Honey improves key health indicators, including blood sugar and cholesterol levels

In a recent Nutrition reviews journal study, University of Toronto researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of previous controlled trials to better understand the impact of honey on mitigating certain cardiometabolic risk factors.

study: Effect of honey on cardiometabolic risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Image credit: Subbotina Anna / Shutterstock.com

The composition of honey

As a product provided by honey bees from flower nectar, honey consists of various complex sugars, organic acids, enzymes, proteins, amino acids, minerals, vitamins and other biologically active compounds. Generally considered a healthier alternative to sugar, honey has previously been shown to provide multiple health benefits, including reduced body weight, inflammation, lipid profiles and glycemic control in in vitro, in vivo, and clinical research.

Despite this evidence, no in-depth studies have been conducted on the health benefits of honey in humans. Additionally, the different types of honey, their sources, and whether it is raw or processed need to be elucidated to determine whether these factors contribute to its potential health benefits.

About the research

The researchers of the current study searched MEDLINE, Embase, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Studies databases for randomized and non-randomized controlled feeding trials in humans that examined the effects of oral honey intake for at least seven days or longer. These studies determined how honey consumption affects adiposity, glycemic control, lipids, blood pressure, uric acid, inflammatory markers, and markers of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

To determine the effect of honey on these various factors, the researchers used the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Specifically, the GRADE approach assesses the certainty of ratings derived from selected trials to create graded evidence profiles based on their degree of certainty.

Importantly, the studies analyzed by the researchers in this review included otherwise healthy patients who did not consume excessive amounts of sugar on a daily basis.

Survey results

Of the 809 studies initially identified, the researchers used 18 controlled feeding trials for their final analysis, which consisted of a total of 1,105 participants. In these trials, the average daily dose of honey was 40 grams, with an average duration of eight weeks.

The various trial comparisons included in these studies included the effects of honey on body weight, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DBP), fasting glucose, insulin fasting, glycated hemoglobin, homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR), low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), fasting triglycerides, apolipoprotein, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) ), interleukin 6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α), uric acid and alanine aminotransferase (ALT).

Taken together, honey was found to improve lipid outcomes by reducing total cholesterol, LDL-C, and fasting triglyceride levels and increasing HDL-C levels. Additionally, oral consumption of honey increased IL-6 and TNF-α levels. Regarding the other health outcomes examined in these studies, no other beneficial effects of honey were reported.

Notably, the researchers found that the floral source and processing method of the honey influenced its health effects. For example, robinia honey, clover honey, and raw honey are associated with reduced fasting glucose and total cholesterol levels.

The health benefits of raw honey, which has not been subjected to the harsh effects of pasteurization, may be due, at least in part, to the presence of probiotic bacteria in this product, such as lactobacilli. Lactobacilli have been shown in previous studies to improve immune system regulation, reduce serum lipid levels, exert antioxidant effects, and maintain levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut.

The word among public health and nutrition experts is that ‘sugar is sugar…’ these results show that’s not the case.”

Study inferences

Despite the high concentration of sugar in honey, which is about 80%, the majority of which is fructose and glucose, the present study found that the various other bioactive substances that comprise this natural sweetener are likely to provide cardiometabolic health benefits to consumers.

In addition to the conventional sugars found in honey, rare sugars, which have been shown to alter both short- and long-term glycemic outcomes, make up about 14% of honey’s sugar content. Therefore, the presence of these sugars may also contribute to the observed health benefits of honey.

The bottom line is more about substitution – if you use table sugar, syrup or other sweetener, replacing those sugars with honey can reduce cardiometabolic risks.”

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