Honey: Is it the same as eating sugar?

22 Mar 2024

Honey has a mixed reputation. Some praise its health benefits while the word among nutrition experts has long been that “sugar is sugar”. So is honey health-promoting?

Plant Tales

Sweet bee chemistry: It’s easy to forget when you taste a spoonful of golden honey that it’s produced by bees from the nectar of flowering plants. As they flit from flower to flower, honeybees collect tiny drops of nectar into their special honey stomach, where their enzymes break down complex sugars into simpler ones – producing honey. They store it in the beehive as a food source for the colony.

Used by humans for over 8,000 years! Honey has been used for food, medicine and rituals by cultures around the world since ancient times. Some of the earliest evidence comes from an 8,000-year-old rock painting discovered on a cave wall in eastern Spain. It shows a person climbing a ladder to gather honey from a hive on a cliff!

Is collecting honey bad for bees? Beekeeping practices lie on a spectrum: intensive industrial-scale production can harm honey bee populations, but smaller producers are using bee-centred approaches to encourage the natural behaviour of bees. What’s clear is that we cannot ignore bees’ welfare when buying honey. Bee populations have been declining recently, which has a serious impact on our environment and our crops since bees pollinate a lot of the food that makes our diets healthy and tasty. Find out how you can help protect bees and check out this shopping guide from Ethical Consumer.

Honey as medicine: Most ancient populations, including the Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians, Romans, Mayans and Babylonians, consumed honey for nutritional aims and medicinal properties. It was used as part of many remedies, like to treat infections and digestive issues, and is considered one of the oldest wound-healing agents known to mankind.

Health Benefits

Honey polyphenols: Honey is a mix of sugars (80%), water (18%) and tiny amounts of minerals, vitamins and polyphenols – particularly phenolic acids and flavonoids. These are why researchers are investigating its potential health-promoting effects.

Honey vs table sugar: Some researchers highlight ‘rare sugars’ found in honey that could benefit glycemic control. However, a human trial comparing honey, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup found no difference in glycemic response – suggesting that honey was not more beneficial than other sweeteners.

Potential health benefits: Small studies found that honey could help…

  • Soothe a cough: In clinical trials, giving honey to children with acute cough was more effective than cough medication or no treatment.
  • Heal wounds: Topical use of honey was more efficacious for wound healing than silver – the dominant antibacterial dressing used in wound healing – according to a systematic review of 6 trials from South Asia.
  • Improve cholesterol levels: In clinical trials, raw honey intake improved cholesterol levels in participants who followed healthy dietary patterns with added sugars accounting for 10% or less of their daily caloric intake.

But, the evidence isn’t great. Most studies are small and have flaws like not having proper controls, being unblinded or short-term. And there are no uniform standards for honey – so we don’t know which type of honey and how much could be beneficial. We need more high-quality studies.

Plus, products vary widely. The composition of honey and thus its potential effects vary massively depending on factors like the type of flowers, the region it comes from and how it’s processed.

Honey is still mostly sugar. To get a meaningful benefit from the compounds in honey, the large amount of sugar you would have to eat could negate any potential health benefit. We think of honey as an occasional sweet treat. To sweeten foods like porridge, you can also try fruits, like bananas or berries, and spices, like cinnamon.

Tasty Tips

Our tips for choosing quality honey

  • Buy local: In the UK, most commercial honey is imported, but there is a thriving community of small-scale beekeepers. If you can, buy from small honey producers near you to reduce problems linked with industrial production like dilution with sugar syrups. Find your local branch.
  • Unpasteurised: The high heat used during pasteurisation was shown to reduce polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity.
  • Transparency and traceability: Look for brands with detailed information about their production practices. On the label, spot where the honey is produced and packaged. On their website or in person, look for information about the beekeepers.
  • Avoid blends from more than one country.

Is quality honey worth the extra cost? For health, probably not – focus on other whole foods. For flavour, it’s up to you. Just like coffee or chocolate, quality honey is a symphony of unique flavours and expert craftsmanship (from bees and beekeepers!). We tried various brands in the studio for an upcoming YouTube video and were amazed by the diversity of flavours!

Our favourite ways to enjoy honey:
  • In salad dressings with olive oil, vinegar, and herbs.
  • Over Greek yoghurt with nuts, seeds, nut butter, fruits, etc.
  • With cheese
  • On its own as a sweet dessert
Honey-flavoured recipes


Composition: Ranneh et al. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2021 | Ayoub et al. Food Chemistry Advances. 2023

Human studies: Kuitunen et al. Eur J Pediatr. 2023 | Oduwole et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018 | Lindberg et al. Contemporary nurse. 2015 | Ahmed et al. Nutr Rev. 2023 | Raatz et al. J Nutr. 2015

Honey prodcution: The British Beekeepers Association | Ethical Consumer



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