Honey – the science behind the myths

Honey, there are so many different types, how do you know to tell them apart, and which to spend your money on? 

Amazingly, honey contains approximately 180 different chemicals! Most commercial honey is pasteurised, killing any bacteria and fungi. Raw undergoes least processing, and is closest to the honeycomb, often containing particles of pollen.

Honey has been shown to have anti-bacterial effects in skin wounds and with regards gingivitis (inflammation) of the gums. 

Honey really does have antibacterial effects

The antibacterial effects are due to a combination of features. Firstly water has a high sugar content, and very low water availability, meaning that bacteria can’t survive. This feature also means that it draws water out of wounds by osmosis. Many honeys also naturally contain glucose oxidase, an enzyme that converts glucose and oxygen to hydrogen-peroxide, an oxidiser, that can kill bacteria and fungi. However, hydrogen-peroxide can be readily destroyed by the catalase enzyme present in wounds, rendering it ineffective.

What about Manuka Honey?

Manuka honey is regularly touted as a ‘superfood healer’, but what is the evidence? Manuka honey, is just honey that is produced by bees which feed on the Manuka plant, found in New Zealand. Each Manuka honey, has a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), which is a measure of the antibacterial effects. These are thought to be in addition to the hydrogen-peroxide produced by most honeys, hence working where other honeys might not. Methylglyoxal is thought to be one of the key antibacterial compounds in the high non-peroxidase antibacterial activity (NPA), but not all Manuka honeys are created equally, and there is some evidence that methylgloxal might be harmful used on the wounds of patients with diabetes. 

Medical grade honey, is honey which has a high NPA, and is sterile.

Research shows that honey can help skin infections

If you have an infected skin wound, medical grade honey has been shown to be effective in some situations. Using honey is also low risk, most people are not allergic, and there are less side effects than using more traditional medications. It is also thought that Manuka honey contains some prebiotics, chemicals which help feed the good bacteria in your gut (microbiome). However, its most likely that any prebiotic effect is significantly inhibited by stomach acid during digestion. There are a number of studies on honey applied to single layers of cells in culture, but it is impossible to extrapolate what the effect, if any might be in an animal or human. So the greatest benefit of honey, at present appears to be topically (applied directly to your skin), with further studies needed to confirm the role of honey in a wider context. 

Which honey should I buy?

So what should you spend your money on? Honey is still an added sugar, so while it does contain small amounts of some vitamins and minerals and is therefore preferable to refined sugar, it should still be limited in your diet. If you intend to eat honey, Manuka might help your gut bacteria, but the evidence is weak, and there are better ways to do this. It is also difficult to know exactly what you are buying even with the UMF factor. Therefore, chose a honey you like the taste of, until more research is done.

Remember that because of the possible risk of botulism, honey isn’t recommended for children under a year of age.

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