The Problem with Honey

People put pedestals for these sweet treats, but are they really the hero we think they are?

Photo by Nabil Boukala

How many times have you heard honey being praised in the public eye for their supposedly divine traits? I know it’s everywhere around society these days. Honey is often advertised as the ideal ‘superfood’ alternative to cancer-inducing sugar, but is this really the case?

What is honey?

You probably learnt this in your elementary school science class, but just for good measure, I’ll remind you what it is. Honey is a sweet, syrup-like substance produced by honeybees. These tireless honeybees collect nectar from flowers — they can visit up to 5,000 flowers every single day — and then consume the nectar, digest, and regurgitate it. Yes, honey is bee vomit.

These syrupy treats are stored in maze-like, waxy, trypophobia-inducing structures (trust me, you do not want to google that) that we are all familiar with as honeycombs. To make a pound of honey, a hive of bees must travel over 55,000 miles and visit 2 million flowers.

There are over 300 varieties of honey in the United States alone. They are sweeter than sugar, and packs a lower glycemic index (GI), which is a measure of how quickly they are processed in the body. They, however, contains more calories than sugar in similar amounts. A tablespoon of honey (21g) contains 64 kcal, which is composed of 17g of carbohydrate and virtually no protein, fats, and fibre. Similarly, a tablespoon of sugar contains 49 kcal and about 13g of carbohydrate. The numbers may look stark for honey, but the apparent extra sweetness that honey packs may mean that you need less of it to attain the same effects as you do with sugar, which goes down to a practically identical calorie-count.

Here are some cool facts about honey:

The health benefits of honey


Honey is rich in phenolic acids such as flavonoids, which possess the natural ability to counteract the detrimental effects of free radicals that we subconsciously pick up during our day to day activities. This decreases the overall risk of internal oxidative cell damage and protects us against chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which leads us to an interesting second point.

Improve heart health

Honey is not per se “good” for your heart, but with its micronutrient profile, it’s a far healthier alternative to refined white sugar. A 30-day study comparing sugar and honey in 55 people found that honey helped decrease levels of total cholesterol and “bad” LDL while increasing the “good” HDL cholesterol. Honey has also been shown to be able to decrease blood triglycerides by 19%. Animal studies have even shown that honey may help decrease systolic blood pressure. What this entails is a lower risk for contracting heart diseases in the long run.

Promotes wound healing

I feel like the more interesting discussion would be how they came out with the idea that smothering honey on your wound can hasten its recovery — but this is apparently true and is still practiced in many cultures. Honey is known to possess antimicrobial properties, which is thought to be able to slow down the growth of nasty microorganisms. A study showed that applying manuka honey (which isn’t cheap by any measure) to diabetic foot ulcers was as effective as conventional wound dressings and promoted healing in 97% of ulcers. Lavish.

Suppress cough & relieves sore throat

Coughs are a nuisance, and sore throats are well, possibly the most uncomfortable thing in the world. Sadly, the mainstream treatment options for these upsets are not always effective. In addition, conventional medicine often come with a barrage of unwanted side effects. Honey seems to be quite good at relieving some of these symptoms — and they’re delicious as well. I indulge in a hot mug of chamomile with a tablespoon of honey whenever I’m feeling unwell, and it often does the trick.

A word of caution: be careful in giving honey to infants as they are especially susceptible to botulism from spore-contaminated honey.

Okay, so honey sounds pretty good to me. What’s the problem?

The problem with honey, you see, is that a lot of people misunderstand them as the all-embracing substitute to cancer-inducing, diabetes-warranting white sugar, and yet the furthest could be true. Unlike cinnamon, which possesses a fair few of the aforementioned health benefits of these sweet treats, honey is loaded with sugars — which bring a truck load of problems in itself.

Think about it like a 400˚C fire that’s currently enraging your kitchen. That fire is sugar. You start to panic, and you know that if you don’t act soon, your house will be reduced to ashes pretty soon. What you don’t do is turn the air conditioners on in an attempt to lower the temperature of the fire to 200˚C. I mean, the heat may be good for baking the cookies you left on the pantry, and it might buy you more time, but it’s still going to burn your house to the ground. The less threatening fire; that’s honey. It may pose less of a danger than sugar, and even be beneficial in some aspects, but it’s not the ideal solution.

Yes, honey is undeniably the superior option to sugar, but it’s far from the superfood society has labelled it. Mindless consumption, mind you, can still easily lead to obesity and the subsequent dire outcomes that it brings along, including diabetes. Recently, my friend has also pointed out on the undersized attention that is being paid towards bee conservation and how proximal they are towards extinction.

So what can we do?

Honey is definitely the better alternative to processed, refined white sugar, packed with useful antioxidants, and possessing plenty of medicinal benefits, but it stops at that; it’s the lesser of two evils.

There are other more healthful food sources to obtain the necessary nutrients from honey, such as cinnamon.

If you still want to stick with your honey though, make sure to purchase raw honey — which are unpasteurised, untampered, and unprocessed, allowing them to retain as much of their potential health-promoting properties as possible. They usually come at a premium, but the price you pay goes a long way.

Written by

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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