Why Honey's as Healthy as Spinach


Summer is unofficially here, and if you’re planning a cookout, consider adding honey-barbecued racks of ribs to the menu.

The honey in your barbecue sauce is more than just delicious. It’s great for your health, with benefits including protection against allergies and better oral health. At least that’s what some clinical data (and beekeepers) suggest.

These benefits can be pricey, if you go for the rare and imported honeys that can cost hundreds of dollars per pound. But before you grab Splenda for your iced tea, here's the buzz on how honey can make your life richer.

Honey 101
The average individual consumes 1.3 pounds of honey a year, according to the National Honey Board, compared with 47.2 pounds per year of sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And sugar, at around a dollar a pound, is significantly cheaper than clover honey, which costs about $4.64 per pound. 

The cheapest honey is most likely wildflower honey, a term that can be used regardless of what flowers nectar comes from, says Dr. Nicki Engeseth, an associate professor of food chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  “Beekeepers don’t have to tell you what floral source they use,” Engeseth says. For example, much of the honey in Illinois comes from soy. 

Increasing your regular dose of honey and cutting your daily dose of sugar, or switching to other types of honey, like raw or imported honey, can mean paying more, but it may pay off by boosting your health.

“The general rule is the darker the better” when it comes to health benefits, especially in terms of antioxidant levels, says Engeseth. Buckwheat honey, a dark, rich and heavy scented honey that’s great for barbecue sauce, is one of the healthiest types you can get, but you may have to go to Whole Foods (Stock Quote: WFMI) or a specialty foods store to find it.

Manuka honey from the manuka bush in New Zealand is another type of dark honey, and it’s shown to have strong healing properties. It costs about $19 for a 17.5 ounce jar.

When you're looking more locally, you'll likely find both your average processed honey, which has been heated and filtered, and raw honey, which is unfiltered and sometimes contains a little extra bee pollen. 

"Typically, raw honey or organic honey is going to be higher priced,” says Bruce Boynton, CEO of the National Honey Board.

Beware, Boynton says, there’s no real definition for raw honey, and it’s really just a marketing term. Plus organic honey, which supposedly comes from organically-grown flowers not treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers, isn’t officially organic according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are no USDA standards for organic honey. 

If you’re willing to pay a little extra for a healthier sweetener, here are some added benefits you might appreciate.

Honey Health Benefit No. 1: Treating Colds and Allergies
When allergy season hits, locally-produced raw honey may be an effective treatment, says Dr. William G. Peterson, an allergist from Ada, Okla.

“It must be raw honey,” he says. “Because raw honey contains all the pollen, dust and molds that cause 90% of all allergies. What happens is that the patient builds up an immunity to the pollen, dust or mold that is causing his or her trouble in the first place.”

Local honey works best, according to Peterson, because it contains pollen from the same local grass and trees that are making you sneeze.

However, few controlled studies support the efficacy of honey as an allergy treatment beyond those showing that it works as well as a placebo. If you have severe seasonal allergies, consult an allergist before self-medicating with honey. 

"I find no recent medical articles on the use of honey for treatment of allergies," says Dr. Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  “The reverse is well-documented: allergies to honey.”

And don’t give honey to babies under 12 months old, since their immune systems are still developing and they may have an increased risk of infant botulism.

Honey Health Benefit No. 2: A Healthier Smile
Yes, honey packs a lot of sugar, but some scientists believe it can improve your oral health.  We’re not saying you should replace your tube of toothpaste with a honey bear bottle, but studies have shown that the anti-microbial properties of manuka honey, thanks to enzymes, can help clear bacteria from infected wounds and can be used to treat gum disease and gingivitis.

Honey is also shown to break down a substance known as dextran, which makes plaque stick to your teeth, according to Dr. Peter Molan a professor of biochemistry as the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Molan studies the antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of manuka honey. 

Honey Health Benefit No. 3: The Same Antioxidant Level as Spinach?
Honey contains the same level of antioxidants as spinach and strawberries, according to Engeseth's research. 

The antioxidants in a gram of honey equal the antioxidants in a gram of fruit, Engeseth says.  One person would never consume that much honey, but “if you’re going to use sugar, you might consider using honey instead,” Engeseth says.

So as you sit on your deck, chowing down some more honey-barbecued meat, don’t feel guilty.  Just think of all those antioxidants you're licking off your sticky fingers. 

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