While honey is arguably the sweetener that causes the least amount of “friction” in the Paleo community, there is still considerable debate surrounding its history and current use. While there is evidence that early humans hunted honey as far back as 10,000 years ago, some people claim that this seemingly benign sweetener is unsafe due to its high fructose content. But if they’re right, why were some of our ancestors so focused on obtaining it?
Just about everyone knows that honeybees produce honey for food and that it has antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities. But few may be aware that honey’s health benefits vary widely and that not all honey is created equal.
Did you know that Manuka honey has been shown to inhibit dental plaque development and gingivitis? Or that the nitric oxides in honey may help protect against cardiovascular disease? Or that honey has been shown to decrease plasma glucose in diabetes patients?
Honey, which is primarily made up of fructose and glucose, also contains about 25 other oligosaccharides such as sucrose and maltose.
Honey also contains proteins, amino acids, enzymes, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals, which work synergistically to give honey its health-promoting properties. However, the amounts of these compounds, and honey’s resulting beneficial properties, can vary widely depending on the honey’s botanical origin and processing methods.
For example, opting for the light brown honey in the plastic bear container may mean missing out on a lot of honey’s health benefits Most grocery store honey is heated which means the healing properties have been neutralized. And oftentimes the honey has been diluted with other sweeteners like corn or rice syrup.
Unprocessed raw honey’s health-giving effects on the other hand have been demonstrated consistently, in both healthy individuals and subjects with risk factors such as diabetes and obesity. Honey has the ability to increase vitamin C, B-carotene and serum iron levels, and to lower lactic acid dehydrogenase, creatinine kinase and triglycerides, as well as fasting blood sugar levels—even in diabetics! On top of all this, honey can inhibit aerobic/anaerobic bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses; accelerate wound healing with minimal scar formation; treat skin conditions such as dandruff, eczema and psoriasis; and treat urinary and gastrointestinal diseases.
However honey’s fructose–glucose ratio, coupled with its high overall fructose content, has made some (especially in the Paleo community) swear off honey. And, while some studies have found honey may have a “laxative effect” in some healthy individuals due to incomplete fructose absorption, one such study noted “that it was not possible to define whether fructose alone or other sugars contained in honey were malabsorbed.”
Still, there is no question that some individuals have issues absorbing fructose, which can cause IBS-like symptoms such as gas, cramping and diarrhea. These individuals need to be aware of what they eat and how much fructose they’re consuming—but how much is too much? Unfortunately, it’s hard to say, since the threshold can vary from person to person.
Studies have suggested that our historical consumption of fructose from honey ranged from roughly 2 to 18 grams per day. But today, we are averaging about 32 grams per day of fructose, thanks in large part to high fructose corn syrup. Most studies have found that fructose absorption can be increased when fructose is consumed along with glucose. Studies have also demonstrated that honey may protect against the pro-oxidative effects of fructose, possibly due to the synergistic antioxidant effect of honey’s complex chemical composition—though more studies need to be done to confirm this, especially in humans.
And “dose” matters: Most healthy individuals can only absorb about 25 to 50 grams of fructose at a sitting. You’d have to consume 100 grams of honey (about 5 tablespoons) to get just 40 grams of fructose—a lot of honey, but still below a level that may cause issues.
There is evidence that hunter-gatherers were actively “hunting” and consuming honey as far back as 10,000 years ago, with the amount limited only by how much was available. There are also hunter-gatherer societies, like the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo, that get as much as 80 percent of their dietary energy from honey during certain times of the year; the Wild Men of Sri Lanka who risk their lives to obtain it; and the Guayaki Indians of Paraguay, who based their very diet and culture on honey.
So, if many of our ancestors put such a high value on honey, why do we consume so little today? The simple answer is cost. At around 1350 AD, honey cost roughly the same as butter, an abundant product at the time, while refined sugar cost approximately 30 times as much. Many households did their own beekeeping, making honey even more commonplace and affordable. However, in the early 1700s, the production of refined sugar exploded, causing its price to fall and making it widely accessible. The use of sugar began to rise, and honey’s popularity began to fall.
It could be argued that honey has traditionally been a staple in the human diet, limited in consumption only by location, the seasons and climate. If so, then eating raw, local honey is most certainly in line with the Paleo diet. Honey offers numerous health benefits, both for healthy individuals and those with medical issues such as hypertriglyceremia, obesity, diabetes and more.
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Watch this clip: Where Does Honey Come From?