Honey: Potential Benefits and Risks

There is no solid proof that honey is an effective natural remedy—and it is not free of health risks.


Humans have been using honey as a sweetener for over 5,000 years. Throughout history, many cultures have also used it as a natural remedy—to treat wounds, ease coughs, and more. While there are many studies looking into a variety of medicinal uses for honey, few offer any sign of efficacy in humans, and honey is not included in any authoritative evidence-based treatment guidelines. A closer look at honey and its components can help us understand why.

Honey Basics: “To make honey, foraging honeybees collect nectar from flowers and bring it back to the hive, where it gets ‘spit out’ into a cell of the honeycomb,” says Rachael E. Bonoan, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher for Tufts University and Washington State University. “Once there is enough nectar in the wax cell, the bees dehydrate it by fanning their wings.”

Honey that comes straight from the honeycomb or is only filtered to remove debris is called “raw” honey. Most honey sold in stores is minimally processed for safety and quality purposes: After filtering it is pasteurized (exposed to high heat) to kill bacteria and yeast cells. Pasteurization also extends the time honey remains liquid before it crystalizes.

Though the exact chemical composition of honey varies depending on the location and type of flowers from which the bees gather the nectar, honey contains a diversity of nutrients, including sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and numerous polyphenols—antioxidant plant compounds. Unfortunately, honey—raw or pasteurized—does not have enough nutrients or other bioactive compounds to make a significant difference in health. “In order to get nutritionally-relevant amounts of these compounds, one would have to eat so much honey that the negative health effects from the sugars would far surpass any potential health benefits from the other nutrients,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, a professor at the Friedman School and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter.

Sweet Risks: Honey is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an added sugar. There is strong evidence that intake of added sugars is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, and it may increase risk for high blood pressure and stroke. The average American adult’s added sugar intake is 77 grams per day, far more than the 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (six teaspoons) for women recommended by the American Heart Association. “Cutting back on all added sugars is an important change to make for overall health,” says Lichtenstein.

Honey may contain spores that cause botulism, a serious paralytic illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves. Although adults don’t typically contract botulism from ingesting spores, infants can. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deem all honey, both raw and pasteurized, unsafe for infants under a year old.

Minimal Reward: Honey has been studied for antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, and for its potential role in treatment of diseases from diabetes to cancer. Unfortunately, few of these studies involved humans, and none prove effectiveness. “As with any sweetener dissolved in water, honey may be of some benefit in soothing a cough,” says Lichtenstein. Honey has also been looked at as a topical treatment for wounds and skin conditions, but it is not recommended for that use at this time. Honey does appear to have antioxidant properties, but fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods provide antioxidants as well.

Eating local raw honey has been touted as a way to help ease seasonal allergy symptoms. There is no research to confirm that eating honey will improve allergy symptoms. In fact, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the pollen in raw honey could cause a negative reaction in people suffering from severe pollen allergies.

Although honey has more nutrients than most other sweeteners, the vast majority of claims for its healthfulness are unvalidated or overstated. Enjoy this natural sweetener in limited amounts for the pure joy of its rich, sweet taste—but do not count on it to boost your health.


  1. It is pointless to conduct any research on anything BUT RAW honey. Any heating above ~90F degrades any potential benefits. Heated honey is little different from high fructose corn syrup.
    However, As a beekeeper of some 68 years, I have numerous customers that swear by the benefits of raw honey. Obviously not close to double blind testing but until someone does a serious study, your comments harm our industry… It is particularly infuriating that you dont even acknowledge that anything but RAW is not really “honey”

  2. I appreciated the information about honey but would like to bring up several points that I have about your conclusion.
    I suffered from sweet addiction all my adult life, trying many times to cut back or go off sweets. A few years ago, I decided to go “cold turkey” and break the addiction that was clearly thwarting my attempts to cut back on sugar. My arthritis was beginning to cause enough pain that it woke me in the night and I was advised to “take ibuprofen until it was bad enough to do a hip or knee replacement.” I had heard through the Arthritis Assn. that sugar was bad for arthritis. I decided to spend one month sugar-free and was diligent in reading labels and avoiding anything with sugar. I had promised myself that I would give myself a reward on Xmas, (the end of the month fast) of my favorite Xmas dessert. So on Xmas day, I took a bite of Suet Pudding (or mincemeat pie?) and found it too sweet. I left it unfinished and declared the fast a success. Since that time, I have had NO JOINT PAIN in spite of expanding arthritis. My addiction was also over: I can even have an occasional cookie with no urge to eat the whole plateful.
    My next experiment was to see if honey caused the same pain and addiction. I found that I could substitute honey where I’d use sugar—and had absolutely no reaction from it. Since my taste for sugar was broken, I didn’t feel called to use a lot of honey, but those times when I do use it in a recipe to replace sugar, or on something that needed sweetness, I can use it with no side effects.
    So when I see honey referenced with “all added sugars,” I have to bring up the fact that there have been no studies to confirm that assertion. My own experience tells me that there is much more to discover about honey and until those studies are done, sugar must be considered on its own, without “all added sugars.”

  3. Will these questions be answered and where will that be posted/found?
    And yes, Manuka has evidence for therapeutic uses?
    And raw honey- what is the safety and any known benefits?

  4. For the past 5+ years, I have taken nothing but local honey for hay fever. And it works great. No sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes. And no headache-causing, nasal-drying drugs to deal with! I also use a tsp. of honey with TBL of organic apple cider and 8 oz. lukewarm water to ward off sore throats. Honey is great. Don’t let the pharmaceutical industry tell you otherwise–they just haven’t figured out how to profit from it yet.

  5. God made the 🐝 which “poops out” honey for us humans. We humans make processed sugar products and artificial sweetener poisons and shove them into everything. And we wonder why we become obese and feel lousy. For many many years I have been eating 1 tablespoon of different types of honeys every night, and will continue until the day I die—bless those buzzing insects!!


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