The Health Benefits of Honey Are Surprisingly Sweet
Equal parts sticky and sweet, honey is the ultimate all-natural sugar — but it's so much more than a saccharine substance. The syrupy liquid offers a rich mix of disease-busting and gut-friendly properties, making it a noteworthy addition to foods and drinks. Read on to learn about the buzzworthy benefits of honey, plus ideas for honey recipes.
What Is Honey?
Honey is a sweet, thick liquid made by honeybees, aka winged insects that are originally from Africa, according to the University of Arkansas. The insects make honey by sucking up nectar (a sugary fluid produced by flowers), which is partially digested in their stomachs. Next, they regurgitate the nectar into honeycomb cells (see: the hexagon-shaped openings in a beehive), where it's dehydrated by their wings and mouths, according to the University of Colorado Boulder. The result is honey, which serves as food for the bees...and people!
There are more than 300 types of honey, according to a 2020 scientific review — each of which is dictated by factors such as the geographical location of the flowers and bees, the time of year the bees collect nectar, and the flower source of said nectar. These features also affect the honey's final taste and color, which can range from light to dark brown.
Honey consists of 75 to 80 percent carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) and 15 to 20 percent water, according to the aforementioned 2020 review. It also contains folate and vitamin C, along with smaller amounts of niacin, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. But the antioxidants in honey — specifically, flavonoids and polyphenols — are the real star of the show, according to Isa Kujawski, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Mea Nutrition. That's because they're responsible for many of the health benefits of honey, she explains. (Related: The Important Health Perks of Flavonoids)
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 tablespoon (20 grams) of honey, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
- 61 calories
- 17 grams carbohydrate
- < 1 gram protein
- 0 grams fat
- < 1 gram fiber
Health Benefits of Honey
TBH, when it comes to nutrition, honey isn't exactly packed with good-for-you macro-and micronutrients. It's also meant to be consumed in small amounts — since, again, it's high in sugar. But unlike your typical white table sugar, honey offers some notable antioxidants known to benefit the brain and body. It's also sweeter than table sugar, according to the University of Arkansas, so you might be able to use less to satisfy your sweet tooth and, in turn, curb your sugar intake — if that's your goal, of course. Check out the potential health benefits of honey, below.
Staves Off Disease
If you're on a mission to bolster your body's natural defenses, reach for honey. ICYMI above, the sweet substance contains flavonoids and polyphenols — both of which are potent antioxidants that "neutralize free radicals and other toxins that could lead to cell and tissue damage," aka oxidative stress, says Charmaine Jones, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Food Jonezi. (Free radicals are harmful unstable molecules produced by factors such as environmental pollution and unhealthy diets.) This is noteworthy because oxidative stress can eventually contribute to chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But (!!) antioxidants such as those in honey can help keep these free radicals at bay.
The flavonoids and polyphenols in honey also minimize inflammation, according to a 2017 scientific review. Like oxidative stress, chronic inflammation can lead to disease via long-term cell damage — but honey antioxidants can suppress the cellular processes involved in inflammation, further warding off disease. What's more, honey offers vitamin C, a micronutrient with disease-fighting antioxidant properties. It can also stimulate the production and improve the function of white blood cells, which attack foreign bacteria and viruses, thereby protecting the body from infection, according to Oregon State University. (BTW, vitamin C can also do wonders for your skin, which is one reason why honey can often be found in skin-care products, too.)
Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorse honey as a natural cough remedy, according to the Cleveland Clinic — and for good reason. The golden liquid is believed to act as a demulcent, a substance that soothes mucus membranes by coating the throat. For example, a 2010 study looked at the effects of honey compared to those of cough medicine (dextromethorphan) and antihistamine (diphenhydramine) on nightly coughing in children with upper respiratory tract infections (e.g. flu, tonsillitis, sinus infection). The results? Honey offered and found that honey offered the greatest symptom relief out of the three substances. Additional research also backs this up, suggesting that honey can be a particularly effective treatment for cough frequency and severity.
Promotes Wound Healing
Using honey to heal wounds, burns, and other topical conditions dates back to ancient Egypt, according to the peer-reviewed book, Honey Analysis - New Advances and Challenges. And while the world's come a long way over the past 4,000+ years, honey has continued to prove its power as a topical treatment. And, according to a 2011 review, it's due largely in part to the substance's antimicrobial properties, ability to maintain moisture, and high viscosity (which helps provide a protective barrier). In other words, honey prevents infection by creating a protective barrier and fighting any potential pathogens — all while keeping the area moist (and staving off dehydration by forming a veritable seal), which is shown to promote healing.
Need even more proof? Several studies show that applying pharmaceutical-grade honey dressings facilitates faster healing of surgical cuts, among other wounds. And while most, if not all, types of honey seem to have antimicrobial properties, manuka honey, in particular, has been shown to be a particularly effective treatment for topical conditions. So much so, in fact, that it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 as an option for wound treatment.
All that's to say, you probably shouldn't start smearing whatever honey is hiding in your cabinet onto your body if you, say, burn your hand while cooking. But if you do have a particularly bad burn, large wound, or the like, you should definitely consult your doc, who will help you determine the best course of treatment. And, hey, maybe it'll include a product such as Derma Sciences MEDIHONEY Honeycolloid Paste (Buy It, $26, officedepot.com).
Supports Brain Health
Consuming foods high in antioxidants such as honey can help prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia, says Jones. Here's the deal: Oxidative stress can destroy nerve cells, or neurons, according to a 2019 article. This is a BFD, as neurons regulate cognitive functions (e.g. memory, learning) by sending electrical impulses. Neural damage can hinder these processes, thereby promoting cognitive decline and conditions. Moreover, Jones points out that antioxidants in honey can activate cells called microglia, which, according to a 2021 article, are responsible for protecting neurons and controlling inflammation in the brain. When activated by compounds such as the antioxidants in honey, microglia can protect the brain and also help keep neurodegenerative disease at bay.
Supports Gut Health
The carbs in honey are prebiotics, which serve as fuel for the "good" bacteria in your gut, explains Paula Doebrich, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Happea Nutrition. This ensures those beneficial microbes can grow and thrive, effectively suppressing the activity of harmful bugs. Plus, according to a 2019 scientific review, those superstar polyphenols and flavonoids offer antibacterial properties that can further keep bad gut bacteria in check.
All of this encourages the activity of good gut bacteria, which are in charge of carrying out essential functions, such as digestion, nutrient absorption, and more, according to a 2018 article. (Pro tip: Eat these foods together to also promote optimal nutrient absorption.)
Potential Risks of Honey
The Mayo Clinic deems honey as "generally considered safe." Although possible, a honey allergy is fairly rare, according to a 2017 case report. That said, if an allergic reaction to honey does occur (think: swollen lips, hives), it may be due to various components in the liquid, such as proteins from the bee's saliva. (Remember, the bee regurgitates nectar in order to make honey. The more you know!)
Despite the aforementioned health benefits of honey and allergies aside, you'll want to go easy on the ingredient overall. After all, "it counts as added sugar in the diet and should be consumed in moderation" (as is the case with sugar in general), notes Doebrich. A quick recap: Eating too much sugar can repeatedly cause spikes in your blood glucose levels, eventually increasing the risk of diabetes, as well as heart disease, high blood pressure, and cognitive problems, according to the American Heart Association. All that said, it's best to "limit your daily intake of added sugars to 25 to 35 grams per day, which equals about 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey, [given] that's your only source of added sugar [for the day]," says Kujawski.
If you have diabetes, you'll want to take extra precautions, as the condition increases your risk of developing hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) after eating sugar (honey or otherwise), according to the Mayo Clinic. This is noteworthy because hyperglycemia can increase the risk of diabetes complications, including nerve damage and heart disease. Point being: If you have diabetes, talk to your doc to determine how much, if any, honey is safe for you to consume, says Kujawski.
How to Buy, Store, and Use Honey
Honey can typically be found near jams or teas in local grocery stores and specialty healthy shops; it's also often sold at farmer's markets (where it tends to be straight from the beekeepers themselves!). Wherever you snag a jar of the sweet stuff, you'll likely have to choose between pasteurized or raw varieties.
Pasteurized or "regular" honey is treated with heat, which kills yeast (thereby extending shelf-life) and potentially harmful bacteria, explains Jones. See, honey naturally contains botulism spores, which are toxins released by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum, according to National Organization for Rare Disorders. And while Doebrich says that "the amounts [of these spores] found in honey are usually not significant enough to impact healthy adults," they can technically lead to botulism, a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause paralysis. Pasteurization, however, eliminates the spores, thereby making pasteurized honey the optimal choice from a food safety standpoint, says Doebrich. The process is also responsible for honey's smooth consistency, as the heat reduces the crystallization (solidification) of sugar in the honey, resulting in a clearer, fluid substance. The tradeoff, however, is that pasteurization can reduce the number of antioxidants and nutrients in the honey, according to Jones.
And then there's raw or "pure" honey, which is not treated with heat and thus appears a bit cloudier due to crystalization. The beekeeper might filter it to remove debris and pollen (something they do for pasteurized varieties as well), says Jones, but usually, nothing else is done. Thus, raw honey may contain some yeast, bacteria, and spores; however, as Doebrich notes above, this usually doesn't pose a risk for generally healthy people. That being said, if you're immunocompromised or pregnant, you might want to think twice before downing the unprocessed stuff, adds Jones. Your doc can let you know it's safe for you to eat raw honey, or if you should stick to a heat-treated version, such as Happy Belly Clover Honey (Buy It, $4, amazon.com).
Beyond that, which type of honey to choose comes down to your preferences and needs. If your priority is the nutritional value, go for raw honey sans-additives or preservatives, suggests Kujawski. One example is Nature Nate's Organic Raw and Unfiltered Honey (Buy It, $11, amazon.com). But if you want something smooth, the pasteurized stuff might be the way to go. And then, of course, there's the matter of simply choosing what you like. "While some [kinds of] honey may have trace amounts of nutrients, in the end, it is just a sweetener and the main point is enjoyment," says Doebrich.
You can also find honey as an ingredient in packaged foods — e.g. Natural Valley Oats & Honey Big & Crunchy Granola (Buy It, $4, amazon.com) — and bottled beverages — e.g. Honest Tea Organic Honey Green Tea (Buy It, $16 for 12, amazon.com). However, as with all packaged products, these items might contain additives such as preservatives, salt, and sugars (in addition to honey). If limiting these ingredients is a concern, look for products without these components by checking the label first.
At home, honey doesn't need to be refrigerated, according to the aforementioned 2017 scientific review. Instead, it should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark area (think: cupboard). If the honey crystallizes — which is a natural process and does not change whether the honey's safe to eat — you can liquify it by placing the jar in a pot of heated water, according to Purdue University. Alternatively, you can pour the honey into a bowl and microwave it for 30 seconds. (Wait, is eating frozen honey safe though?)
The versatility of honey is pretty sweet. Generally, you can use it just like sugar, though the proportions depend on the recipe (looking at you, baked goods). Here are several delicious ideas for using honey at home:
In drinks. Perhaps the easiest way to use honey is to mix it into beverages. It can be used to sweeten a range of drinks, including lemon water, golden milk, tea, coffee, and smoothies. You could even stir honey into plain hot water for a soothing and simple drink.
In condiments. A honey-based vinaigrette can bring out the sweetness of your veggies and fruits. It's also ideal for balancing spicy flavors, as seen in this apple avocado salsa with honey-lime dressing. Or try this tahini and honey drizzle, which will taste amazing on both ice cream and veggies alike (seriously).
As a marinade. When cooked with ingredients such as veggies or meat, honey turns into a mouthwatering glaze. Not convinced? Try making ginger-honey carrots or this orange-soy marinade. (See also: Tasty Ways to Use Up That Honey In Your Pantry)
On toast. For another simple option, spread a bit of honey onto your bread. Try this whipped ricotta and honey dip if you're craving something rich and creamy or make tahini toast with lemon and honey. Avocado toast, who?
In baked goods. Half the sugar in a brownie or cake recipe can be substituted with honey, according to the University of Missouri. However, you'll also need to reduce the liquid by 1/4 cup for every 1 cup of sugar replaced, as the honey contains water. Honey will also make your baked goods brown faster, so it's recommended to reduce the baking heat in the recipe by 25° F to prevent this from happening.