Honey and Human Health

Bee Culture (March) Vol. 136: 50-52




Malcolm T. Sanford



 Last month I discussed honey in terms of its carbon footprint and thus, its environmentally friendly reputation, which might be exploited in marketing the sweet.  The first-ever International Symposium on Honey and Human Health took place at the 2008 National Beekeeping Conference in Sacramento, CA.  This also provides as wealth of information that any would-be honey marketer can look to in shaping a campaign.  It was sponsored by The Committee for the Promotion of Honey and Health, Inc., which has the following goals:


  Create and promote a positive Honey and Health agenda that will result in greater consumer appreciation and demand for honey nationwide and enhance the already favorable image of honey by advancing sound scientific information that underscores its healthful benefits


  Support and promote the development of quality standards from within the industry, and promote an educational campaign that reinforces the need for good science to be applied in the promulgation and establishment of standards, including realistic tolerance and testing limits


The Committee has established a non-profit association with a fully-functional World Wide Web site,1 featuring press releases and relevant links.  The Committee is soliciting memberships and there is scheduled to be a “members only” area in the near future.  This seminar is its first entry into delivering information about the relationship of honey and human health.  It was supported by a long list of organizations, including The National Honey Board, California State Beekeepers Association, Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association, and the Western States and National Honey Packers and Dealers Associations as well as CPNA International.


The first of 12 sessions was a comprehensive review of honey use in nutrition and health by Dr. Stephan Bogdanov,2 who recently retired from the Swiss Bee Research Centre, where he was chair of the International Honey Commission.3  Similar to the paper he and Peter Martin have written on honey composition, Dr. Bogdanov will soon publish a comprehensive analysis of honey and human health in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.4


His summary revealed what all beekeepers know, that honey differs greatly in appearance, sensory perception and composition based on botanical origin.  The major nutritional elements are carbohydrates, mainly the simple sugars, glucose and fructose, but also honey can contain 25 complex sugars, known as oligosaccharides.  These are compounds made up of three to ten simple sugars and their consumption can have wide-ranging health implications.5 


Although a high energy carbohydrate, honey can have a widely variable glycemic index (ranging from 32 to 85) according to Dr. Bogdanov.  The glycemic index or GI is a ranking system for carbohydrates based on their effect on blood glucose levels. It was invented by Dr. David J. Jenkins and colleagues in 1981 at the University of Toronto.

.6  The higher the GI the faster food is processed.  The relationship between the GI of different foods has been implicated in many human health concerns from diabetes to athletic performance.


Honey also contains small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, trace elements, vitamins, aroma compounds and poly-phenols.  Dr. Bodanov’s presentation elaborated on some of the positive nutritional and health benefits thought to be derived from the complex makeup of honey.  Thus the sweet has shown to have antimicrobial, antiviral, anit-parasitory, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-mutagenic, and anti-tumor effects.  Certainly, it is a high energy food often used by athletes to increase performance.  He concludes that most health promoting properties are only achieved by consuming relatively high amounts of honey, from50 to 80 grams, equal to about 2 to 4 tablespoons.7


Mike Mcinnis, MRPS, a Scottish pharmacist provided his vision of the uniqueness of honey.  Two major themes he discussed included the roles of honey consumption in human metabolism and what he calls “restorative sleep.” 


In the first situation, Mr. Mcinnis sees glucose metabolism as central.  He described the reverse glucose-fatty acid cycle in humans, which is complicated by “chronic cortical driven stress.”  Specifically, this stress often blocks fat metabolism, something many nutritionists over look.  The concepts are that honey taken at night recharges the liver’s glycogen level relieving day-time stress, while at the same time the fructose in honey encourages fat metabolism.  He states in no uncertain terms that the current mind set that eating before bedtime promotes weight gain is incorrect, especially when it comes to consuming honey.


Honey also helps restorative sleep, Mr. Mcinnis says, when consumed before bed by ensuring adequate liver glycogen stores, limiting early morning stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin), stabilizing blood sugar, and contributing to the release of the hormone melatonin, required for rebuilding body tissues during rest.8  The public health concerns over short or poor quality sleep are enormous, according to Mr. Mcinnis, and are associated with many conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.  Mr. Mcinnis explains his concepts via a video found on the popular Web site youtube.com.9


During the conference, the new U.S. Edition of Mr. Mcinnis’ book, The Hibernation Diet was on display.10  First published in the United Kingdom, the U.S. edition was just recently published by WorldClassEmprise in 2007 and includes an added section on nutritional supplements.   In his foreward to this volume, Dr. Ron Fessenden (MPH) (a Co-Chairman of the sponsoring Committee)  writes that truly revolutionary discovery in medicine is measured in years, if not decades.  Even more rarely do revolutionary nutritional discoveries gain acceptance among the medical community.  Most physicians have little training in nutrition and are focused on disease treatments rather than wellness.  The discovery that the human body consumes stored fuel (fat) differently during an approximate eight-hour sleep cycle than it does during the balance of our awake-time is, according to Dr.  Fessenden, is truly revolutionary.  Expect plenty of skepticism, he concludes, concerning the principle that the human body burns more fat during sleep than it does during vigorous aerobic exercise, even though there is plenty of documentation in the literature outside the U.S.11


Jessica Beiler described results of cough suppression, when comparing standard over-the-counter remedies containing dextromethorphan (DM).12  Honey was superior in almost every case to no treatment or use of DM.  Parents also rated honey as superior for cough or sleep difficulty due to upper respiratory infection.  The honey used in this study was buckwheat, a dark, strong-tasting sweet, often cited for its antioxidant activity.  This study was supported by the National Honey Board as part of its ambitious research agenda.13


Kirsten Traynor provided the seminar with an in-depth tour of honey and its role in human health via architecture and art over the centuries.  She has traveled widely to collect this information on a Humbolt Scholarship, spending time in the historic town of Celle at the largest bee research institute in Europe, as well as the National Library of Wales, which houses the recently donated International Bee Research Collection.  Ms. Traynor has also put her knowledge to work, cooperating with the Pediatric Oncology Department at the University of Bonn in treating wounds using Medihoney, a commercial preparation.14


This brings into focus one of the major sticking points about honey as discussed by Dr. Bogdanov in the opening session.  The variable source of the sweet used in therapy and other human health situations can result in confusion and lack of credibility by many main stream physicians and nutritionist.  The numerous ways honey is processed through heat, filtration and other ways increases this problem.  Whether to use buckwheat as in the cough suppressant study or manuka (jellybush) in either its “active” form in burn treatments might be seen as the reason for success or failure of specific treatments.  Standardizing honey remedies would encourage more use, but a lot more research is needed to properly propel honey use into the mainstream.  Fortunately, this is the stated goal of the Committee as noted above.


A series of studies and presentations discussed the following issues related to honey and human health, including effects on cognitive (mental) function and weight gain in rats, insulin resistance (diabetes) and medical therapeutics.


The following results were presented by one investigator of a study published in the Journal of Food Science, Volume 73, 2008: “Overall percentage weight gain was significantly lower in honey-fed rats than those fed sucrose or mixed sugars, despite a similar food intake. Weight gains were comparable for rats fed honey and a sugar free diet although food intake was significantly higher in honey-fed rats.”15  .  According to the authors, the public health implications for humans with reference to obesity and diabetes are strong and follow up studies on people would be valuable.


Rats are not people and so more study is definitely appropriate according to Dr.  David  Baer Research Physiologist at the USDA.  He has a long resumé of research on human nutrition at the USDA’s Food Components and Health Laboratory.16

  He provided an update on the diabetes situation in the U.S., which is now also being found around the world.  Diabetes can be found in various forms and has a number of health consequences.17  He concluded that more than 130 million Americans are affected at a cost of $117 billion in direct and indirect medical costs and lost productivity.  The increasing consumption of refined sugar and  high fructose corn syrup since  the mid 1970s is a direct contributor to this situation.


On the heels of Dr. Baer’s presentation, a study authored by G.B.K.S. Prasad et.al. in the Journal of Medicinal Food, Vol 10, 2007 looked carefully at honey use in mild diabetics, most of whom were found to be tolerant to honey, which does not produce elevations in blood sugar and seen in glucose or other sweeteners.  Honey is also metabolized more quickly and cleared from the blood stream more rapidly than other sweeteners, something athletes have exploited for centuries.  The authors conclude that honey should be a sweetener of choice for patients with impaired glucose metabolism and diabetes..18


Perhaps the best researched area using honey for human medical purposes is in burn and  wound therapy.  In contrast to the Medihoney example provided above, Dr. Shona Blair and colleagues at the University of Sydney focus on generic honey, not just one varietal.  The research represents a broader approach and confirms many of the beneficial and antimicrobial uses of honey that Ms. Traynor and Mr. Bodanov referred to in their presentations. 


Dr. Blair’s team concludes that honey has largely been forgotten in western medicine mainly due to the rise of antibiotics.  However, the resistance that many organisms are showing to these wonder drugs is one of the “most urgent issues facing modern medicine.”  Fortunately, honey still works as an alternative therapy.  In study after study, the sweet has been found to be effective for severe, problematic infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (“Golden Staph” or simply MRSA),19 Enterobacteriaceae in wound infections, Propionibacterium acnes found in acne and wounds, and pathogenic yeast Candida.


Of special interest is honey’s effectiveness against what are called biofilms.20  These are often extremely resistant to standard medications and human immune response.  Dr. Blair concludes that honey should more and more become the first treatment of choice in a wide range of medical situations, not the last as is so often the case.


The Symposium concluded with a final presentation by Co-Chairman Dr. Ron Fessenden.  He summed up areas that need investigation to further the Committee’s goals, reflecting on investigations suggested by the Alberta Beekeepers Association21 and other organizations.  Those in attendance clearly responded favorably to the symposium and charter members like myself now look forward to seeing the fruits of the Committee’s continued efforts in the future.


References (All Urls below accessed January 22, 2007):


1.      <http://www.prohoneyandhealth.com>

2.      <http://www.bee-hexagon.com/>

3.      <http://www.alp.admin.ch/themen/00502/00555/index.html?lang=en>

4.      <http://www.jacn.org/>

5.      <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligosaccharide>

6.      <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycemic_index>

7.      <http://healthyhorns.utexas.edu/bevobites/measures.html>

8.      <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melatonin>

9.      <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3c1lbfhPLeM>

10.   <http://www.hibernationdiet.com/>

11.   <http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/contents.shtml>

12.   <http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/161/12/1140>

13.   <http://honey.com/>

14.   <http://apitherapy.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html>

15.   <http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00286.x>

16.   <http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=236>

17.   <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diabetes>

18.  <http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2006.070?prevSearch=allfield%3A%28G.B.K.S.+Prasad%29>

19.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MRSA>

20.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofilm>

21.  <http://www.albertabeekeepers.org/>