Over one million tons of honey is produced annually worldwide. (8) Beyond its use as a sugar alternative, there are many health benefits of honey, and it is often used therapeutically.

What is honey?

Honey is the sweet sticky substance made by honey bees (Apis mellifera). (10)(16) It is derived from the nectar of flowers, or from the honey-dew left on plants from aphids (Rhynchota), a type of insect that feeds on plants. (1)(6)(10) Honey obtained from flower nectar is commonly referred to as ‘floral’ or ‘blossom’ honey, whereas honey produced from aphid waste is referred to as ‘honeydew’ or ‘forest honey’. (1) Bees gather nectar as they pollinate flowers and process it into honey through regurgitation. (5)(6) They then leave their honeycombs to dry and ripen over time. (5)(6)

Honey bee collecting nectar from a flower

Bees collect nectar from flowers and aphids, which they then turn into honey.

Nutritional Information

Nutritionally speaking, honey is made up of 75% glucose and fructose and 10 to 15% other simple sugars such as disaccharides and oligosaccharides. (10) In addition to its sugar content, honey has a high nutritional value, with over 300 components, including:

  • Amino acids
  • Enzymes
  • Minerals
  • Organic acids
  • Phytonutrients (plant chemicals)
  • Polyphenols
  • Prebiotics
  • Protein
  • Vitamins (1)(10)

Many factors can contribute to changes in the flavour, nutritional value, and benefits of honey such as:

  • Color
  • Geographical location
  • Harvest season
  • Heat exposure
  • Origin flower
  • Processing methods
  • Storage conditions (8)(10)

For example, darker honeys tend to have a higher mineral content, sitting at around 0.2%, compared to lighter honeys which are closer to .04%. (10) As another example, when light and medium honeys are exposed to heat, their antioxidant values increase. (10) In contrast, dark honey exposed to heat experiences the opposite outcome. (10) This is a result of the change in chemical structure of the honey when heated, specifically the relationship between polyphenols and proteins. (10) This change, coupled with the already present differences of light and dark honey due to their individual origin flowers and geographical locations, cause a unique outcome when exposed to heat. (10)

Health benefits of honey

Honey has been used therapeutically for over 2,000 years. (7)(11) Now, honey is considered a functional food due to its ability to support health and well-being. (8) The health benefits of honey may be attributed to its nutritional value, (10) and the increased interest in its therapeutic use may be related to a number of beneficial properties, such as:

The antimicrobial effect of honey has been the most heavily researched due to the recent increase in prevalence of antibiotic resistance. The high sugar content and low pH of honey helps to prevent microbial growth. (1)(4) These and other properties make honey a desirable ingredient for internal and external use.

Health benefits of consuming honey

Unlike refined sugars, honey doesn’t only serve a single purpose of sweeting things up.. As a result of its more diverse nutritional composition, raw honey in particular, can be extremely versatile in the health benefits it offers when it is consumed. As an added bonus, the naturally sweet nature of honey, makes it a more palatable alternative to other ingestible remedies.

Digestion

Raw, natural honey contains beneficial properties that may assist in digestion. The presence of enzymes in honey facilitates the absorption of sugars and starches from food moving through the gastrointestinal tract. (11)

Raw honey benefits also include its prebiotic content, which help promote probiotic activity. The prebiotics that are present in honey include inulin, oligofructose, and oligosaccharides. These have been shown to help promote the increase in levels of beneficial probiotics in the GI tract, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, and L. plantarum, aiding in digestion and supporting overall gastrointestinal (GI) function. (11)

Honey may also be a useful treatment for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and mucosal infection. These conditions are characterized by gastric reflux into the esophagus, and often the lungs, which can cause discomfort. Symptoms of GERD include heartburn, inflammation, and acid regurgitation. Honey may help ease the pain associated with these conditions by coating the stomach and esophageal wall, creating a protective barrier and preventing fluids and acids from being pushed back up the esophagus. (11)

Oral health

Manuka honey may be beneficial in the prevention of plaque build-up on your teeth. Unlike refined sugars, the calcium, fluoride, and phosphorus content in manuka honey may help prevent cavity formation. For post-dental surgeries, honey may also be helpful because of its ability to support wound healing and prevent infection. (1)

Honey can also help soothe a sore throat as it coats the throat and helps manage pain as a result of its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity. (11)

Jars of honey

Honey can be used as a substitute for refined, white sugar, in cooking and baking.

Alternative sweetener

Honey is a popular alternative sweetener for those looking to avoid processed sugars. However, it is still unclear whether or not honey is suitable for diabetics or those with glycemic issues. It has been suggested that the sugar in honey may be more slowly absorbed in the intestines as a result of its carbohydrate content, and that hydrogen peroxide in honey may have insulin-like effects. The nutritional content of honey, specifically the minerals zinc and copper, antioxidants, and the types of sugar present, have also been thought to impact glucose regulation, although more research is needed. (8)

The high fructose content in honey makes it an ideal sweetener for those looking to make a switch from refined sugars. Fructose is lower on the glycemic index compared to glucose and sucrose. This means that you can use less honey to achieve the same level of sweetness when using it as a sugar substitute. Honey may also have a hypoglycemic effect due to the presence of phenolic acid, flavonoids, and minerals. (2)

In comparison, white sugar is processed, stripping it of minerals or other beneficial nutrients. (2) Honey also has lower triglycerides and glucose levels than refined sugars, so it may be a suitable alternative for if you have cardiovascular disease (CVD). (1)

Health benefits of topical honey

Honey has shown positive results as a topical treatment because of its immunomodulating, antimicrobial, and antiinflammatory properties. (10) It is most commonly used to help support wound healing, but has also been used to treat other skin conditions, such as:

  • Burns
  • Dandruff
  • Dermatitis
  • Diabetic wounds
  • Eczema
  • Gangrene
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Psoriasis
  • Ulcers (3)(4)(10)

Wounds

Natural honey has been shown to be an effective treatment when used topically on wounds and burns. (1) This may be attributed to its hydrogen peroxide content, providing antimicrobial properties. Hydrogen peroxide is produced when glucose oxidase from honey bee glands reacts with glucose and water. (1)(4)

When used in wound dressings, honey helps encourage healing and minimizes scar formation. (1)(9)(11) Honey forms a protective barrier between the wound and dressing, which prevents the dressing from sticking to the wound. (1)(3) This barrier also helps to prevent the formation of a biofilm. Biofilms are collections of bacteria, fungus, and microbes that interfere with the healing process by sticking to the surface of a wound. (9) Honey helps prevent wound infection by dehydrating bacteria and other microbes through the absorption of water from the wound area. The low pH of honey also creates a more acidic environment, which discourages bacterial growth. (1)

Honey has been approved for clinical use in wound treatment in the following countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Europe
  • Hong Kong
  • New Zealand
  • United States (9)
Woman applying topical honey on her face

Honey can be used as a substitute for refined, white sugar, in cooking and baking.

Skin and hair

Honey is an ideal ingredient for personal care products, those who suffer from dry hair and skin, because of its humectant and emollient properties. These are the main two honey benefits for skin and hair; humectants draw moisture into the skin and hair, while emollients are softening and soothing. The glucose, fructose, amino acids, and organic acids found in honey provide hydrating properties. Glucose and fructose form hydrogen bridges with water, helping the skin retain its water content. (3)

Acacia honey tends to be the most popular honey used in cosmetics. This is because it has higher levels of fructose, which is easier to dissolve than other sugar types present in honey such as glucose, preventing potential crystallization. The low pH value and anti-irritating properties of honey makes it a suitable ingredient for the upper layer of the skin, especially for those with sensitivities. (3)

Although honey is a popular ingredient for cosmetics, its stickiness makes it difficult for the skin to absorb it in its natural form. To avoid this, honey is often processed by being dried or hydrogenated, or its moisture content is otherwise altered. Commercial cosmetics containing honey tend to have a honey content of between 1 to 10%. It is possible to achieve up to 70% honey content in cosmetics without sacrificing absorption or consistency by mixing honey with gels such as aloe vera gel, carrier oils, or emulsifiers. (3)

Manuka honey health benefits

Manuka honey (Leptospermum species) has increased in popularity over the past few years. (4) It is a dark honey sourced from Australia and New Zealand that is made from the nectar of the Manuka tree flower. (7) Darker honeys, like manuka, have higher levels of antimicrobials and antioxidants, potentially resulting in an anti-inflammatory effect. (4)

The antibacterial level of manuka is measured by the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating, which denotes the concentration of phenols. Another antibacterial measurement system for manuka honey is the methylglyoxal content (MGO). Manuka honey with different UMF and MGO ratings will have different medicinal properties. (7) Unlike other forms of honey, manuka honey has low levels of hydrogen peroxide, but antimicrobial activity is still present. However, manuka honey is less effective at treating fungal issues, due to its lower hydrogen peroxide levels. (4)

Manuka honey is another type of honey that has become a popular ingredient in skin and hair care. Manuka honey health benefits for skin are its signs of collagen boosting properties. (3)

Quality and storage considerations for honey

Avoid honey that is processed, includes additives, or is derived from sugar-fed bees. (1) When selecting a honey, look for raw, unheated honey, packaged in dark colored glass. (2) Honey can be stored for an extended period at room temperature without any negative effects, however, it is best kept in a cool, dark place. (2)(8) The low water content in honey keeps it safe from microbial contamination, however, fermentation may result from long term storage. (8)
There is the potential for honey to become contaminated. Honey from bees who have collected nectar from poisonous plants, or who have been exposed to pesticides and other harmful chemicals is most at risk. (8) Consumption of contaminated honey may result in honey poisoning. Although honey poisoning is rare, it is important to be aware of the associated signs and symptoms, which can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Blurred eyesight
  • Nausea
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting (8)

Honey and other bee products should also be avoided by those with sensitivities and allergies, as well as by elderly individuals, infants, and individuals who may have compromised immune systems. (3)(11) It is always best to consult your health care practitioner if you have any allergies or are diabetic prior to incorporating honey into your diet or personal care routine.

The bottom line

Honey is a deceivingly simple, natural ingredient that is widely available. With many benefits and potential uses, it is definitely worthwhile to consider how you can incorporate honey into your diet and personal care routine.

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  1. Ajibola, A. (2015, September). Novel Insights into the Health Importance of Natural Honey. Retrieved October 3, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5295738/
  2. Bobiş, O., Dezmirean, D. S., & Moise, A. R. (2018). Honey and Diabetes: The Importance of Natural Simple Sugars in Diet for Preventing and Treating Different Type of Diabetes. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018, 1-12. doi:10.1155/2018/4757893
  3. Burlando, B., & Cornara, L. (2013). Honey in dermatology and skin care: A review. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 12(4), 306-313. doi:10.1111/jocd.12058
  4. Carter, D. A., Blair, S. E., Cokcetin, N. N., Bouzo, D., Brooks, P., Schothauer, R., & Harry, E. J. (2016). Therapeutic Manuka Honey: No Longer So Alternative. Frontiers in Microbiology, 7. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.00569
  5. E. R. H. S. S Ediriweera, & Premarathna, N. Y. (2012). Medicinal and cosmetic uses of Bee′s Honey – A review. AYU (An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda), 33(2), 178. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.105233
  6. Hills, Mitchell, Wells, & Russell. (2019). Honey Supplementation and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 11(7), 1586. doi:10.3390/nu11071586
  7. Johnston, M., Mcbride, M., Dahiya, D., Owusu-Apenten, R., & Nigam, P. S. (2018). Antibacterial activity of Manuka honey and its components: An overview. AIMS Microbiology, 4(4), 655-664. doi:10.3934/microbiol.2018.4.655
  8. Khan, R. U., Naz, S., & Abudabos, A. M. (2017). Towards a better understanding of the therapeutic applications and corresponding mechanisms of action of honey. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 24(36), 27755-27766. doi:10.1007/s11356-017-0567-0
  9. Mcloone, P., Oluwadun, A., Warnock, M., & Fyfe, L. (2016). Honey: A Therapeutic Agent for Disorders of the Skin. Central Asian Journal of Global Health, 5(1). doi:10.5195/cajgh.2016.241
  10. Miguel, M., Antunes, M., & Faleiro, M. (2017). Honey as a Complementary Medicine. Integrative Medicine Insights, 12, 117863371770286. doi:10.1177/1178633717702869
  11. Pasupuleti, V. R., Sammugam, L., Ramesh, N., & Gan, S. H. (2017). Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017, 1-21. doi:10.1155/2017/1259510