Diet and Recipes

Is Honey a Healthier Alternative to Sugar?

I’m sure we have all heard about the harmful effects of sugar. Especially for those of us at high risk of diabetes. Even more so for those of us who have been diagnosed with diabetes already. Nowadays, when you walk into a coffee shop, they often provide several different sugar and sweetener options.

I know when I go to my local coffee place, I have the option of regular white table sugar, brown sugar, sucralose, Stevia, or honey. Honey seems like a healthier option, but is it? In the article below, we will talk about what honey is and what it is made up of.

We will also get into the differences between raw honey and processed honey. We will then discuss the benefits of honey and whether honey can prevent diabetes mellitus or not.

We will talk about the potential risks of eating honey if you have diabetes, as well as the potential benefits of eating honey if you have diabetes. We will list some sugar alternatives for you as well.

What is honey?

Honey is a solution derived from bees. It is made up of more than 180 different substances. Most of these (80%) are carbohydrates and simple sugars. It contains a large amount of monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose.

Honey also contains small amounts of disaccharides and trisaccharides, such as sucrose and pine trisaccharides. There are also several amino acids, vitamins, and minerals present in honey. But the keys to honey’s medicinal powers lie in its flavonoids and phenolic acids. Honey is a natural sweetener and a therapeutic agent.

The exact composition of honey may vary due to differences in nectar, season, geography, and storage conditions. The quality of honey depends on various factors, including:

  • Sugars

  • Moisture

  • Acidity

  • Electrical conductivity

  • Colour

  • Activity of the 5-HMF enzyme

  • Activity of the diastase enzyme

One teaspoon of honey contains 20 calories.

What is the difference between raw and processed honey?

The processing of honey is common. However, we do know that processing does lower the quality of the product.

One study tested 11 different kinds of honey from various flower sources for antibacterial activity. They then compared these against processed commercial honey. They tested against three-gram positive bacteria. Two of these were strains of Staphylococcus aureus, and one was a strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis.

They also tested two different gram-negative bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Escherichia coli. All samples except the processed honey demonstrated antibacterial activity. The raw natural honey contained higher amounts of methylglyoxal, which has antibacterial properties.

Another study looked at a specific type of processing called microwave thermal heating. Although this is an efficient method of liquefying honey and maintaining honey criteria, it may have effects on antibacterial properties. One study looked at the impact of microwave thermal heating on raw rapeseed honey.

They looked at its effects on bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. Researchers focused on two major bees derived antibacterial components. These were defensing-1 and hydrogen peroxide. Results showed that microwave thermal heating completely abolished honey’s antibacterial activity.

There was a significant decrease in glucose oxidase activity and hydrogen peroxide production. Since defensing-1 and hydrogen peroxide is regular antibacterial components of all honeys, it’s possible that microwave thermal heating may have similar adverse effects on every type of crystallized and liquid honey.

There is another study; however, that showed that processed honey maintained its antibacterial qualities. This study looked at the activity of raw and processed honey on gram-positive bacteria and gram-negative bacteria. The gram-positive bacteria they tested were as follows:

  • Staphylococcus aureusBacillus subtilis

  • Bacillus cereus

  • Enterococcus faecalis

  • Micrococcus luteus

The gram-negative bacteria they tested were as follows:

  • Escherichia coli

  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa

  • Salmonella typhi

The results showed that both types of honey demonstrated antibacterial activity against tested bacteria.

One other difference between raw and processed honey is that in raw honey, there is a considerable variation in the antimicrobial activity amongst them. This is because of the differences in nectar between plants of different locations and times in the year.

What are the benefits of honey?

The medicinal importance of honey has been documented in some of the world’s oldest medical literature. The benefits of honey include:

  • Antimicrobial

  • Antibacterial (honey is both bacteriostatic and bactericidal, which means it slows down bacteria as well as kills them)

  • Wound-healing

  • Provides protective barrier when applied topically on the skin

  • Immunomodulatory

  • Antioxidant

  • Regulates the glycemic response

  • Antitumor

  • Anti-inflammatory (lowers prostaglandin levels and elevates nitric oxide end products)

  • Protects the cardiovascular system

  • Stimulates tissue growth

  • Minimizes scar formation

  • Heals ulcers

  • Heals burns

  • Strengthens the tonic effect of Astragalus (an adaptogenic herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine)

  • Anticancer activities

  • Antidiabetic activity

  • Prevents oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL for short, also known as “bad cholesterol”)

  • The protective effect in the nervous system

  • Protects against asthma

  • Protects against respiratory infections

  • Protects the gastrointestinal system

  • Helpful to athletes (positive effects when consumed before, during or after exercise)

  • Improves markers of bone formation

  • Decreases severity and frequency of cough

  • Helps prevent venous leg ulcers

  • Treats diabetic foot ulcers

  • Helpful in post-operative wounds

  • Improves pressure injuries

  • Helpful in Cutaneous Leishmaniasis~

  • Treats Fournier’s gangrene

Can honey prevent diabetes?

Even though it is full of carbs, several preclinical and human studies report the protective effects of honey against diabetes. Honey intake does appear to reduce blood sugar levels, as well as fructosamine and HbA1c serum concentrations.

Honey seems to enhance insulin sensitivity. This further stabilizes blood glucose levels and protects the pancreas from overstimulation brought on by insulin resistance—additionally, the antioxidative properties of honey help to reduce oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is one of the central mechanisms of diabetes. Honey may even help to prevent diabetes in healthy people. Various studies have shown that honey reduces blood glucose or was more tolerable than most common sugars or sweeteners.

Compared to many other sugars and sweeteners, honey is lower on the glycemic index. It is worth noting that when we are discussing diabetes prevention, we are talking only about type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetes works via a different mechanism, and cannot be prevented as easily with lifestyle modifications as type 2 diabetes can.

What are the risks of eating honey if you have diabetes?

There is no denying that honey does indeed have high sugar content. Whether it is safe for diabetic patients to consume honey remains controversial. Both children and adolescents consume more sugar than current recommendations. This is of concern because there is no nutritional requirement for free sugars.

Infants and children have an innate preference for a sweet taste. This can be modified and reinforced by prenatal and postnatal exposures. Free sugars may be associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. The term “free sugars” incudes the sugars naturally present in honey.

Honey contains an ingredient called methylglyoxal, which is what gives honey its sought-after antibacterial activities. However, methylglyoxal has been associated with diabetes.

One research article looked at the scientific evidence linking sugar consumption and health in the adult population of France. Researchers performed a literature search by crossing search terms for the following:

  • Overweight

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

  • Insulin resistance

  • High cholesterol

  • Heart disease

  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

  • Uric acid concentrations

Research experts extracted and assessed controlled mechanistic studies, prospective cohort studies, and randomized clinical trials. The research showed that there are associations between sugar intake and the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.

Based on these observations, France’s national food health and safety agency proposed a maximum limit to the intake of total sugars containing fructose to 100 grams per day. This included honey.

Are there benefits to eating honey if you have diabetes?

More and more patients with diabetes are turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM for short). This includes herbs and other natural products, including functional foods such as honey.

Antidibetic effects

The reasons people have started to turn towards these options are mostly due to limitations and unmet goals associated with the use of antidiabetic drugs. This is part of why there has been a renewed interest in the use of honey in the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus. This has fueled more research examining the link between honey and diabetes in both rodents and humans.

Evidence-based data has demonstrated benefits in diabetes. Antidiabetic drugs, combined with honey, improve glycemic control, enhance antioxidant defenses, and reduce oxidative damage. These effects are thought to be due to the antioxidant effects of honey.

This makes researchers wonder whether antidiabetic drugs co-administered with other potent antioxidants (such as vitamin C or vitamin E) would also have a positive effect on glycemic control. Lots of evidence has shown that using honey, vitamin C, and vitamin E, along with antidiabetic medications, can help to manage your diabetes mellitus.

Low Glycemic index

Honey is lower on the glycemic index compared to other sugars and sweeteners available on the market. And research has shown that honey can lead to hypoglycemia-like effects.

Growing evidence and scientific data are supporting the use of honey in patients with diabetes. Experimental studies completed in recent years support honey as an antidiabetic agent due to its apparent hypoglycemic effects. They say it might also be of potential significance for managing diabetes and diabetic complications.

Lowers blood glucose

In patients with impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes itself, various studies have revealed that honey reduces blood glucose. It has also been shown to be more tolerable than most regular sugars or sweeteners.

It is worth noting that preclinical studies provided more convincing evidence in support of honey as a potential antidiabetic agent. The clinical studies did not result in such strong evidence for honey’s role as an antidiabetic agent.

One study looked at the effects of honey, metformin, and their combination on glucose metabolism in diabetic rats. This study went on for five weeks. Results showed that honey and its combination with metformin could prevent hyperglycemia. It could also increase insulin levels, reduce liver fat accumulation, and prevent damage to the liver and kidneys.

Treatment with honey or both honey and metformin significantly enhanced the activity of glucokinase. It also suppressed enzymes related to insulin resistance, such as glucose-6-phosphatase, phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, pyruvate carboxylase, and pyruvate dehydrogenase kinases.

Glycemic control

Research has shown that honey can have beneficial effects in the gastrointestinal tract, on the gut microbiota, in the liver, and the pancreas. Effects on these different organs throughout the body can help to improve glycemic control and metabolic derangements.

Wound healing

It is also worth noting that honey can be used topically on the skin. This can have great beneficial effects, particularly to patients with diabetes. Honey can help to speed wound healing, which is normally slower in patients with diabetes.

Diabetic ulcers

Topical honey treatment can also be helpful in diabetic ulcers. It is also helpful with venous insufficiency, which is a potential complication of diabetes. Although honey may not necessarily help prevent type 1 diabetes, it can still help manage and prevent complications related to type 1 diabetes. 

Sugar alternatives

There are many sugar substitutes out there. These consist of artificial sweeteners as well as natural sweeteners. Some of them are healthy choices, while others are not. Sugar alternatives include:

  • Xylitol

  • Erythritol

  • Raw cane sugar

  • Maple syrup

  • Agave nectar

  • Molasses (dark/blackstrap)

  • Date sugar

  • Brown sugar

  • D-allulose~

  • D-tagatose

  • D-sorbose

  • D-allose

  • Stevia

  • Monkfruit

  • Lactitol

  • Sorbitol

  • Mannitol

  • Trehalose

  • Maltitol

  • Coconut sugar

  • Corn syrup

Conclusion

We believe that honey has a similar effect on the body as sugar. Honey can still increase plasma glucose levels. But there are also studies to show that honey can help with glycemic control. There is so much controversy surrounding this topic. Our advice is this.

If you are at risk of developing diabetes or already have diabetes, avoid sugars of all kinds (including honey) as much as you possibly can. But if you are ever in a situation where you have to decide between high glycemic index white sugar or refined sugars and honey, honey is the better choice. If you want antibacterial effects, honey is also going to be a better choice than white table sugar or many of the other added sugars and sweeteners out there.

As you can see, the use of honey in a diabetic diet is a controversial topic. As with any and all nutrition and supplement inquiries, we suggest you speak to your health care provider to see what they think the best course of action is.

It is such a good idea to speak to your health care provider because they know your individual case and will know what is best for you as an individual. You and your health care provider must work together to weigh the pros and cons of using honey in the diet.

The next time you speak to your health care provider, feel free to mention the scientific evidence brought up in this article to make the most informed decision about honey consumption.

Sources

  1. Othman NH. Does honey have the characteristics of natural cancer vaccine?. J Tradit Complement Med. 2012;2(4):276–283. doi:10.1016/s2225-4110(16)30113-4
  2. Khalil MI, Sulaiman SA. The potential role of honey and its polyphenols in preventing heart diseases: a review. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. ;7(4):315–321.
  3. Al-Waili NS1, Salom K, Butler G, Al Ghamdi AA.. (2011). Honey and microbial infections: a review supporting the use of honey for microbial control.. Journal of Medicinal Food. 14 (10), p1079-96.
  4. Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM. Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(12):1140–1146. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.12.1140
  5. Al-Waili N. (2001). Therapeutic and prophylactic effects of crude honey on chronic seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff.. European Journal of Medical Research. 6 (7), p1140-6.
  6. Al-Waili N, Salom K, Al-Ghamdi AA. Honey for wound healing, ulcers, and burns; data supporting its use in clinical practice. ScientificWorldJournal. 2011;11:766–787. Published 2011 Apr 5. doi:10.1100/tsw.2011.78

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