Far from being lumped in with sugars, bees’ golden nectar should be seen for its benefits:
By Boudicca Fox-Leonard TELEGRAPH 19th August 2023 10.00am.
One drop or two? Replacing sugar with honey in tea adds beneficial neuroprotective bioflavonoids
It’s the favourite food of the super-healthy Hadza tribe in northern Tanzania. While in the UK we classify honey as a “free sugar”, on a par with the white stuff we spoon into our tea, it’s a cornerstone of the Hadza diet, sought out (with a little help from the honey-guide bird) and slurped straight from the comb. ‘’
As one of the last communities of hunter-gatherers in the world, the Hadza have been widely studied by scientists looking for guidance on how our ancestors’lived. And if it’s proof of anything, their honey habit shows that our love of sweet things is atavistic.
There was a time when sugar was hard for humans to find, and when you did come across that berry bush, gorging on it was a sensible survival strategy. Today, our hard-wiring to seek out sweet flavours is making us sick. Consuming too much can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, and lead to heart disease and diabetes.
In the UK the current average intake of “free sugars” (any sugars added to food and drinks) across all age groups is at least twice the 5 per cent dietary recommendation. Even our attempts to circumvent the problem have blown up in our faces.
Aspartame, an artificial non-saccharide sweetener 200 times sweeter than sucrose that’s used as a sugar substitute in foods and beverages, has been declared a possible cancer risk by the World Health Organisation.
Honey, the healthy sugar
Evidence from a study by the University of Toronto shows that consuming raw honey (honey that hasn’t been strained and filtered and then heated to reduce moisture and yeast) from a single floral source may improve blood sugar control and lower cholesterol levels, when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Its scientists suggested that anyone using table sugar, syrup or another sweetener might lower their cardio-metabolic risks by switching those sugars for honey. So how can something that is about 80 per cent sugar have such a different effect?
That honey has been lumped in with refined sugars for so long is down to the fact it consists of 80-85 per cent carbohydrates and as such is categorised as just one of many high-sugar foods by mainstream health professionals.
But research over many years tells a different story, says Mike McInnes, a pharmacist and sports nutritionist who has spent the past 20 years exploring the relationship between sugars and energy, especially for enhancing mental and sports performance. “Most of this research, though, has been undertaken outside the western world,” he says.
McInnes calls the pervasive view that honey has no additional benefits “honey blindness”. The reason, he says, can be traced back to a 1958 book by an American physician who specialised in folk medicine, called Clinton Jarvis, who claimed that honey could cure a variety of diseases. “Due to the lack of scientific basis, the book was seized and destroyed by the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after initially selling widely,” says McInnes.
After that, there was a bias against honey as a health food. “Elsewhere in the world, researchers had probably never heard of Clinton Jarvis, and from the early 2000s new studies emerged that showed the US notion (exported to the UK and Europe) was nonsense,” says McInnes. His book, Honey Sapiens: Human Cognition and Sugars – the Ugly, the Bad and the Good draws upon this research.
While refined sugars are understood to cause high blood glucose levels that affect the brain’s functional connectivity, research has shown that honey has memory-boosting effects to treat dementia and cognitive deterioration.
“It improves the cholinergic system [a branch of the autonomic nervous system which plays an important role in memory, digestion, blood pressure, movement and many other functions] and blood flow in the brain and has antioxidant effects,” says McInnes. He believes honey to be “the most antidiabetic and neuroprotective brain fuel known to humankind”.
Honey contains mostly sugar, as well as a mix of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc and antioxidants. But the reason honey is neuroprotective is due to its bioflavonoids, naturally occurring substances known for their antioxidant ability, sourced from flowering plants. “These fabulous nutrients oppose every insult that refined sugars inflict on the human brain,” says McInnes.
Better for the brain
If sugar is bad for the brain, every time you add it to a cup of tea or coffee it contributes to the degradation of your cognition. “Substituting the same quantity of sugar in the form of honey, you are protecting your brain, enhancing your cognition and helping to prevent type 2 diabetes,” says McInnes.
There is even evidence from Nevada University that honey was a major influence in the advance of human cognition 200,000 years ago. However, it should still be substituted in moderation. Honey, too, can cause blood sugar levels to spike, especially when used in addition to, rather than instead of, other forms of sugar.
Love your liver
There is an association between frequency of honey consumption and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. McInnes recommends taking honey before bed to replenish the liver. “After an early evening meal there is not enough liver glycogen to fuel the brain overnight. This causes metabolic stress in the night, and morning hyperglycaemia.”
The natural energy drink
Energy drinks are often full of sugar but studies have shown that honey can help here, too. One published in 2015 showed that having a honey drink after a workout can bring about improved subsequent endurance performance compared to just drinking water.
Meanwhile a 2016 study involving male cyclists found that those who supplemented with about three tablespoons of honey 90 minutes before their rides experienced less oxidative stress and DNA damage in response to training compared to cyclists who consumed no honey before exercise.
The naturally occurring antioxidants in honey, the scientists surmised, may help to lessen some of the less desirable impacts that intense exercise has on the body, such as inflammation.
The sweet spot
So how much honey should we be eating to get the benefits of bioflavonoids, but not the blood spikes?
Humans require around 30 per cent protein, 30 per cent fats and 40 per cent carbohydrate. “Theoretically these could all be honey – but that is not practical – so around 10 per cent would be perfectly OK,” says McInnes.
He cautions that many low-fat foods have hidden sugars. So if you are trying to lower your refined sugar and sweetener intake, avoid low-fat products. One advantage of favouring honey over sugar is that it is sweeter in taste, therefore you need smaller amounts.
Not all honey is equal. A scientific review published in 2021 points out that while most benefits of honey come from its polyphenols, levels of these compounds vary. More research is needed to form a fuller picture.
Where possible, seek out raw honey that hasn’t been damaged by processing – during which many of its bioactive compounds lose their effect. There have been claims that the global supply is bulked out with sugar syrup, so try to source your honey from a local beekeeper.
But, says McInnes, you can’t go wrong even with cheap honey. “It may be low in bioflavonoids – but any honey is 1,000 times better than refined sugars, which are neurotoxic in excess.”