Honey - is it better than sugar solution?

What exactly is honey?

Honey is essentially a mixture of sugar (sucrose) and water. It is made by the honey bee from the sugar rich nectar produced by flowering plants. Honey bees digest nectar, and then regurgitate the digested nectar as honey, which they then store in broodless honeycombs as a source of food for the bee colony. The sugar in nectar is sucrose, the same as ordinary table sugar. When a bee digests the nectar it is broken down by an enzyme in the bees digestive tract, called invertase. We have the same enzyme in our small intestines, where it is called sucrase. Invertase breaks the sucrose down into glucose (blood sugar) and fructose (plant sugar). The mixture of fructose and glucose is usually called invert sugar.

The honey produced is mostly invert sugar (mixture of glucose and fructose), with about 20% water, some dextrin (broken down starch remnants) along with some ash and a large number of organic acids. A typical breakdown is as follows:

  • Water 22%
  • Invert sugar 74%
  • Sucrose 2%
  • Ash 0.2%
  • Organic acid 0.8%
  • Dextrin 1%

Honey characteristics.

Clear or cloudy.

The difference between clear and cloudy honey relates to a number of factors. One, is that if the honey has a relatively high fructose content then the glucose in it crytallises into granules more easily. This happens mostly between 10-25C. Honey won't crystallise below 5C and will melt when approaching 50C. If you want to make your honey clear again, place it with the lid loosened in water at 50C and stir. Don't let the water go above 60C and don't microwave it or put it in the oven as this will caramelise it, giving it a different taste.

Sweetness and flavour.

You will come across many different types fo honey such as acacia honey, clover honey, heather honey, orange blossom honey as well as the surprisingly expensive, manuka honey. Most types of honey are sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), because they contain more fructose than glucose. Fructose is sweeter than sugar while glucose is less sweet, and so most honey is sweeter.

The different types of honey all have different flavours. Acacia is clear with a mild floral taste. Clover is also mild with a slight sour aftertaste. Heather honey is strong and pungent with a bitter aftertaste. Orange blossom has a fruity smell and slightly citrus taste.

Honey and health.

There are a few health considerations when quaffing down tablespoons of honey.

Infant botulism.

Infant botulism is a potentially life-threatening condition, in which a toxin produced by the spores of the bacteria, clostridium botulinum (C. Botulinum) attacks the gut. Most infants older than 6 months will have enough of their own intestinal bacteria to create an environment that C. Botulinum can't survive in. Before this age, the intestines of an infant allow the spores to develop into a vegetative phase, in which they can release an extremely poisonous toxin.

Honey comes into this story because it can contain C.Botulinum spores. Now honey is anti-microbial because it stores water well, and doesn't release it to small organisms such as bacteria very easily. There is in fact a scientific measure for this property called "water activity". The water activity of most honey is too low c. 0.61 to allow bacteria to survive. It is thought that bacteria require a minimum water activity of 0.91 to survive, while fungi require 0.70. However, in the spore form bacteria can survive in almost any environment, and this is what happens with C.Botulinum. Because an infants gut does not have its own intestinal flora (good bacteria), it is not fully protected against C.Botulinum until the age of about 1 year. You may find warnings on the side of some honey jars warning you of this fact. Don't panic though, infant botulism is very rare in the UK1.

Diabetes and blood sugar control.

Generally speaking honey is no better for you than other sugars, despite what those selling honey would have you believe. If you want to eat honey and are diabetic, then treat it as you should any carbohydrate food, and eat it in moderation at times when your body is likely to be able to burn off the sugars as energy.

Honey and wound healing. 

In general all honey has some antimicrobial properties.

  • The property of not allowing bacteria any water, and without water the bacteria perish. As such honey should prevent infection to wounds from the outside of the body.
  • Most honey contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase that is added when a bee makes honey. This enzyme slowly produces hydrogen peroxide that can kill off bacteria. The effect of hydrogen peroxide only works with sufficient oxygen, which makes it of limited use under wound dressings.
  • Manuka honey in particular contains additional chemicals that are antimicrobial. These chemicals reduce the ability of some bacteria to protect themselves2. In particular it prevents bacteria from using damaged cells in our body as a protective shield around themselves. If you ever fork out for the manuka honey it costs between £12-£35 for a standard 500g jar. Some of this price differential relates to what is called the unique manuka factor (UMF) rating. The UMF is a trademarked measure of the anti-bacterial activity of the honey.

Honey and hayfever.

It is a popular belief that local honey can reduce hayfever symptoms. There is not much evidence for this though. One of the few studies on this topic came up negative3. The pollen that bees come into contact with is generally of the non-allergy provoking type, while most hay fever symptoms are caused by tree of grass pollens that are no more likely to be found in honey than a local crop plant.

Honey for general health.

Manuka honey is also touted as an oral agent to counter stomach bacteria such as Helicobacer Pylori (H.Pylori). However, being essentially sugar it can make matters worse if there are any fungi or yeast growing in the digestive tract. As the triple therapy and antacid medications commonly used with H. Pylori infection can lead to fungal overgrowth it is not advisable to use honey to treat this infection.

Manuka honey and health.

Most manuka honey is sold with an advertised UMF rating. According to the people that certify manuka honey, this is the anti-microbial potential for the honey. It is primarily based on a chemical called methylglyoxal. Now methylglyoxal is not only damaging to bacteria, but also can cause havoc in our bodies, as it is associated with the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These are associated with accelerated atherosclerosis (furring of the arteries)4. Another property of methylglyoxal is that it can heighten pain sensations. You pay more the higher the UMF factor. This may be worthwhile if you are treating an open wound, but in my opinion you are wasting your money if you are going to eat it.

In general honey does contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, but in truth not very much af any of them. Compared to a multivitamin, honey spread on your bread probably contains about 1 hundredth of the amount of micronutrients in a multi vitamin/mineral combination.

DrDobbin says:

Honey is a nice tasty treat. Local honey is a great way of boosting local farmers, and through them, your environment. Don't forget the enormous role played by bees in pollinating most of the foods that we eat. So eating honey is a bonus for the environment.

When it comes to health however, bear in mind that it is essentially sugar, and although you hear a lot about how healthy it is, ultimately the biggest health benefits are when it is used on wound dressings. I do rate its ability as an alternative to antibiotic therapy to prevent infection in open wounds. If you are eating it for health reasons however, I would advise you not to get your hopes up too much. It is unlikely to influence your hayfever and there is some possibility that long term consumption of manuka honey would be worse than consuming the same amount of sugar solution as the methylglyoxal in it could worsen the damage caused by high blood sugar levels.

References:

1) http://casereports.bmj.com/content/2010/bcr.05.2010.3038.full

2) http://mic.sgmjournals.org/content/early/2012/01/31/mic.0.053959-0.abstract

3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11868925

4) http://www.fasebj.org/content/21/12/3096.full