Honey is a fabulous food. It is not a plant of course, but plants are required in order for bees to make honey. It is a fascinating process, and I hope to write more on this process in the future. But for the moment, I want to encourage people to take another look at raw honey as a food.
Honey is mentioned in the Bible in Proverbs more than once. Proverbs 24: 13 says:
“My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste…”
In Exodus 3:17, God told Moses, “And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, and the Amorites and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Perhaps “a land flowing with milk and honey” simply meant that it was a rich land, conducive to growing crops and raising livestock, which was vital to a people for life and livelihood. But the very sustenance of honey and milk, and the health benefits of both were seen as obvious to Moses. Milk is a subject for another day, but honey is the subject of closer analysis in this post.
In the book, “THE HONEY REVOLUTION, Restoring The Health of Future Generations, by Ron Fessenden, MD, MPH, Dr. Fessenden documents and explains how honey differs from other sweeteners. This book is extremely well documented, and the information in this post is derived mostly from it.
Dr. Fessenden notes that honey contains the same sugars as HFCS and table sugar – glucose and fructose – and practically in the same ratio. So what is it about honey that makes it different? Pardon me while the explanation gets scientific and technical, and don’t let that turn you off from reading a little further to see the practical effects honey has on the human body!
Since Dr. Fessenden can explain it better than I can, I will quote directly from his book on page 67: “Sucrose, or common table sugar, is a simple sugar – a disaccharide made up of equal parts of two sugars, glucose and fructose. When ingested, an enzyme in the gut breaks the bond holding the fructose and glucose molecules together, allowing them to pass easily into the bloodstream. The circulating blood then delivers the fructose and glucose to the liver and on to other cells of the body. The liver immediately converts both fructose and glucose into glycogen for storage within the liver cells until the storage capacity is met (usually about 75 grams). Some of the excess amounts of both sugars (especially fructose) are converted into fats and stored in the liver cells.
Glucose not converted to glycogen in the liver remains in the circulation causing blood sugar levels to rise resulting in the release of excessive amounts of insulin from the pancreas. Excessive consumption of sucrose is associated with obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and the metabolic syndrome and its associated conditions. It has been said that if FDA approval of sugar as a food additive were to be requested today, it would be denied!”
Glucose is derived also from other things in our diet. It is consumed from fruits and vegetables and starchy foods such as rice, potatoes, corn, pasta and grains. Glucose is used by the body for energy, but when more is consumed than can be used at any given time, then the excess not used immediately is stored either in muscle tissue as glycogen, or it becomes fat and is stored in adipose tissue around the abdominal organs. Interestingly, the amount of glucose converted to fat is directly related to a person’s level of activity and the storage capacity of the muscle cells and the liver.
Fructose is found primarily in fruit and like glucose, is a simple sugar. However, since the 1970’s, it has been used in processed foods and beverages containing HFCS. In Dr. Fessenden’s words, “Both fructose and glucose when consumed in excess and combined with protein can be a significant cause of cellular damage in diabetics, thus contributing to many age-related chronic inflammatory diseases. While glucose can be used by every cell in the body for energy, fructose can only be metabolized in the liver. And unlike glucose, lower insulin levels and less appetite hormones are produced as a result of fructose consumption.”
Some of the main problems with consuming excessive amounts of fructose are the increased likelihood of obesity and elevated levels of triglycerides. According to Dr. Meira Field, a USDA research chemist, mentioned in Dr. Fessenden’s book, “the liver of rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic.”
Here is a scientific explanation that Dr. Fessenden says about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): “HFCS is made from cornstarch, which is mostly glucose. Enzymatic action catalyzed by hydrochloric acid produces fructose from the glucose. Once the solution reaches a concentration of 90% fructose, glucose is added to arrive at the ratios commonly used in food manufacturing and processing today, either a 55:45 or 42:58 ratio of fructose to glucose. HFCS is technically not high fructose, but a balanced ratio close to the 1:1 ratio found in sucrose or honey. HFCS represents about 40% of the sweeteners used in foods and beverages in the United States. Until recently, 100% of the soft drinks bottled in the U.S. used HFCS as the primary sweetener. Now the negative publicity surrounding HFCS has forced bottling companies to begin using sugar again….What is not being told, however, is that HFCS and sugar (sucrose) consumption have just the same effects in the body.”
So if honey and sugar and HFCS are almost the same in glucose and sucrose content, what is it about honey that is different and actually beneficial to the body, and not detrimental? Dr. Fessenden outlines three overlapping categories that differentiate the action of honey in the body from sugar and HFCS: 1)The natural constituents contained in each product 2) The prebiotic effects of each product 3) The metabolic results that occur after consumption of each.
The Natural Constituents. Dr. Fessenden writes, “Honey contains more than 180 different substances that have been isolated from various honey varietals. These include 5 enzymes, 6 different vitamins, 8 distinctive lipids, 12 minerals, 17 trace elements, 18 different acids, 18 different amino acids (proteins), 18 bioflavonoids (also known as antioxidants), and 26 aroma compounds. In this regard, honey is more like a fruit than a sugar. Sucrose, from either cane or beets, and HFCS are much simpler compounds by comparison, made up primarily of the simple sugars, glucose and fructose.”
“Within the past few years,” Dr. Fessenden goes on to write, “substances in honey have been identified that help to regulate the production of a protein hormone produced in the liver, known as hepatic insulin sensitizing substance (HISS). HISS release from the liver facilitates the uptake of glucose into muscle cells where it is stored as glycogen, thus resulting in lower blood sugar levels. In other words, substances found in honey contribute to lowering of blood sugar levels unlike sucrose, glucose (starch), or HFCS, which immediately raise blood sugar.”
“Several of the natural constituents of honey act as powerful antioxidants within the body. Others work to lower inflammation within the cells and tissues. Neither the antioxidant nor anti-inflammatory properties of honey are found in sucrose or HFCS. In fact, these sugars produce significant inflammatory effects, both within the gut and within cells throughout the body.”
The Prebiotic Effects. There are other constituents in honey called oligosaccharides. These are complex sugars which some researchers believe contribute to the anti-diabetic effect of honey. They also seem to have a beneficial effect on lipid levels. These oligosaccharides find their way into the large intestine where they serve as prebiotics for beneficial organisms found in the gut. In light of all of the intestinal disorders and candida issues in our population at large, it would seem that honey could hold some answers to these ailments. This is also possibly why honey has a positive effect on conditions such as obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, as well as reducing triglyceride and cholesterol levels in the body. Simple sugars such as sucrose, glucose, and HFCS contain no complex sugars and do not produce any such prebiotic effects.
The Metabolic Results After Consumption. There is a big difference in the way that honey is metabolized, stored and utilized by the body compared to sucrose, glucose or HFCS. In addition to the natural consistencies and the prebiotic effects it has in the body, honey has marked differences in the glucose uptake into the cells when blood sugar levels are elevated. To explain further, the body has two main storage areas for glucose: the liver and muscle tissue. As explained earlier, when these storage areas are full, the excess glucose is stored as fat. Because of the natural consistencies in honey, and the prebiotic effects, a small amount of honey, 1 to 2 tablespoons (which is 20 to 40 grams), with its nearly equal glucose and fructose ratio, results in a lower blood sugar level, less fat storage and optimum replenishment of liver glycogen levels. In other words, honey consumption results in the most rapid and efficient formation of liver glycogen of any natural food. And what is glycogen? It is basically brain fuel, which also nourishes the kidneys and red blood cells.
Here is the interesting thing. People consume excessive amounts of sucrose, glucose and HFCS and do not even know it. These sugars are hidden in processed foods and also eaten every time table sugar is ingested. Because the results are not immediately felt, people don’t realize they have eaten too much. But the ongoing damage to the body results in elevated blood sugar levels, increased fat storage, and overwhelming liver exhaustion. These conditions lead to other ailments, which often leads people to doctors who prescribe medicines to treat symptoms instead of the underlying problem. But honey consumption on the other hand, in moderation, (which Dr. Fessenden says is 3-5 Tablespoons a day in divided doses), has such health benefits that making it your primary sweetener, and trying to avoid the use of the other sweeteners, could be a revolutionary solution to a multitude of modern diet problems. As it says in Proverbs 25: 16, “Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.” Most likely if you eat too much honey, it will make you sick. Therefore, eat just until you are satisfied, and no more. Most likely, you won’t want to eat more than you should.
In addition to the health benefits of honey already explained, Dr. Fessenden discusses additional benefits in his book and goes into much more detail on the effects of honey for different conditions and ailments. I suggest you buy his book, as it really is an excellent reference and well worth the small investment to purchase it. The other thing about honey, just to be clear, is that it is generally recommended to not give honey, especially raw honey, to a child under 1 year of age, due to the possibility of botulism spores (which older children and adults with properly developed immune systems won’t have a problem with) causing infant botulism. Dr. Fessenden discusses this in more detail on page 182.
Finally, here is a list of just 11 health benefits of honey, which are written in Dr. Fessenden’s book on pages 74-77:
1.) Honey produces more liver glycogen than any other food on a gram-for-gram basis. (This is basically brain fuel!)
2.) Honey stabilizes (regulates and controls) blood sugar levels. In other words, honey lowers blood sugar, as well as prevents low blood sugar.
3.) Honey consumption results in a lower insulin response than that produced by the ingestion of similar amounts of sucrose or HFCS, thus delaying or preventing the development of insulin resistance.
4.) Honey consumption reduces intracellular inflammation associated with diabetes and aging.
5.) Honey consumption has a direct effect on lowering cortisol levels throughout the body by its promotion of liver glycogen formation, regulation of blood sugar, and prevention of metabolic stress.
6.) Honey consumption reduces metabolic stress thus reducing the risks for many of the diseases and conditions associated with the metabolic syndrome, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
7.) Daily honey consumption will lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
8.) Honey consumption before bedtime promotes restorative sleep and improves sleep quality and duration.
9.) Honey lowers levels of homocysteine (HCY).
10.) Honey consumption improves memory and cognitive function.
11.) Honey consumption indirectly lowers cancer risks and improves the body’s ability to fight cancer by several known mechanisms of action, including impeding the replication and growth of cancer cells and improving immune system functioning.