Honey And Nutrition: Is Honey Really As Healthy As They Say?

When you search for information about honey nutrition facts, you might think that the National Honey Board (the industry group that promotes honey) had taken over the internet.

Over and over again, you keep seeing it: “Honey is one of the world’s healthiest foods.”

Is that really true? Or is that nearly-universal belief simply the result of a terrific marketing campaign?

As it turns out, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Honey indeed provides a large number of health benefits – but it’s also a form of sugar, with many of the same drawbacks as the stuff you put into your coffee every morning.

Let’s take a deeper dive on the issue of honey and nutrition.

Honey Really Is a Sugar

You might think sugar is always made from sugar juice that’s extracted from a plant like sugar cane or sugar beets.

But whether you’re talking about table sugar, brown sugar or liquid sugar, what defines sugar are the carbohydrates it contains. Those carbs are primarily simple sugars like glucose, fructose and galactose. The white table sugar (chemically known as sucrose) that we’re all familiar with is not a simple sugar; it’s a “disaccharide,” a complex sugar formed when two simple sugars are joined by a chemical bond. But it’s still sugar, because of its carbs.

That brings us to honey. It’s produced in a completely different way than sugar extracted from plants, of course. Honeybees gather nectar, turn it into raw honey and store it in a honeycomb – from which beekeepers collect honey, process it and sell it.

But nearly three-quarters of honey is composed of the simple sugars fructose and glucose (sometimes called dextrose), with smaller amounts of disaccharides like maltose in there as well.

In other words, honey is another form of sugar.

That means honey has the same positive attribute (its wonderfully sweet taste) and negative qualities (effect on blood sugar levels, links to obesity and diabetes) as table sugar and most other natural sweeteners.

Just because honey has the same basic composition as other types of sugar doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. In terms of nutritional value and health benefits, honey is a “better” sugar for your diet than the granulated product on our tables and in our pantries.

Honey vs. “Regular” Sugar

There are several reasons why you’re better off using honey as a sweetening agent instead of table sugar.

First, let’s look at calorie content. The average tablespoon of table sugar has about 50 calories, compared to around 65 calories in a tablespoon of honey. However, what sugar contains are described as “empty calories,” because it’s composed almost completely of fructose, glucose and sucrose with no additional nutritional content.

Honey, on the other hand, contains trace amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals and enzymes as well as sugars. Those each have nutritional value, one reason why honey is a healthier alternative to sugar. Raw honey also contains other remnants of the honey-gathering process, which provide most of the substance’s additional health benefits. We’ll look at those shortly.

Second, honey is sweeter than sugar. So even though it contains more calories, you need to use a lot less of it to achieve the same sweetness as sugar. For example, one cup of sugar is equivalent to ½ to ¾ cup of honey – so you’re actually consuming fewer calories when substituting honey for sugar.

Third, honey is a bit lower on the glycemic index scale (an important number for those with type 2 diabetes), and some types of honey like tupelo and eucalyptus have a much lower GI because of their high fructose content. That doesn’t mean diabetics can go to town when they’re pouring honey into their tea or onto their waffles, but it does make honey a slightly better choice than sugar for them.

Finally, honey contains fewer total carbohydrates than table sugar, which is important when you’re watching your carb consumption (as you should).

Dietitians will tell you that despite honey’s nutritional advantage over sugar, each should be consumed in moderation – and they’re right. Even though neither contains saturated fat (or total fat, for that matter), each contains lots of calories and carbs. Just because honey is the healthier choice, that’s not a blank check to pig out.

In other words, honey is a healthy treat – not a dietary staple.

Nutritional Facts About Honey

Here’s the honest truth: honey is better for you than sugar, but it’s not exactly a nutritional powerhouse.

There’s a small amount of dietary fiber in honey (there’s none in table sugar), but you’d have to eat a ton of honey for it to make any difference in your diet. About 2% of the average variety of honey is made up of vitamins and minerals; the minerals include iron, phosphorus, potassium and sodium, but the mineral content doesn’t approach the USDA’s recommended minimum daily values – assuming that you eat normal serving sizes. The best varietal for minerals: manuka honey from New Zealand.

There are many vitamins present in honey, including vitamins C and B6, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid, as well as 26 different amino acids. It’s always important to remember that these healthy substances are present in raw honey; if pollen and propolis are removed during “pure honey” filtration, most of the nutritional and health benefits are lost. (And if the honey undergoes “ultrafiltration,” the FDA says it’s no longer honey at all.)

Health and Medicinal Properties of Honey

And now we get to the real benefits of honey – other than its fabulous taste.

Most raw honey varieties are packed with flavonoids, phenolic acids and other potent sources of antioxidants, which the body needs to fight damage done by free radicals. Honey’s strong antioxidant properties have been shown to help lower blood pressure and help prevent serious illnesses like heart disease, stroke, and possibly even cancer. Darker honeys, especially buckwheat honey, contain more antioxidants than light-colored ones.

Honey also provides strong antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits. That makes it effective in promoting wound healing, and in treating inflammatory diseases ranging from diabetes and asthma, to gastrointestinal issues like IBD and ulcers. Some honey varieties are also believed to help treat diseases as varied as cystic fibrosis and acne.

And of course, it’s great for sore throats, too.

Honey isn’t a miracle weight loss cure, it doesn’t regrow hair, and it won’t cure all of your illnesses and ailments.

But it’s much better for you than sugar or other sweeteners like corn syrup, it’s absolutely delicious, and its many medicinal and nutritional benefits make it one of the healthiest foods you can eat.