Honey gets a lot of hype. But is its superfood status deserved?
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,
‘HONEY CAN HELP COMBAT ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE’
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,
‘MORE MANUKA IS SOLD THAN HAS ACTUALLY BEEN MADE’
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.