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Is Honey Good for Diabetics?

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Honey jar -- Is Honey Good for Diabetics?
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If you have diabetes, you might be wondering what to use for a sweetener. Sugar is (literally) off the table, and while there are a host of sugar substitutes to use, they’re just not the same. And frankly, some of the sugar substitutes have an aftertaste that you might find less than appealing.

In your search for a sweetener that won’t raise your blood sugars, you come across that bottle of honey tucked away in your cupboard. And you wonder if this golden nectar is an option. Is it? The answer is: it depends.

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What is honey?

Everyone knows that bears love honey; people love honey, too. According to Bee Culture’s 2018 Annual Honey Report, per capita honey consumption rose from 1.2 pound of honey per person in 2010 to 1.7 pounds of honey in 2018. And the total consumption of honey in the U.S. in 2018 was a mind-boggling 555.1 million pounds!

To understand people’s (and bears’!) love of honey, you first need to know what is. Honey is a thick, golden liquid that is made by honeybees, of which there are several species. Bees make honey by extracting nectar with their long, tube-like tongues from flowers. That nectar is then stored in a stomach called a crop, where it mixes with enzymes. The bee then heads back home to its hive, where it regurgitates the honey into another bee’s mouth. That bee chews on it for about half an hour. The nectar continues to be passed from bee to bee until it turns into honey. The honey is then stored in a honeycomb, which is then sealed with beeswax to keep it clean. Once sealed, honey can be stored indefinitely in a honeycomb — as long as it survives the ravages of bears, badgers and humans, of course.

According to The Honey Association, “The distinct aroma, flavour and colour is determined by the type of flower from which the bee collects the nectar.” And the National Honey Board states that, “There are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the United States, each originating from a different floral source.” Acacia, orange blossom, clover, lavender and alfalfa are a few of the common varieties of honey.

What is the difference between raw and regular honey?

Raw honey is honey straight from the honeycomb. It might be filtered, or strained, to remove particles or wax or unfiltered, and it is cloudy looking. Regular honey, on the other hand, is pasteurized, which gives the honey a clear appearance, and also kills yeast cells.

Raw honey may contain small amounts of pollen. Commercial, or regular honey, may undergo ultrafiltration to remove pollen; it also removes enzymes and antioxidants. Also, if you purchase regular honey, be sure to read the label, as some types may contain other sweeteners, such as corn syrup. Another tip for ensuring that you have the real deal: real honey is thick, flows slowly and has a distinct smell.

Are there any health benefits to eating honey?

Honey has been around since at least 8000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener, as a gift to the gods, and even as part of embalming fluid. The ancient Greeks used honey as a medicine and to this day, honey is regarded as having certain health benefits. Here’s a rundown:

Cough suppressant

Honey can help relieve coughs; in one study, honey was found to be as effective as dextromethorphan, which is found in many over-the-counter cough medicines. It’s also great for providing temporary relief for a sore throat.

Antibiotic

Honey contains hydrogen peroxide, which may contribute to honey’s antibacterial properties. Honey also has a high sugar content, which can halt the growth of bacteria, and it has a low pH, which can kill bacteria. Honey is sometimes recommended for skin wounds or infections; raw manuka honey is supposed to be a better choice for treating infections. However, always check with your healthcare provider before trying this. And never give honey to children under the age of one, as honey (both regular and raw) can contain small amounts of bacteria that cause botulism.

Source of antioxidants

Honey is loaded with a number of antioxidants, including flavonoids, organic acids and phenolic compounds. Antioxidants are natural substances that are thought to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

Enhanced athletic performance

Research out of the University of Memphis shows that honey is comparable or even better than sugar water in boosting endurance in athletes.

There are claims that honey may act as an anti-cancer agent and help to prevent heart disease, but more research is needed in these areas.

What is the nutritional profile of honey?

Like table sugar, honey is a carbohydrate. Both contain glucose and fructose. Unlike sugar, though, honey is about 30% glucose and 40% fructose. (Sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose).

Fructose is a type of sugar that is broken down in the liver. Some health experts believe that excess fructose intake is harmful, contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but there isn’t enough research to support those claims.

One tablespoon of honey has:

• 64 calories

• 17 grams carbohydrate

For comparison, one tablespoon of table sugar has:

• 46 calories

• 12 grams carbohydrate

So, is honey better than sugar for diabetes?

As you can see, honey contains slightly more calories and carbohydrate than table sugar. Both are digested quickly in the body, and, depending on how much you consume, can lead to spikes in blood sugar. (On a side note, honey is sometimes recommended for treating hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

For consideration, honey has a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) than table sugar. Glycemic index is a ranking of carbohydrate foods according to their effect on blood glucose. Honey’s GI can vary somewhat between 45 and 64, while sugar’s GI is 65. A GI of 55 or less is considered to be low.

Can you eat honey if you have diabetes? The answer is yes, but as with any carbohydrate source (including table sugar), you’ll need to keep an eye on your portion and count those carbs. One advantage of using honey over sugar is that honey’s flavor is more pronounced and concentrated than that of sugar’s. This means that you may find that you can use less of it for the same level of sweetness.

If you’re curious about using honey and its impact on your glucose, the best way to find out its effect is to check your blood sugar about two hours after consuming honey.

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

 

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