‘Honey of blindness’
That honey has been equated with refined sugar for so long because it contains 80-85 percent carbohydrates and is thus categorized as one of the many high-sugar foods by mainstream health professionals.
But years of research tell a different story, says Mike McInnes, a pharmacist and sports nutritionist who has spent the past 20 years exploring the link between sugar and energy, particularly for improving mental and exercise performance. “However, most of this research was conducted outside the western world,” he said.
McInnes called the widespread view that honey has no co-benefits “honey blindness.” The reason, he says, can be traced back to a 1958 book by an American doctor specializing in traditional medicine, named Clinton Jarvis, who claimed that honey could cure various ailments. “Due to a lack of scientific basis, the book was confiscated and destroyed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after it was initially widely sold,” McInnes said.
After that, a bias emerged towards honey as a health food. “Elsewhere in the world, researchers may not have heard of Clinton Jarvis, and from the early 2000s a new study emerged showing the US idea (exported to the UK and Europe) is nonsense,” McInnes said. Her book Honey Sapiens: Human Cognition and Sugars – the Ugly, the Bad and the Good draws on this research.
While refined sugar is known to cause high blood glucose levels which affect the functional connectivity of the brain, studies have shown that honey has memory enhancing effects to treat dementia and cognitive decline.
“It improves the cholinergic system [a branch of the autonomic nervous system which plays an important role in memory, digestion, blood pressure, movement and many other functions] and blood flow in the brain and has an antioxidant effect,” said McInnes. He believes honey to be “the most antidiabetic and neuroprotective brain fuel known to mankind”.
Honey contains mostly sugar, as well as a mixture of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc and antioxidants. But the reason honey is neuroprotective is because its bioflavonoids, natural substances known for their antioxidant abilities, come from flowering plants. “This amazing nutrient defies any insult that refined sugar inflicts on the human brain,” says McInnes.
Better for the brain
If sugar is bad for the brain, every time you add it to your cup of tea or coffee it contributes to a decline in your cognition. “Replacing the same amount of sugar in the form of honey, you protect the brain, improve cognition, and help prevent type 2 diabetes,” says McInnes.
There is even evidence from the University of Nevada that honey played a major role in the advancement of human cognition 200,000 years ago. However, it should still be replaced in moderation. Honey can also cause blood sugar levels to spike, especially when used in addition to, not in place of, other forms of sugar.
Love your heart
There is a relationship between the frequency of honey consumption and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. McInnes recommends drinking honey before bed to recharge the liver. “After dinner, there isn’t enough liver glycogen to fuel the brain overnight. This causes metabolic stress at night, and hyperglycemia in the morning.”
Natural energy drink
Energy drinks are often full of sugar, but research shows that honey can help too. One published in 2015 showed that drinking honey after exercise can improve subsequent endurance performance compared to drinking only water.
Meanwhile, a 2016 study involving male cyclists found that those who added about three tablespoons of honey 90 minutes before cycling experienced less oxidative stress and DNA damage in response to training compared to cyclists who did not consume honey before their workout.
The natural antioxidants in honey, scientists suspect, may help reduce some of the less desirable effects of intense exercise on the body, such as inflammation.
So how much honey should we consume for the bioflavonoid benefits, but not the blood surge?
Humans need about 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 40 percent carbohydrates. “Theoretically this could all be honey – but that’s impractical – so about 10 percent should be fine,” says McInnes.
He warns that many low-fat foods contain hidden sugars. So if you’re trying to lower your intake of refined sugar and sweeteners, stay away from low-fat products. One of the advantages of liking honey over sugar is that it tastes sweeter, therefore you need a smaller amount.
Dear which one?
Not all honey is the same. A scientific review published in 2021 suggests that while most of honey’s benefits come from its polyphenols, levels of these compounds vary. More research is needed to form a more complete picture.
If possible, look for raw honey that hasn’t been spoiled by processing – where many of the bioactive compounds lose their effect. There are claims that the global supply is filled with sugar syrup, so try to get your honey from local beekeepers.
But, says McInnes, you can’t go wrong even with cheap honey. “It may be low in bioflavonoids — but any honey is 1,000 times better than refined sugar, which is neurotoxic in excess.”
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