A systematic review suggests that eating honey may improve both lipid and glycaemic health markers when consumed as part of a healthy diet
Consumption of honey appears to improve cardiometabolic risk factors through favourable changes in glycaemic control and lipid levels according to a systematic review and meta-analysis by Canadian researchers.
Honey is a natural product formed from the nectar of flowers by honeybees and has a long history of use for both nutritional needs and its medicinal properties. Nevertheless, honey contains free sugars, and the World Health Organisation has called for adults and children to reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake and have included honey as a source of free sugars. Despite the presence of free sugars, honey also contains flavonoids and phenolic acids which have a positive impact on health, through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These effects had led to the widespread use for the treatment of eye diseases, bronchial asthma, throat infections, tuberculosis, thirst, hiccups, fatigue, dizziness, hepatitis, and wounds, as well as being taken as a supplement.
Although excessive intake of free sugars is linked to higher rates of obesity, the cardiometabolic effects of honey intake have not been systematically explored and was the subject of the present study by the Canadian researchers. The team searched for both randomised and non-randomised controlled feeding studies that examined the effect of oral honey intake on adiposity, glycaemic control and lipid levels. The researchers measured the mean differences (MD) between participants assigned to honey and control arms.
Honey intake and cardiometabolic risk
A total of 18 controlled feeding trials in 1105 participants with a median age of 41.2 years (54% female) and which considered 33 different comparisons were identified and included in the analysis.
The researchers identified a significant reduction in total cholesterol (MD = -0.18 mmol/L, p = 0.011), LDL cholesterol (MD = -0.30 mmol/L, p = 0.0024) and an increase in HDL cholesterol (MD = 0.07 mmol/L, p < 0.001).
In addition, oral honey reduced fasting glucose (MD = -0.20 mmol/L, p = 0.017). However, there was also an increase of interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels (MD = 0.37 pg/ml, p = 0.046) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (MD = 1.44 pg/ml, p = 0.019). The reasons for an increase in IL-6 levels is unclear but some data points to how release of the cytokine from the contracting skeletal muscle is perhaps one of the molecular signals promoting the beneficial effects of exercise.
There were also differences based on the floral source and by processing, with robinia, clover and raw honey more beneficial than the processed form.
Summarising the benefits, the authors state that a median intake of 40 g of honey for 8 weeks appears to be sufficient to deliver the cardiometabolic benefits. Nevertheless, despite these positive findings, the authors did identify that much of the evidence was of low certainty and called for more studies focusing on the floral source and the processing of honey to increase the certainty of this evidence.
Ahmed A et al. Effect of honey on cardiometabolic risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev 2022