Honey makes me happy. If honey makes you happy too, then you probably don’t even need to read on to find out why eating honey makes sense from a health perspective. But it might help you decide what types of honey to eat.
In this post, I run through some of the health properties and benefits of different honeys, including things to watch out for. This is a much bigger subject than can really be covered on one blog post, so I have kept this brief, and in due course I will add more blogs going into more detail on various aspects of honey.
What are the health uses of honey?
- Most honey has some antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant properties.
- Honey may be mostly sugar and water, but it typically contains around 200 other substances, including amino acids, minerals and enzymes, which have nutritional properties.
- Honey reaches the bloodstream more slowly (less fast!) than refined sugar, which is beneficial for glycaemic load, which is a major driver of diabetes and other health problems.
- Honey has been found to be effective against MRSA, H. Pylori, Salmonella, Strep and Clostridium difficile, amongst others. It does so in a way that does not cause these pathogens to become resistant.
- It is used in conventional medicine for conditions including coughs, dressing wounds and burns.
- Warning: In many cases, conventional medicines may be more effective than honey, albeit with their own side-effects. Honey should not be given to under 1s.
Modern medicine relies on being able to isolate and measure the therapeutic effects of a substance, and then measured doses are dispensed as pharmaceutical products.
This could barely be more different to a hive of bees naturally gathering nectar indiscriminately from thousands of different plants, depending on the time of year and location, before converting it in their stomachs, passing it from bee to bee for a different wack of enzymes, and finally, some lucky person slathers it over buttered toast.
So… Not all honeys are the same. This presents a challenge in guaranteeing consistency and effectiveness. Some sources of honey are typically higher in the active components than others. But do we ignore the likely benefits just because we can’t always measure every property accurately? I don’t think so.
Honey probably achieves antimicrobial capability as follows
- Honey is able to absorb water from its surroundings, which dehydrates bacteria.
- High sugar content inhibits growth of microbes
- Acidity of honey inhibits most microorganisms’ growth
- Honey’s glucose oxidase produces hydrogen peroxide which is a powerful antibacterial agent.
- As hydrogen peroxide doesn’t usually last very long, the ability of honey to deliver it topically over a period of time is valuable.
- There are also some phytochemical factors that appear to be antibacterial.
The good news is that a honey that has its antimicrobial components measured is generally a more reliable medicinal substance. And that’s where honeys with “super properties” like Manuka, Jarrah and Red Gum come in, and I will talk about them in more detail further down.
NICE Guidelines on the use of honey for coughs
NICE, which issues guidelines for UK doctors and the NHS, has recently changed its recommendations for treating coughs. Importantly, they have provided a long list of treatments that should not be used, such as antibiotics, antihistamines, decongestants and codeine-containing cough medicines. But among the products for self-care they do recommend, honey features prominently.
It’s important to remember that this relates to standard generic honey, without any of the super properties of Manuka, Jarrah or Red Gum, and that they did this despite the difficulty of measuring the benefits of a variable substance like honey, and the fact they did not assess any honeys with measured antimicrobial properites.
Manuka comes from the Manuka bush in New Zealand. Manuka has properties, which are often measured by the “unique manuka factor”, or UMF. This measures the amount of hydroxymethylfurfural, leptosperin and methylglyoxal, and grades the honey accordingly. The higher the rating, the higher the antimicrobial effect. Leptosperin is a marker for testing source, as it only comes from Manuka plants, but methylglyoxal is the active ingredient.
Manuka has been beset by counterfeiting, with the total export of Manuka greatly exceeding the possible production in New Zealand. The industry is cleaning up its act, but it is very important to use a trustworthy source.
Jarrah is monofloral honey from a variety of Eucalyptus tree from Western Australia. Jarrah is rare and hard to obtain, as the trees only produce the necessary flowers once every 2-3 years. The trees themselves are enormous, growing up to 40m high, and can get to 1,000 years old. Western Australia is considered to be one of the last disease and pest-free environments in the world. This is why honey from Western Australia is considered to be so natural and pure.
- Total Activity is broadly similar to UMF, but it comes from slightly different chemical processes. And as well as measuring antimicrobial activity from hydrogen peroxide, it also measures antimicrobial activity from other mechanisms.
- Jarrah honey on average has around twice the antimicrobial properties compared with Manuka, but it is sold based on measured antimicrobial properties, so you know what you’re getting.
- Jarrah has been found to be particularly effective against candida. More so than Manuka.
- Jarrah Honey is said to have 2-3x the antioxidants of Manuka, but I have not been able to verify this.
- Jarrah is unusual in that it does not solidify, like other honeys.
- Jarrah is sweeter than Manuka. It does not have the earthier, more bitter taste of Manuka. It is quite toffee-like. This is another reason why I recommend it instead of Manuka, as kids tend to prefer the taste.
Also known as the Marri Tree, most features of Jarrah honey are also present in Red Gum. the Total Activity is calculated in the same way. The flavour is similar to Jarrah, but a lighter more flowery version of Jarrah’s toffee flavour.
Other possible Super Honeys
I often come across other bee products with claimed properties, and I think that if you are going to be paying a lot for them, you want to have evidence of their properties. Generally, I am very open to the idea that honey, propolis or other bee products have useful properties. An example is Brazilian Red Propolis. The problem is that it is one thing to determine whether it has super properties, but quite another to (a) ensure that the bees visit the correct plants when you try to produce it commercially it, and (b) once there is a global market, prices rise and incentives to falsify the purity increase. So guarantees of product reliability start to become vital.
Another example worth looking out for is Bulgarian Black Forest Honeydew Honey. We love it for its rich oak flavour, and it allegedly has super properties, but I can’t comment on them.
How you can use honey
However you want, so long as you don’t kill all the good bits by heating it! On crumpets or toast is probably safe, But it’s really up to you how you use it as a natural sweetener
Note: We took the photo above when we stayed at the wonderful Lime Wood Hotel, in the New Forest for our wedding anniversay. This was our breakfast! Somewhat counterintuitively, the hotel was surrounded by oak trees, which made for a wonderful dark oak honey. It reminded my husband of oak honey he used to have when growing up in Provence.