I’m frequently asked “is honey healthy?” Does it matter which you choose? Do some honeys have health benefits and are they worth the cost? Read my guide to the best honey.
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. This is where the headlines of healthy honey probably originates.
Healthy Honey? Honey really does have antibacterial effects
The antibacterial effects are due to a combination of features. Firstly honey 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 easily 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 in addition to the hydrogen-peroxide produced by most honeys, hence working where other honeys might not. Instead the anti-bacterial properties measured by the UMF relate to a chemical called methylglyoxal. Methylglyoxal is one of the key antibacterial compounds in the high non-peroxidase antibacterial activity (NPA), but not all Manuka honeys are created equally, which is why the UMF is used as a grading system. There is some evidence that methylgloxal might be harmful used on the wounds of patients with diabetes, but more research is needed.
Medical Grade Honey
Medical grade honey, is just honey which has a high non-peroxidase antibacterial activity (NPA) such as Manuka honey, and is sterile. Ensuring the honey is sterile is crucial, so that bacterial or spores are not introduced into skin wounds, making any infections worse. Additionally because hydrogen-peroxide can be easily destroyed by the catalase enzyme present in wounds, rendering it ineffective, it is important to choose one that also has anti-bacterial activity by other mechanisms, such as methylglyoxal.
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.
Breastfeeding sometimes be traumatic for nipples and medical honey can be safely applied to aid healing, through it’s antibacterial properties.
Which honey should I buy?
So what should you spend your money on and is honey healthy? 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.