Honey has been used since ancient times both as food and medicine. The Egyptians used it to promote fertility while the Greeks regarded it as the food of the gods and ate it to acquire strength and prolong life.
It was also used as an antibacterial salve for treating boils and wounds by doctors right up to World War 2 and is still valued today for its antibacterial and healing properties.
Honey's antibacterial effect
"Honey has antibacterial effects on a number of food poisoning organisms, such as salmonella and staphylococcus aureus," says nutritional therapist Martina Watts. "And in hospitals certain varieties have shown great promise in treating wounds infected with drug-resistant bacteria including MRSA," she adds.
Manuka honey's health benefits
Manuka honey from New Zealand has been subject to most scientific scrutiny in this area. Research carried out by Professor Peter Molan, director of the honey research centre at Waikato University, New Zealand, shows that as well as containing hydrogen peroxide produced by an enzyme called glucose oxidase, which bees add to the nectar, Manuka has other special components not found in other honeys. It is these according to Molan that make it such a powerful weapon in the fight against infection.
Honey and hayfever
Eating locally-produced honey may help to reduce hay fever symptoms and it’s also a popular remedy for soothing sore throats and chesty coughs when mixed with hot water ginger and lemon.
Nutritional benefits of honey
But what are its nutritional benefits? "Honey provides glucose and fructose, both types of sugar, in a pre-digested form and is sweeter and more rapidly assimilated than refined (table) sugar," says Watts. "But although it does contain traces of amino acids, enzymes, minerals and B complex vitamins and vitamins C, D and E in its natural form, 50 per cent of these are lost in commercially processed, heat-treated and strained honeys," she adds.
So although honey is probably a slightly healthier option than refined sugar because it can provide some useful nutrients it is still a highly concentrated source of sweetness and used by your body in much the same way as sugar. For this reason you would probably be wise to steer clear of eating too much, especially if you suffer from blood sugar fluctuations or are trying to stick to a low GI diet.
Heather Caswell, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, also points out that it is high in calories. "It is fine to consume honey in small amounts, however too much may lead to a positive energy balance, resulting in weight gain."
Perhaps as nutritionist Liz Tucker says, "Honey should not be seen as a super cure. It is a source of energy but it is sugar and should be eaten more as an indulgent treat rather than a substitute for more nutritionally-rich foods such as fruit and veg."