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The Sweet Truth of Honey

Wednesday, June 09, 2021
By:  Kelsey Dunn



Honey is a sticky, natural sweetener produced by bees which tastes great in baked goods, stirred in tea, drizzled on toast, or even in a marinade. Nevertheless, many are puzzled wondering if honey is a healthier alternative to use than table sugar.

Honey has been around for thousands of years, with its use dating back to ancient times, over 5,500 years ago. The Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians, Mayans, and Babylonian all used it for both medical and nutritional reasons.1 It is produced by honeybees from the floral nectar of plants, with each plant containing different types of nectar, resulting in about 300 different varieties of honey.2,1 Removing the honey from the nest causes no harm to the bees as they produce much more than their colony needs, up to an extra 65 pounds a year, so beekeepers take only the excess to be bottled and eaten by many.3 Honey is the only food in the world produced by insects that humans eat4- that’s a cool fact to think about!

Honey is a supersaturated mixture of sugars, consisting of mostly fructose and glucose.2 These are simple sugars that the body can easily break down to be converted to energy. In 1 tablespoon of honey, there is about 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar.5 Similarly, white table sugar, which is sucrose, contains about 45 calories and 12 grams of sugar in 1 tablespoon. Honey has a higher amount of fructose than table sugar, making it taste about 25% sweeter, but it also contains many components and nutrients that are not present in white sugar.1

The exact nutritional composition is dependent on various factors such as pollen source, environmental conditions (temperature, pollution, etc.), commercial processing and storage.2 Besides carbohydrates (in the form of simple sugars), honey also contains small amounts of protein, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants such as catalase, ascorbic acid, flavonoids, and alkaloids.4 Honey has a high osmolarity (high sugar and low water content) and a low pH (high acidity) and contains glucose oxidase, which is converted to hydrogen peroxide, and phytochemicals, such as methylglyoxal (MGO).6 These features of honey contribute to how it is able to inhibit several bacterial pathogens, having antibacterial properties.6 

Individuals with Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis may benefit from following the IBD-AID (Inflammatory Bowel Disease-Anti-inflammatory Diet), in which prebiotics and probiotics are recommended to maintain good gut bacteria.7 Some food sources of prebiotics include garlic, onion, banana, oats and leeks, with honey also being recognized as a potential prebiotic.2 This is because honey has oligosaccharides that can promote the growth of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are probiotics, or “good” bacteria. Also, honey’s antimicrobial components work with the probiotics in the gut against certain pathogens, or “bad” bacteria.2 

In addition to consuming honey in our diet, it has long been documented as having healing properties when applied topically. Multiple studies have found that honey’s nutrient makeup can aid in stimulating tissue growth, synthesizing collagen, developing new blood vessels in wounds, and reducing inflammation.8 One study compared three locally sourced, unprocessed honeys and three commercially prepared therapeutic honeys (such as Manuka and Medihoney) and examined their anti-bacterial activity against pathogenic bacterial. The results found that all 6 of these honeys inhibited almost all of the bacteria, concluding that locally sourced honey has a similar anti-bacterial effect.9

Another use of honey has been as an alternative to over-the-counter cough suppressants for young children with upper respiratory infections. One study that was conducted on children ages 1-5 found that honey, specifically buckwheat honey, had a significant reduction in cough and improved sleep for both child and caregiver.10 The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends honey as a treatment for coughs in young children. However, it is very important to note that honey should never be given to a child under 12 months of age as it can cause a sickness called infant botulism. This disease is triggered by honey and can result in the growth of bacteria in the intestines, filling the gut with toxins. Honey is found to be safe for those 1 year and older.11

Have you noticed that your bottle of honey classifies the sugar on the Nutrition Facts Label as “added sugars”? Added sugars on the label refer to those that have been added to a product in processing or packaging.12 While no sugar is added into honey, it doesn’t provide substantial nutritional value and is not intended to be consumed alone, so therefore anything it is added to, is in fact adding sugar. Regular table sugar is labeled as added sugar and therefore labeling honey the same reminds the consumer that they are still eating sugars.12 To clear up any confusion, the FDA has placed a symbol next to the daily value indicating that the sugar is naturally occurring.12

While honey has some additional benefits over traditional table sugar, it is important to remember that it is still a sugar and should be consumed in moderation. When honey is digested, our body breaks it down similarly to the way that it would other sugars.13 The dietary guidelines for Americans recommends that no more than 10% of total daily calories come from sugar, and this includes honey.14 It is unclear how much honey one would need to consume to exert some of these benefits and therefore research is ongoing, and more evidence is needed. In the meantime, try out the recipe below for a fun treat that features the main topic- honey!

Recipe for Honey Oatmeal Cookies

honey oatmeal cookiesIngredients:

  • ¼ cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup honey- local is best
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp water
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 ½ cups oats
  • Optional: ¼ cup unsweetened chocolate chips or walnuts


  • Preheat oven to 350°F.
  • Combine the yogurt, honey, egg, and water and mix using either a mixer or a whisk, until thoroughly combined.
  • In a separate small bowl, mix together the almond flour, salt, and baking soda. Then, stir in the oats.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until combined. Also, at this time add in any optional ingredients you may be including (i.e., unsweetened chocolate chips/walnuts).
  • Using a tablespoon, place even amounts of the batter on a baking sheet, spaced equally apart.
  • Bake for about 12-14 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown. Cool before serving.


  1. Samarghandian S, Farkhondeh T, Samini F. Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research. Pharmacognosy Res. 2017;9(2):121-127. doi:10.4103/0974-8490.204647
  2. Mohan A, Quek S-Y, Gutierrez-Maddox N, Gao Y, Shu Q. Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance.Food Quality and Safety. May 2017:107-115. doi:10.1093/fqs/fyx015
  3. About Honey. National Honey Board.
  4. Honey Facts and Nutrition. GloryBee.
  5. Shortsleeve C. Is Honey Healthy? What to Know About Its Nutrition Facts. Time. Published April 16, 2019.
  6. Mandal MD, Mandal S. Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity.Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine. 2011;1(2):154-160. doi:10.1016/s2221-1691(11)60016-6 
  7. IBD Anti-Inflammatory Diet. University of Massachusetts Medical School. Published August 22, 2019.
  8. Al-Waili N, Salom K, Al-Ghamdi AA. Honey for Wound Healing, Ulcers, and Burns; Data Supporting Its Use in Clinical Practice.The Scientific World JOURNAL. 2011;11:766-787. doi:10.1100/tsw.2011.78 
  9. Lusby PE, Coombes AL, Wilkinson JM. Bactericidal Activity of Different Honeys against Pathogenic Bacteria. Archives of Medical Research. 2005;36(5):464-467. doi:10.1016/j.arcmed.2005.03.038 
  10. Paul IM. Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents.Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2007;161(12):1140-1146. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.12.1140
  11. Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?
  12. Sollid K. Sugars Labeling of Honey and Maple Syrup: It's a Sticky Situation. Food Insight. Published August 7, 2018.
  13. Sollid K. What is Honey? Food Insight. Published December 23, 2020.
  14. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
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