Honey is a free sugar: Honey is made up of up over 180 components including sugars, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. The sugar components dominate, around 80% of its composition is monosaccharides (predominantly fructose) and 3-5% disaccharides, as well as water and non-sugar components.
There are two main classes of honey: As well as being available ready to eat in pots, or ‘honey for human consumption’, honey is widely used in ‘food manufacturing’ as a sweet flavouring in breakfast cereals, breads, table sauces and marinades, desserts, ham, flapjacks, nuts, yoghurts, pasta sauces, syrups, porridge and more.
Honey for human consumption: The European Union Labelling rules for honey state that honey for human consumption must not have added to it any food ingredient or food additive, nor shall any other additions be made other than honey. This includes Honey (including Manuka), Blossom honey and nectar honey, Honeydew honey, Comb honey, Chunk honey and cut comb in honey, Drained honey, Extracted honey, Pressed honey and Filtered honey.
Honey is often processed by heat or filtration to eliminate yeast growth and remove ‘impurities’, such as traces of pollen and the resin from hives. When honey is excessively heated or ultra-filtered, potential useful micronutrients are most likely removed. This honey is used in manufacturing.
Honey for food manufacturer: This is often described as Baker’s honey, which is honey suitable for industrial use or as an ingredient, and may have a foreign taste or odour, be fermented or have been overheated. It does not meet the compositional requirements to be sold as honey, nonetheless, when it is used as an ingredient in food and drink products it can be labelled as honey in the ingredients list. E.g. ‘Honey and oat bread’, ‘honey nut flakes’.
Honey has no health claims: As of 2019, there were no approved health claims for honey listed on the European Union Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods. Eight claims are listed on the register, all of which are non-authorised due to lack of scientific evidence. The claims applications that are not authorised include ‘Helps support and maintain a healthy digestive system’ and ‘Flavonoids contained within the honey contribute to the microbial balance in the body organs and tissues’.
Evidence for health benefits of honey are limited: It is the small quantities of non-sugar components in honey that are associated with the supposed ‘health benefits’. Honey, specifically Manuka honey, has traditionally been used to treat wounds, insect bites, burns, skin disorders, sores, and boils. Studies have, inconclusively, been conducted on many other potential applications of honey, including proposed beneficial effects on the treatment of gastroenteritis, pharyngitis and cardiovascular health.
Only research into the use of honey to sooth the throat and aid in the relief of coughing has so far demonstrated beneficial results, leading Public Health England (PHE) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to issue new guidance for the treatment of acute coughs to reduce the excessive prescribing of antibiotics. NICE and PHE found that there was enough evidence from randomised controlled trials, although limited, to suggest honey reduced symptoms of acute cough in children and young people, however, honey should not be given to children under one due to concerns of infant botulism. However, it was noted in these guidelines that honey is still a sugar and can contribute to tooth decay.
Fructose is the highest contributor of sugars in almost every honey type and has a lower glycaemic index (GI) compared to sucrose and glucose. This is one reason why honey, is considered by some, to be a beneficial alternative to high GI sweeteners in the management of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Fructose is also intensely sweet, which perhaps suggests you would eat less honey than sugar (sucrose), weight for weight.
Evidence for the negative impact of free sugars is strong: The definition of ‘free sugars’ includes honey, syrups and nectars, so any benefits of honey have to be balanced with the known negative health impacts of consuming too much ‘free sugars’. We currently consume far too much free sugars in our diets, which via the calories it contains, is contributing to an epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers and also directly to tooth decay.
Worryingly, there is evidence suggesting fructose may be a direct cause of fatty liver disease, independent of (and in addition to) the excessive calories all free sugars contain.
Conclusion: Other than in occasional use to sooth acute coughs, the supposed health benefits of honey do not outweigh the contribution of free sugars it provides, particularly when it is widely used in processed manufactured foods.