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We humans love sweet foods. Our brains, which still function similarly to how they did back in caveman days when food was scarce, value high-calorie food resources and reward us with feel good hormones when we eat them and so we often seek them out. However, in these modern times when sugary food is found in abundance, we tend to overeat them and as we all know, this can lead to problems with Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease. It’s not surprising that many people are looking to find a healthier alternative to sugar to get their sweet fix.
It is produced by honeybees which collect nectar from flowers, mix it with enzymes to create honey and store it within honeycomb structures to keep it fresh. The taste of the honey will vary depending upon the type of flowers from which the bees collect the nectar.
Although it is slightly higher in calories, honey is in fact actually sweeter than sugar meaning that less may be needed to get the same level of sweetness. Like sugar, honey is a carbohydrate, consisting mainly of fructose and glucose, both simple sugars. Both of these simple sugars are easily broken down in the body and can cause a spike in blood sugars. However, the ratio of these simple sugars differs between honey and sugar.
Sugar is made up of 50% fructose and 50% glucose, whereas honey is made up of 40% fructose and 30% glucose, with the remainder consisting of water, pollen, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It is these extra components which may give honey some of its documented health-giving properties.
The most common nutrients found in honey are Vitamin B6, niacin, thiamine, pantothenic acid, and riboflavin although the amounts will vary according to the floral type of the honey. Honey also contains minerals such as copper, calcium, iron, manganese and magnesium plus phytonutrients in different forms. Honey contains copious amounts of compounds such as flavonoids and other polyphenols which may function as antioxidants, which can prevent damage to cells caused by harmful substances called free radicals in the body. Free radicals can contribute to the aging process as well as lead to chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Fructose is more easily digested by the body and raises blood sugar more quickly. As sugar is higher in fructose than honey and also lacks the additional minerals, it therefore ranks higher on the Glycaemic Index than honey – meaning that it raises blood sugars more quickly. The more quickly blood sugars are raised, the more quickly insulin must be released into the bloodstream to assist the blood sugars to get into the cells where it can be converted into energy. The problem however, is that when our blood sugar levels are raised in this way consistently our cells may start to become less sensitive to insulin or even resistant to it, causing Type 2 Diabetes. So, keeping our blood sugar levels balanced is very important for our health and the proper functioning of our body systems. Care must still be taken with honey if diabetic or pre-diabetic however as it does still affect blood sugar levels, so honey intake should be limited.
Honey may also be easier to digest than sugar, as the bees add enzymes to the honey, partially breaking down the sugars before it hits the stomach. Studies have shown that this is beneficial for athletes who need the carbohydrate source quickly and who perform better eating honey-based gels than glucose (sugar) based gels. (1)
Honey has been shown to possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, and antitumour effects (2). It has also been shown to assist with wound healing (3).
These qualities may arise from bee propolis, a compound made by the bees by combining their own discharges and beeswax with sap from needle-leaved trees or evergreens. It is a complex mixture of resins and other phytonutrients that honeybees use to seal the hive and make it safe from bacteria, viruses and fungus and has a wide range of antibacterial properties. It is rich in protein (40%) and contains over 96 different nutrients, including vitamins B, C, D, E, calcium, magnesium and selenium. Organic honey contains small amounts of the same resins found in propolis so has anti-bacterial qualities.
There is also some evidence from small scale human and animal trials that honey may be beneficial in treating coughs, stomach and digestive upsets (2). In addition, a small randomized controlled trial found that those fed honey for 8 weeks lowered their body weight, triglycerides and total cholesterol while their HDL (good) cholesterol increased (4). There is also some evidence that honey is less likely to cause tooth enamel erosion than sugar in candy or sugary drinks, and in some cases it has been shown to actually have some protective qualities against cavities forming (5). This may partly be explained by the calcium, phosphorus and fluoride content of honey plus its antibacterial qualities. But to be on the safe side it is still advisable to brush teeth after eating honey.
It should not be given to children under the age of 1 as they have undeveloped digestive tracts and many honeys contains botulism bacteria or spores which can then cause serious or life-threatening infections.
For the same reason, immune-suppressed customers should also limit their honey intake and consult with a doctor before trying any honey treatments, as should diabetic or pre-diabetic individuals due to the effect on blood sugar levels.
Jo Fazel is a Nutrition & Lifestyle Coach & Consistency Coach and Founder of NuLeaf Lifestyle. She coaches busy, stressed-out mums who struggle with weight loss and fatigue to slim down, feel energized and find calm in the chaos. Get more information at www.nuleaflifestyle.co.uk or join her free private Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/feelgoodforlifemums