Honey is a sweet that evokes warmth and comfort, and has a reputation for being a soothing elixir during cold and flu season.
It’s not uncommon for honey sales to peak in January, according to the National Honey Board, the industry’s promotion board.
Made by bees from flower nectar, honey has been eaten and used medicinally by humans for thousands of years. But is honey really good for you?
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Honey is naturally about 80% sugar, so it is calorie and energy dense. One tablespoon of honey contains the following, according to the US Department of Agriculture:
64 calories 17 grams of carbohydrates 17 grams of sugar
Honey has no fat, protein, fiber or cholesterol, but one tablespoon contains traces of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamin C and folate.
In total, honey contains about 180 different types of compounds, including several phytochemicals, or bioactive compounds of plant origin, studies have found.
What are the health benefits of honey?
If you’re choosing between different types of sweeteners, honey may have some benefit because of all the different compounds it contains, says Maya Vadiveloo, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and associate professor of nutrition at Rhode University. island
“There’s been some research showing that it has more antioxidants and is a relatively better source of potassium and some minerals than, say, table sugar,” Vadiveloo tells.
“But I wouldn’t rush to eat honey as a health food…it’s still a source of added sugar.”
Honey contains antioxidants like phenolic acid and flavonoids, making it a slightly better choice than sugar, but both should be consumed in moderation, says Elisabetta Politi, a clinical dietitian at the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center. in Durham, North Carolina.
As a source of antioxidants, some studies suggest that honey may help prevent heart disease, he adds.
A recent study found that consuming about 2 tablespoons of honey a day along with a healthy diet can improve cholesterol levels, lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL cholesterol, says Diego Garzon, a clinical dietitian at UHealth , the University of Miami Health System.
What kind of honey is the best?
Darker honey generally has a higher antioxidant content than lighter honey, with Illinois buckwheat honey showing the highest antioxidant activity, according to the National Honey Board.
Regardless of the floral source, Garzon recommends eating raw honey, which hasn’t been heated or filtered, “so it tends to be a very pure form of honey without the nutritional content being compromised,” he says.
According to the Mayo Clinic, food-borne pathogens do not survive in honey, so heating does not provide any food safety benefits.
How is honey used for healing?
Honey has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties.
Some of the components of honey can kill certain bacteria and fungi; it can prevent skin from sticking to wound dressings and can provide nutrients that speed wound healing, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Honey is possibly effective in improving the healing of burns, cold sores, and swelling and sores inside the mouth caused by chemotherapy or radiation, the agency notes, citing the Comprehensive Database of natural medicines
Topical honey products can also improve rosacea symptoms, she adds.
Is honey effective for cough?
Yes, in head-to-head studies, honey worked as well as or outperformed cough medicine, said Dr. John Torres, senior medical correspondent.
“He did a really good job,” Torres noted.
When children with an upper respiratory tract infection were given a dose of buckwheat honey, a cough suppressant or no treatment to relieve nighttime coughs, their parents rated honey as the most effective remedy, found a study published in JAMA Pediatrics. It reduced the cough and helped the children sleep.
“The mechanism of cough suppression is not well understood, but honey has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. … It may also cover a sore throat,” he previously told.
Honey is “cheap, readily available and has virtually no side effects, and doctors can recommend it as a suitable alternative to antibiotics” when dealing with upper respiratory tract infections in adults, the researchers reported in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.
To relieve a cough, experts suggest adding a little honey to some tea or hot, not boiling, water.
Does honey help with allergies?
No, this is a common myth, but honey does not help with seasonal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The theory is that local honey helps desensitize the body to pollen, but the pollen collected by bees for honey is different from the pollens that cause allergies, the foundation noted.
The small amount of pollen allergens that can make it into honey would be broken down by the honey-making process and a person’s stomach enzymes during digestion, so “you wouldn’t ingest enough pollen intact that your immune system starts to become desensitized to it.” AAFA explains it.
Honey should never be given to babies under 12 months old because of the risk of infant botulism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. It’s safe for children who are at least 1 year old, the agency adds.
Honey can slow blood clotting, so it could increase the risk of bruising and bleeding if eaten by people taking medications that also slow blood clotting, the National Library of Medicine warns.
Large amounts of honey can raise blood sugar levels in patients with type 2 diabetes, he adds. The glycemic index, a measure of how quickly a food raises blood glucose, of honey and sugar is about the same, Politi says.
Is it okay to take honey every day?
Honey is considered an added sugar, which should be limited to no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men, advises the American Heart Association.
This goes for all sources of added sugar, which add up quickly, Vadiveloo warns.
If you don’t eat any other sugar, 2 to 3 tablespoons of honey a day should be the maximum, she and the other dietitians interviewed say.
The best way to use honey is as a replacement for other sweeteners, as it provides some slight benefits over granulated white sugar, advises Garzon.
“If you don’t mind the taste of honey and you already use sugar in your coffee or tea, then yes, I think there may be some benefit to replacing the honey,” agreed Vadiveloo.
“(But) I wouldn’t say you need to eat honey as part of a balanced diet. It’s not one of those things you need to eat more of, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes — it’s not in this category”.