Whether you prefer it on a peanut butter sandwich or in your morning tea, honey is a natural (and delicious) sweetener often touted for an array of health benefits. For example, honey can help soothe coughs and sore throats, heal wounds and relieve gastrointestinal symptoms, and it's packed with antioxidants. However, that doesn't mean you should consume it in excess. Since honey is rich in sugar, eating too much can spike your blood sugar levels and potentially lead to weight gain. Also, the resulting blood sugar spike from consuming too much honey can be especially problematic if you have diabetes. But, in moderation, honey could lead to some benefits to your body and overall health.
In fact, a new study published on November 16, 2022, in the journal Nutrition Reviews found that eating honey in moderation may reduce inflammation and slash your cardiometabolic risk—factors that increase your chances of developing heart disease and diabetes. Here's the lowdown.
What the Study Found
In the most comprehensive systematic review of honey to date, researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a meta-analysis that included 18 controlled trials and 1,100 participants using the GRADE (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) approach. They found that including honey in a healthy diet reduced several CMR factors, including fasting blood glucose (sugar), total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, triglycerides (fats) and other biomarkers of inflammation. In addition, honey was found to increase HDL ("good") cholesterol. While honey can improve these key measures of cardiometabolic health, the most benefits were seen from raw honey produced by farms where bees have access to one type of flower, or a "single floral source."
These findings were unexpected, considering honey's high sugar and carbohydrate content. Typically, high-sugar foods can increase your CMR and the likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes. However, not all sugary foods and carbohydrates are created equal. "These results are surprising because honey is about 80 percent sugar," said Tauseef Khan, PhD, senior researcher on the study and a research associate in nutritional sciences at U of T's Temerty Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. "But honey is also a complex composition of common and rare sugars, proteins, organic acids and other bioactive compounds that very likely have health benefits."
"Honey has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and normalize glucose metabolism despite its carbohydrate content," says Kimberly Gomer, M.S., RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Body Beautiful Miami. "Also, honey may help prevent metabolic syndrome by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation." This is in part thanks to its antioxidant content. However, moderation is key when seeking these benefits.
What It Means
All 1,100 participants in the meta-analysis consumed healthy diets with added sugars comprising only 10% of their caloric intake. Also, the average amount of honey they consumed was only 40 grams daily, approximately 2 tablespoons. It's important to note that their findings suggested that honey can only improve metabolic health and lower inflammation if you consume it in moderation alongside a healthy eating pattern. Additionally, honey's health benefits depend on its processing and floral source. "We're not saying you should start having honey if you currently avoid sugar. The takeaway is more about replacement—if you're using table sugar, syrup or another sweetener, switching those sugars for honey might lower cardiometabolic risks," said Khan.
Regardless of the quality and source of your honey, overconsumption can pose health risks. "There are risks to consuming too much honey," cautions Gomer. "We're living in an era of 1 in 3 people having prediabetes in America and an obesity epidemic. While this study shows that limited amounts of honey can have some health benefits, reducing your total sugar intake is helpful to most people, especially those with metabolic syndrome, obesity and insulin resistance."
The Bottom Line
A new study out of the University of Toronto found that consuming approximately 2 tablespoons of honey daily alongside an already-healthy diet may help lower inflammation and improve cholesterol levels—key factors contributing to cardiometabolic health. However, avoid eating honey in excess as it's high in sugar that can negatively affect your health if overconsumed. Future research should focus on unprocessed honey from a single floral source to provide a better understanding of how honey can boost overall health. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you have any questions regarding your diet and cardiometabolic health, or are considering adding honey to your eating pattern. And as a reminder, honey is not safe for babies younger than 12 months old.