I start every morning with a steaming cup of black tea flooded with almond milk and a teaspoon of honey. Sugar used to be my sweetener of choice, but I swapped in honey a few years ago, not just in my tea, but in a lot of places where I need a pop of sweet. In most of my meal prep, I go with the edict that the less processed the better, so it makes sense to reach for the honey jar rather than the sugar shaker. But is it really better? And what, if any, are the upsides…or downsides?

To find out, I asked my dietetic intern, Nikki Karetov, to do a little digging. Here’s what she uncovered:

It’s Still a Sugar

Although it’s less processed than table sugar or corn syrup, honey is still considered an “added sugar”, so keep your intake in check. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugars a day for most women and no more than nine teaspoons for most men. It’s worth noting that honey is higher in calories than sugar (64 calories per tablespoon versus 48 for table sugar). However, the sweetness of honey is more concentrated, so chances are you’ll need less of it. 

The Best Buy 

In general, the darker the honey, the better, since the color indicates greater antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. What you see when it comes to honey isn’t always what you get. Some manufacturers adulterate their products with honey-flavored corn syrup and it’s reported that store shelves may be stocked with products brought in illegally from China. How to know what you’re buying?  Read the label to be sure it’s 100 percent honey. It also helps to know where it comes from, such as a local producer or the beekeeper at your nearby farmers’ market.  

Raw versus Regular

Most honey is filtered to remove wax and pollen, and then pasteurized to kill bacteria. Raw honey skips these steps, which means it contains trace amounts of wax, pollen and yeast. Some folks favor raw for its flavor, antibacterial properties, and the fact that it may be less likely to be adulterated. That said, because it’s not treated with heat, you do run an increased risk for encountering potentially harmful bacteria. As such, it’s best avoided for young children or those with a compromised immune system. Individuals with bee or pollen allergies may want to avoid raw honey as it may cause an allergic reaction. 

Honey Health and Safety

Nature’s Medicine

Honey has been prized for it’s medicinal properties for centuries.  It can be handy when it comes to coughing associated with the common cold. One study found it beat out even over-the-counter medications as a cough suppressant for children. Buckwheat (dark) honey is the variety of choice for treating a cough according to Dr. Andrew Weil.

Honey has a long history as a topical antibiotic and treatment for wounds.  Not all honey is the same when it comes to healing, however. Manuka honey, which hails from New Zealand, gets the most praise for its wound healing benefits.

As for claims that a teaspoon of local raw honey a day can cure seasonal allergies? Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t always live up to the claim. One study found no benefit to eating local raw honey to kick allergies to the curb. Another did find some benefit, but the amount was far more than a teaspoon a day. In fact, the research put the daily dose at 3 tablespoons, which translates to about 1400 additional calories a week in honey.

The Beat on Bee Pollen

Mustard-yellow, crunchy, and semi-sweet, bee pollen comes from the pollen that collects on the bodies of bees as they go about their business. It’s quite trendy at the moment and considered by some to be a true superfood. There’s not a whole lot of research to back up the buzz, however, and one significant potential downside: those with pollen allergies and/or bee allergies can suffer allergic reactions, in some cases, severe ones.

Not for Babies

An important rule of thumb is to hold off giving any honey, most especially raw honey, to children under the age of one, since it can be a source of serious food-borne illness for little ones.

The Bottom Line

Having explored the landscape when it comes to honey, here’s my takeaway:

  • Buy local honey from a known source if you can swing the price tag
  • Use a good, dark honey to treat coughs
  • Talk to your doctor about using medical grade Manuka honey for treating wounds
  • Be careful about using bee pollen or raw honey if you suffer from a pollen or bee allergy
  • Don’t overdo it, since it’s still an added sugar
  • Don’t give honey of any kind to babies under age one
The Buzz on Honey. What you need to know when it comes to the sticky, sweet stuff. Click To Tweet

photo credit: Nikki Karetov

Honey Health and Safety