‘Surprise finding’: Two spoons of honey improves metabolic health

Honey is 80 per cent sugar. But the other ingredients can make for powerful medicine.

Honey is 80 per cent sugar. But the other ingredients can make for powerful medicine. Photo: Getty

Honey gets a great rap from wellness gurus, who talk up the sticky stuff’s healing properties, while nutritionists tend to write it off as just another sugar.

In between these two extremes, scientists have been slowly beavering away on countless research papers that give a more measured view of how and why honey might be good for us.

No single paper will win the argument.

But in the last couple of years, researchers have been looking at the accumulating evidence in systematic reviews and meta-analyses of various clinical trials.

The ‘only sensible option’ against a cold

As we reported in 2020, Oxford University scientists, in a systematic review of 14 randomised controlled trials, found that honey is one of the few treatments for symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) that actually works.

URTI are coughs and colds and “influenza-like illness”. These are the wearying winter bugs – not actual flu or bronchitis. The common cold is what it is. You feel a bit off, clog up during the night, fill a dozen hankies and you get over it.

A cold is often treated with antibiotics. Honey is the more sensible option. Photo: Getty

Too many of us take our colds to the doctor, demanding antibiotics that won’t work – except to support the rise of the superbug. The more effective treatment is sitting in your pantry.

As the scientists put it, honey is “superior to usual care” for the improvement of URTI symptoms – particularly cough frequency and cough severity.

In fact, their paper suggests that honey isn’t merely the best option, it may be the only sensible option.

The paradox of controlling blood sugar … with sugar

Canadian researchers are the latest to find that honey improves key measures of cardio-metabolic health, including blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

These effects are more pronounced, they say, if the honey is raw and from a single floral source (one type of flower) .

The researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 18 clinical trials on honey and found, overall, that it lowered fasting blood glucose, total and LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, triglycerides, and a marker of fatty liver disease

Honey also increased HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, and some markers of inflammation.

“These results are surprising, because honey is about 80 per cent sugar,” said Dr Tauseef Khan, corresponding author and research associate in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“But honey is also a complex composition of common and rare sugars, proteins, organic acids and other bioactive compounds that very likely have health benefits.”

Following the lead of the multiple studies, the sweet spot in terms of dosage is about two tablespoons a day – and as part of a healthy diet.

Low certainty of evidence

The authors report that many of the 18 studies had a “low certainty of evidence” – which can be a consequence of study design – and yet honey was shown consistently to be beneficial or neutral.

One problem appears to be that studies haven’t confined themselves to one type of honey – or floral source. The problem is that some honeys have superior medicinal qualities (such as anti-microbial effects) compared to others.

Dr Khan said future studies should focus on unprocessed honey,  and from a single floral source. The goal would be higher quality evidence, and a better understanding of the many compounds in honey that can work wonders for health.

“We need a consistent product that can deliver consistent health benefits,” said Khan. “Then the market will follow.”

Previous research

The Canadian paper isn’t the first review to confirm these benefits.

A 2018 paper, ‘A Review on the Protective Effects of Honey against Metabolic Syndrome’, concluded that honey protects against Metabolic Syndrome by exerting anti-obesity and anti-diabetic effects, a reduction of fats in blood serum, and a reduction in blood pressure.

The mechanisms underlying these effects include honey’s “low Glycemic Index (GI) nature, which limits weight gain and accumulation of fat storage; improvement of insulin sensitivities and lowering of blood glucose levels; enhanced lipid metabolism, leading to prevention of atherogenesis (the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries); attenuation of oxidative stress; as well as protection from endothelial dysfunction among many others”.

Sugars aren’t all the same

Principal investigator of the Canadian study, Dr John Sievenpiper, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, said: “The word among public health and nutrition experts has long been that ‘a sugar is a sugar’.

“These results show that’s not the case, and they should give pause to the designation of honey as a free or added sugar in dietary guidelines.”

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