of the wings of the bees evap­o­rates much of the wa­ter con­tent, caus­ing it to thicken. The re­sult­ing honey is then stored away for the bees to feast on dur­ing win­ter – or un­til an ea­ger bee­keeper comes along and snatches it away.


The lat­ter out­come is be­com­ing more and more likely as honey is now big busi­ness. More than 25,000 tonnes are con­sumed in the UK each year, where the mar­ket now ex­ceeds £100 mil­lion – a fig­ure that spikes with ev­ery new head­line ex­tolling its virtues. So, given the mam­moth amount of cash we’ve been throw­ing at honey, is the buzz sur­round­ing its nu­mer­ous health ben­e­fits re­ally to be be­lieved? Well, if it’s a straight choice be­tween honey and re­fined su­gar, the work of the hon­ey­bees wins hands down. ‘Thanks to a higher ra­tio of fruc­tose to glu­cose, honey has a lower gly­caemic in­dex than su­gar,’ ex­plains Sout­ter, ‘so it pro­vides a slower re­lease of en­ergy.’ Cue your body not hav­ing to work so hard to con­trol blood su­gar spikes, which set off a risky domino ef­fect that can lead to de­hy­dra­tion, weight gain, fa­tigue and light-head­ed­ness. Re­sult. Although, Sout­ter ex­plains that when all’s said and done, honey is by and large just su­gar in an­other form. ‘In terms of a nu­tri­tional pro­file, honey isn’t much to write home about,’ she says. ‘It’s mostly su­gar, with only trace amounts of vi­ta­mins, min­er­als and pro­tein. Gen­er­ally speak­ing,


the darker the honey, the more an­tiox­i­dants it con­tains, but you’d need to eat vast amounts to gain any real ben­e­fits.’ And with 30g of su­gar (that’s a third of your rec­om­mended daily in­take), in just 1.5 tbsp honey, the ar­gu­ment for driz­zling it in abun­dance as an in­no­cent al­ter­na­tive to ta­ble su­gar or golden syrup quickly falls apart.


How­ever, all is not lost – it’s the plant com­pounds con­tained in honey that re­ally set it apart. Dr Rowena Jenk­ins, a lec­turer in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy at Cardiff Met­ro­pol­i­tan Univer­sity, is cur­rently re­search­ing the an­timi­cro­bial ben­e­fits of the spread. ‘We know from re­search that honey acts like a nat­u­ral an­tibi­otic,’ she says. ‘One of the rea­sons you can keep a jar of honey for years with­out the con­tents go­ing mouldy is be­cause it has a high acid­ity con­tent, as well as a low wa­ter con­tent, which means bac­te­ria strug­gle to grow on it.’ Happy days. ‘In­deed, honey also con­tains help­ful phy­to­chem­i­cal com­pounds,’ she adds. ‘Manuka honey, for ex­am­ple, con­tains methyl­gly­oxal, which has strong an­tibac­te­rial prop­er­ties.’ In fact, re­search shows manuka can wipe out a broad spec­trum of bac­te­ria, in­clud­ing MRSA, when ap­plied to wounds and could even help com­bat the grow­ing threat of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance. ‘Stud­ies in­di­cate it con­tains so many ac­tive in­gre­di­ents, the bac­te­ria can’t adapt rapidly enough to be­come re­sis­tant,’ ex­plains Dr Jenk­ins. Be­yond skin heal­ing, how­ever, there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that in­gest­ing honey boasts any ac­tive health ben­e­fits. One study, pub­lished in Archives of Pe­di­atrics & Ado­les­cent Medicine, found a spoon­ful of buck­wheat honey was as ef­fec­tive at eas­ing coughs as dex­tromethor­phan, an over-the-counter rem­edy. But given that dex­tromethor­phan is not es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive in the first place, this doesn’t ac­tu­ally say much. What of the re­lief you get from a spoon­ful of honey in that hot wa­ter and

le­mon con­coc­tion you drink by the gal­lon when a com­mon cold hits? That’s down to honey’s power as a demul­cent (say what? It means it’s syrupy in tex­ture and coats the throat), which can be sooth­ing. But all honey fits that bill, so there’s no need to splash out on the pricey stuff.


The real is­sue with your daily driz­zle is there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween med­i­cal grade honey and the jars found in your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket – even those that re­quire you to take out a small loan. ‘Mod­ern pro­cess­ing meth­ods can de­stroy those ben­e­fi­cial ac­tive in­gre­di­ents in honey,’ says Sout­ter, ‘while even sup­pos­edly “pure” ones might ac­tu­ally not be up to scratch.’ In­deed, the Food Stan­dards Agency found that around a third of manuka honey jars on UK shelves were non-com­pli­ant in terms of qual­ity, botan­i­cal ori­gin and po­tency. This be­comes a far less sur­pris­ing (but all the more shock­ing) statis­tic when you con­sider a re­port by The Gro­cer,


which stated that three times more manuka is be­ing sold world­wide than has ac­tu­ally been pro­duced. Sounds sticky. ‘If it’s the health prop­er­ties of honey you’re af­ter, check the unique manuka fac­tor (UMF) rat­ing,’ ad­vises Dr Jenk­ins. ‘This trade­mark is only given to honey that con­tains four im­por­tant mark­ers, in­clud­ing lep­tosperin (a com­pound unique to manuka nec­tar) and bac­te­ria-bust­ing methyl­gly­oxal. The higher the UMF num­ber, the more po­tent the prop­er­ties.’ But nu­tri­tion­ists are still keen not to have honey held in the same re­gard as su­per­food favourites such as an­tiox­i­dant-loaded veg­eta­bles and fruits. ‘It’s dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory to de­scribe honey as a su­per­food or say that it’s ac­tively good for you,’ warns Sout­ter. ‘It’s bet­ter to think of it as a sweet­ener with ben­e­fits.’ Worth re­mem­ber­ing the next time you’re tempted to go full Win­nie-the-pooh on that jar of golden good­ness.

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