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Articles December 2015 Issue

Study Puts a Dent in Honey’s Health Halo

Honey affects your body much like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup.

IMAGE © THINKSTOCK

Honey enjoys what marketers call a "health halo" - consumers tend to view products containing honey as healthier than those sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. That's why Kellogg’s renamed its Sugar Smacks cereal as "Honey Smacks" and so many other products have "honey" in the name or featured prominently on the package. Some studies have supported this healthy image by suggesting that honey might have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

When the National Honey Board set out to substantiate honey’s healthy reputation by funding a clinical trial comparing it to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, however, the results stung. Scientists at the USDA’s Grand Forks (ND) Nutrition Research Center found the metabolic effects of honey and those sweeteners "essentially the same."

"Sugar is sugar however it is delivered," says Diane L. McKay, PhD, an assistant professor at Tufts' Friedman School.

SWEET THEORY: The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, tested the effects of honey, sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup in 55 volunteers for two weeks per sweetener, with a "washout" period in between each test. Participants, about half of whom had impaired glucose tolerance, were given 50 grams (1.75 ounces) of the tested sweetener daily in beverages. The honey tested was a blend from various sources, representing the most commonly sold type in the US.

After each two-week trial, participants were tested for changes in blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, inflammatory markers, body weight and blood pressure. Most measures didn’t change and there was no significant difference between the sweeteners.

"Honey is thought of as more 'natural' whereas white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are processed from the cane or the beet or the corn,” commented lead author Susan K. Raatz, PhD, RD. "We wanted to find out if they were different. But clinically, they are very, very similar, and that’s what it seems to break down to."

CHEMICAL BREAKDOWN: Although honey contains trace amounts of various phytochemicals from its floral sources and the beehive, the nectar it’s made from is primarily sucrose - the same stuff that’s in your sugar bowl. Enzymes in the bees' "honey stomach" and in the hive break down the sucrose into two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose.

The proportions of glucose and fructose in honey, sugar (combined as sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup are actually very similar. Although some studies have raised questions about how the body metabolizes fructose, chemically those concerns would also apply to sugar and honey. The US Food and Drug Administration says, “We are not aware of any evidence… that there is a difference in safety” between caloric sweeteners.

It's a good idea to limit all types of sugars, including honey. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended consuming no more than 10% of total calories from sugars, citing evidence linking intake to risk of chronic disease. Honey is denser than granulated sugar, so one teaspoon (7 grams) contains 21 calories compared to 16 calories in one teaspoon (4.2 grams) of sugar.

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