in defence of honey & a chat with nutritionist Angela Gioffre

*this post has been updated with an excerpt from Sally Fallon's book Nourishing Traditions.

I love honey. I really really do. Really. Leatherwood is my absolute favourite. These tahini honey balls are one of my fave snacks. But since I quit sugar, many people have asked me if honey is any better...

Honey hunter - image by Eric Valli

People have questioned if honey is 'allowed' in a sugar-free lifestyle. It is almost 50% fructose, afterall, and that's the whole problem with sugar - you quit sugar in order to break free from fructose.

I've blogged about the woes of fructose before (you can catch up here if you missed it). No doubt 'tis something we should avoid, in excess. Table sugar, which is 50% fructose, is one of the worst offenders, because the fructose contained in it does a b-line for our liver, where it is quickly converted into fatty acids and does all sorts of undesirable things to our body. And it has no nutritional value. Full stop.

BUT...

Honey is a little different. Yes honey contains a fair whack of fructose, but - here's the important bit -

the fructose found in honey does not behave in the same way as the fructose found in table sugar.

In 2004, researchers in Dubai investigated how honey can affect the human body. They did this by giving patients solutions of natural honey and 'fake' honey (sucrose solution containing 50:50 fructose and glucose) for two weeks, and measuring the effect on various physiological markers such as triglyceride (blood fat) levels, cholesterol, blood glucose levels and insulin levels.

Whilst the 'fake' honey solution increased patients' triglyceride and cholesterol levels (as expected) natural honey actually decreased LDL cholesterol, decreased triglycerides and increased the 'good' cholesterol, HDL. In patients with diabetes, natural honey elevated blood glucose levels to a lesser extent than 'fake' honey, or sucrose.

In another experiment conducted on rats, researchers in France found that substituting refined sucrose solution for natural honey actually protected the rats from inflammation and high triglyceride levels. Again, these researchers found that honey did not increase triglyceride levels as did the refined sucrose solution. Even better news is that whilst refined sucrose solution caused a reduction in blood Vitamin E levels, and caused oxidative stress (inflammation), honey did not!

The researchers added that honey influences the microflora, or good bacteria, in our gut, helping our gut to function better and also improving lipid metabolism.

So, good news. The research points to this -

To taint honey with the same brush as sugar, simply because it contains fructose, is to call a flannel-clad man a bogan simply because he dons flannel. Or to judge a book by its cover. Eh, you know what I mean.

Honey is healthful to consume despite its fructose content for the same reason it is more than okay to have a couple of pieces of fruit a day - because factors in the honey (like the fibre in fruit) help our bodies to metabolise the fructose in a way that does not do us any harm.

Granted, not all honey is equal. Most brands of honey commonly found in supermarkets are so processed they may as well be selling us sugar syrup. When you process honey, all its wonderful nutrients and medicinal qualities, so highly prized by many, are zapped into oblivion. As demonstrated by the effect that the 'fake' honey solution had on patients in that experiment.

The key is to consume only unadulterated, unprocessed, raw organic honey. That is honey that has been cold-extracted from hives that are not treated with artificial antibiotics and that are located at least 5kms from pesticide use. Honey that has never been heated above 37C. That's the sort of honey I'm talking about.

Angela Gioffre on honey

I love honey so much that I chatted with nutritionist Angela Gioffre about it. Angela founded her own organic box delivery system Organic Empire, because she wanted people to have easy access to the most health-giving medicine of all - good, fresh, organic food. She also follows sustainable principles in her business practice (like using masking tape instead of plastic tape because it's biodegradable) and on the farm, so she's a pretty all-round amazing gal:


So Ange, what's so good about raw honey? 
Raw honey is an incredible anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal food that contains beneficial digestive bacteria and a multitude of vitamins and minerals including B Vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium chlorine, sulphur, and phosphate. And if that's not enough it's also exceptional as a topical treatment for wounds and injuries.

If you heat raw honey, by using it as a sweetener to bake a cake with, for instance, does this destroy most of its nutrients? What about in hot tea?
Most of the nutrients and enzymes are destroyed when honey is heated to over 37 degrees. The minerals still remain though.  Hot tea is a little different - the water-soluble vitamins are ingested in the water, whilst the enzymes and other vitamins (vitamin C) are destroyed. It's best to add a little cool water before adding honey to hot tea, this way the honey's nutritional properties are not destroyed as readily.

What are some of the healthier alternative sweeteners? Which are your favourite?
Raw organic honey is a favourite of mine. Organic maple syrup is great too.  Dates make for a perfect sweetener in baked goods, but you can also dry on a very low heat in the oven, then place in the blender and make your own nutrient-dense sugar.  Raw agave is a great sweetener, but ensuring that it is actually raw is really important, otherwise it's just a nutrition-less syrup that's almost 90% fructose.


Sally Fallon on honey


Sally Fallon is a traditional diet guru, the author of the fantastic cookbook Nourishing Traditions, and founder of the Westin A. Price Foundation. I've learnt so much from her book and website. What she writes Just Makes Sense. She has this to say about honey:


"Raw honey that has not been heated over 117 degrees (farenheit) is loaded with amylases, enzymes that digest carbohydrates, as well as all the nutrients found in plant pollens. This makes it an ideal sweetener for porridge and toast, as the amylases in raw honey help digest grains. Glucose tolerance tests indicate that, for most people, honey does not upset blood sugar levels as severely as does refined sugar. Buy honey labelled "raw" and use it in desserts that do not require heating."

She also adds that "raw honey should not be given to infants as they lack sufficient stomach acid to deactivate bacteria spores".


So my love affair with honey continues, although I feel I should add that I treat it like gold - indulging in it only every so often, and using it only sparingly. A teaspoon here, a drizzle there. It's beautiful stuff, but let's not forget it takes a whole lot of bees a whole lot of work to produce it!


You might like to find out more about the benefits of honey inside and outside the body by reading this great article on Food Matters.


12 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for writing this - I just made cookies and substituted the sugar for honey and faced a whole lot of questioning. Thanks for supplying the bullets of info to my arsenal!

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  2. No worries, I know the feeling! Yes honey loses some of it's nutritional value when used in baking (but not all), but it's the least processed sweetener I've come across, and you only use it in small amounts anyway!

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  3. Thanks for the read - I did the IQS program too and from what I understood, you can substitute rice malt syrup (which contains no fructose) instead of honey/agave etc without the effects that fructose would give you. How would you compare the two? Better to steer clear from honey altogether if you can use rice malt syrup or are the nutritional/medicinal benefits of honey worth it?

    I totally love the sentiment that raw, organic honey should be treated like fruit if following the IQS lifestyle - a little bit here and there. I get that and like that thought.

    But using agave/dates/maple syrup - while it's all natural and wonderful - it's still a high amount and chemically fructose in the end.

    Just a little confused I guess lol.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sig, it's a good question. Rice malt syrup is also a good option, and for people with fructose intolerance it's ideal. It provides a steady stream of energy, but apart from a bit of protein it doesn't have too many other nutritional benefits - it doesn't contain any vitamin a, c, calcium, iron or potassium, for instance. Personally, I prefer to use a little honey if I want to add sweetness, because I like the flavour and because it's got so many nutrients - and it's not at all processed. I generally don't cook with it, I just use it raw.

      I'm of the opinion that the least processed sweetener is generally the best choice - and also that moderation is the key.

      I've personally avoided using agave syrup because of its extremely high fructose content, and because I haven't seen any research showing how it affects our body (unlike honey).

      In terms of dates... Angela believes they are a great sweetener, they are high in nutrients... personally I indulge in them only every so often, and only one or two at a time! Again I haven't seen research into how they affect you, so it's hard to say. I just know they are too sweet for me.

      The best thing to do is to go with your own gut feeling about what is right for your body - everyone reacts to different sweeteners differently.

      Does that make sense? I hope that helps!

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  4. Thanks Maria. The information in this post is exactly what I was searching for!

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  5. Hi Maria, what are your thoughts on Maple Syrup, organic of course? It is lower in fructose than honey and is a good replacement in most recipes.. Jodie

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jodie, maple syrup is a good option also - like you say it's lower in fructose than honey and it's rich in trace minerals so nice and nutritious. And delicious. You just have to make sure it's organic because apparently formaldehyde is used in the process of producing most commercial maple syrups.

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  6. Ah..........good old fructose addiction

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  7. Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU! I have been struggling with this since i quit sugar at the start of the year. We keep our own bees and they work damn hard to provide us with their liquid gold and it tastes so good. It just seemed crazy for me to exclude honey from my diet. The information you have provided here is exactly what i needed to hear.

    rachel

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