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SugarScience Blog

The Sweet Science of Honey

By Evans M. Whitaker, MD, MLIS

Honey appears to be on people’s minds. Among the nearly 600 Ask the SugarScientist questions we have received so far, were a few dozen about whether honey is better than other sweeteners. The requests sent us back to PubMed, the premier database of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Honey, the sweet liquid produced by honeybees (Apis mellifera), is composed of about 40% fructose, in contrast to the 50% fructose in table sugar and 40-90% fructose in high-fructose corn syrup. Some of the health issues most on our minds these days, such as liver and metabolic disease, are linked to heavy fructose consumption. So the lower concentration of fructose in honey, compared to other sweeteners, gives it some potential health advantages.

Honey does have more calories per teaspoon than table sugar, with 21 calories per teaspoon in honey vs. 16 in table sugar. But because honey is so thick and hard to pour, we might tend to use less of it.

Here’s the good news about honey. Unlike table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (the most commonly used sweeteners in the U.S.), honey contains other nutrients that studies show to be beneficial to health. The biggest health boost comes from the antioxidants in honey. Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress in our cells, which helps protect our cells from damage.

Honey also contains amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and vitamins and minerals, such as Thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxin, vitamin A, niacin, panthothenic acid, phyllochinon, vitamin E, and vitamin C.1 The mix of these nutrients varies, depending on which plants the bees visited.

Our search of the medical literature turned up several studies over the past few years that have shown a range of health benefits from honey. Those included a number of studies linking honey consumption to reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as blood sugar levels and cholesterol, perhaps due to its antioxidant components. One study showed that maple syrup shared some antioxidant properties, as well.2

Honey also has been successfully used for wound and burn healing. It has been proposed as a sugar alternative for diabetics, but here, the jury still seems to be out. One eight-week study of 48 diabetic patients showed a decrease in body weight, “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels over the study period, as well as an increase in “good” (HDL) cholesterol. However, it also resulted in higher blood levels of hemoglobin A(1c), an indication of poorer control of blood glucose levels.3 One study also dispelled the notion that honey was helpful in reducing red-eye and inflamed sinuses from allergies.4

A few notes of caution: because honey can carry small amounts of the botulism bacterium, health experts advise not giving it to children under 1 year of age.5,6 There also have been rare reports of certain types of honey having a toxic effect on humans and animals, specifically honey made from the nectar of Rhododendrons,7 but it is generally considered safe.

So, as a choice of added sweeteners, honey has some bonus features that table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup lack. But remember that, in the end, honey is still a form of added sugar. So, while honey seems like a healthier substitute for the more common sweeteners, we would advise counting it as part of your daily added sugar intake and keeping the amount you consume under the limit recommended by expert panels: 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

(HFCS) A concentrated form of liquid sugar which may contain a wide range of fructose concentrations. Most commonly it contains either 42% or 55% fructose, but may contain up to 90% fructose.

SugarScience Glossary

Table sugar

Sucrose, also called granulated sugar, is two simple sugars stuck together in a single molecule. Sucrose is made of one fructose and one glucose molecule. On this website, one level teaspoon of table sugar weighs 4.2 grams and has 16.8 calories.

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

Toxic

Poisonous, capable of causing damage

SugarScience Glossary

Glucose

Glucose is a sugar we eat. It is found in starch. It is the main fuel for our bodies. It is the sugar measured when we have a blood test to measure the blood sugar.

SugarScience Glossary

A sugar that we eat. Also called fruit sugar. Most fructose comes in sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar), or from high-fructose corn syrup.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver

The largest internal organ. It weighs about three to four pounds and is located under the lower edge of the ribs on the right side. It helps us digest our food and remove toxins from our blood. “Hepat” in a word means liver, so an “hepato-toxin” is a liver poison or something that can cause damage to the liver

SugarScience Glossary

This is the second in a four-part series on sugar. Stay tuned for articles covering the link between sugar and diseases, and whether it’s better to substitute sugar with fruit. Catch up on the first instalment, about whether we should quit sugar, here.

In nutrition, sugar refers to simple carbohydrates consisting of one or two basic carbohydrate units such as glucose, fructose and galactose. Consumers often use “sugar” to describe simple carbohydrates that taste sweet, but not all sugars are sweet.

There are many different types of sugars we add to our baking or hot drinks such as white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar and honey. But when we’re looking at a packaged product the ingredients list will have many more options still. Corn syrup, palm sugar, molasses, maple syrup and agave nectar are but a few.

Despite the large variety of sugars, they are very similar nutritionally. They are comprised predominantly of glucose, fructose and sucrose, which are the basic forms of sugar. Glucose and fructose are slightly different in chemical structure, while sucrose is a sugar composed of one glucose and one fructose.

The factors that distinguish sugars are their sources (from sugarcane, beet, fruit, nectar, palm or coconut saps), flavour profiles, and the levels of processing.

Read more: Multigrain, wholegrain, wholemeal: what’s the difference and which bread is best?

Types of sugar

White sugar: also called table sugar, is the final product of the processing and refining of sugarcane or beet. During the refining process, moisture, minerals and compounds that give sugars their colour are removed, and white refined sugar is formed. The byproduct containing the removed compounds during sugar refining is known as molasses.

Raw sugar: is formed if the final refining process is bypassed.

Brown sugar: is refined white sugar with varying amounts of molasses added. Raw sugar, brown sugar and molasses are higher in compounds that provide colour, from natural sources or byproducts of the breakdown of sugar (caramel) during sugar processing.

Honey: is sugar-rich nectar collected by bees from a wide variety of flowers. Fructose is the main sugar found in honey, followed by glucose and sucrose. The sweet taste of honey is attributed to its higher fructose content, and fructose is known to be sweeter than glucose or sucrose. Honey is about 17% water.

Honey contains a sweeter type of sugar, meaning you don’t have to use as much. It also contains more water than table sugar. from www..com

Syrups: can be produced from a wide range of plant sources in the forms of sap and fruits. Some examples include agave (a desert succulent), corn, date, grape, maple and pomegranate syrup.

Because agave and corn are more complex carbohydrates, they’re first broken down into sugar during food processing before being concentrated into syrup. Corn syrup is often further processed into the sweeter version, high fructose corn syrup.

Read more: You don’t need to quit sugar to improve your health

Fruit sugar: can be made from the drying and grinding of fruits such as dates. Sugar produced through this process shares similar nutrient composition with the fruit (such as fibre and minerals) but it is lower in water content.

Which type is best?

Several studies have reported adverse effects of white sugar and high fructose corn syrup on our health. So should we substitute these types of sugars with another?

Sweetness and sugar content

Some sugars such as honey and agave syrup are higher in fructose. Fructose is sweeter than glucose and sucrose, hence a smaller amount may be needed to achieve similar level of sweetness from white sugar. Honey and syrups also have a higher water content. So the sugar content is less than the equivalent weight of white sugar.

Antioxidant capacity

Due to the different levels of processing and refining, sugars that are less processed and refined tend to have higher contents of minerals and compounds that give plants their colour. These compounds have been found to increase antioxidant capacity, which reduces the cell damage in the body that causes several chronic diseases.

Although the antioxidant capacity of date sugar and molasses is many-fold higher than white sugar and corn syrup, it’s still relatively low compared to antioxidant-rich foods. For example, more than 500g of date sugar or molasses need to be consumed to get the same amount of antioxidant contained in a cup (145g) of blueberries.

Read more: What are antioxidants? And are they truly good for us?

Glycemic index

Different types of sugar raise the amount of sugar in our blood at different rates after being consumed. The glycemic index (GI) concept is used to compare the ability of different carbohydrate-containing foods in raising blood sugar levels over two hours.

Pure glucose is used as the reference carbohydrate and it’s given a value of 100. Higher GI indicates greater ability of a food in raising blood sugar levels, and having high levels of sugar in the blood can lead to disease. High GI foods tend to be less filling too.

The GI values in the table below are compiled from the GI database. Corn syrup has the highest GI as it is composed mainly of glucose. White sugar, composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose, has slightly lower GI. Based on available values in the GI database, agave syrup has the lowest GI value. Therefore, it’s a better option than other sugars in term of blood sugar management.

Glycaemic Index of sugars. Source: GI database

Antimicrobial activity

Honey has been reported to possess several germ-killing capabilities due to the presence of several naturally-occurring compounds. But it’s still unclear how the antimicrobial property of honey may be obtained.

In the end, sugar in our body is still sugar. So while honey, raw sugar, date sugar and molasses are “better” than white and other types of sugar, everyone should try to cut down their sugar intake.

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Honey vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup

“Our family finally kicked the sugar addiction,” Katie\xC2\xA0proudly exclaimed to me.

I was thrilled for her. \xC2\xA0She had been battling heart disease for years and had finally kicked the habit.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“Oh, it was easy” she replied. \xC2\xA0“We now only use raw honey.”

Is raw honey, or even processed honey, really healthier than other forms of sugar? \xC2\xA0In this article, I share the latest medical science comparing how raw and processed honey stacks up against high fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar.

Should You Eat\xC2\xA0Natural or Processed Honey?

If you can remember back to 2011 there was a big report and lawsuits claiming that the honey being sold in grocery stores wasn’t really honey at all. \xC2\xA0The basis of their argument was that most grocery store honey has no detectable pollen, therefore it couldn’t\xC2\xA0be real honey.

It is true that grocery store honey is highly processed. \xC2\xA0They remove most or all of the pollen, from the plants the bees had visited, as well as any tiny bee parts, like bee wings, and it is pasteurized. \xC2\xA0The end result is that the “honey” is sweeter, creamier, and less likely to crystalize.

Raw or natural honey enthusiasts claim that raw honey contains many more nutrients and has more health benefits, especially when it comes to allergy relief and infection treatment, than processed honey. \xC2\xA0While the medical literature\xC2\xA0does not support many of these claims, most of the studies promoting possible cardiovascular benefits of honey only included natural honey in their studies.

On the other hand, processed honey, despite being processed, does have some benefits. For example, by removing most or all of the pollen, people are much less likely to have an allergic reaction to this form of “honey.”

Another benefit of processed honey is in the prevention of botulism for children less than one year of age who still have an undeveloped immune system. \xC2\xA0Also, in some parts of the world, like the Black Sea area, raw honey includes grayanotoxins that the bees pick up from certain plants and flowers\xC2\xA0which can cause “Mad Honey Disease.” \xC2\xA0Mad Honey Disease is a condition that\xC2\xA0can cause an intoxicated like state which also shuts down the heart’s ability to beat correctly.

Possible Benefits of Honey

Since the Stone Age times, Honey has been considered a health food.\xC2\xA0 Honey has also been used by many cultures to treat gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, inflammatory conditions, and even cancer.

For example, there are some small studies which show a role for honey when it comes to preventing heart disease. \xC2\xA0In one such well-designed small study, natural honey was shown to reduce cholesterol, markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein blood test), and fasting blood glucose in 60 overweight people, ages 20 to 60, who were at high risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. \xC2\xA0Some studies even report a slight weight loss when natural honey is used instead of other forms of sugar.

I should point out that this study, as well as most other studies which came to the same conclusion that honey was good for the heart, only\xC2\xA0used natural or unprocessed honey.

Honey vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup

Armed with a number of small studies showing that honey may have a beneficial effect when it comes to cholesterol, inflammation, diabetes, weight loss, and heart disease, the honey industry was eager to continue their wining streak by sponsoring the latest study with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In this very rigorously designed study, 60 men and women\xC2\xA0from North Dakota, ages 20 to 80, were invited to come into the USDA research center.

I should point out that the honey used in this study was Dutch Gold Honey. \xC2\xA0Dutch Gold Honey is not a natural honey, rather it is processed. \xC2\xA0As it states on its website, “Dutch Gold Honey generally removes most of the pollen.” Why was Dutch Gold Honey used? \xC2\xA0Simply because it is the most commonly used honey in the U.S.

In this study, each participant was randomly fed 50 grams of processed honey, high fructose corn syrup, or table sugar, in addition to their usual diet, for 2 weeks. \xC2\xA0All of these 60 study participants were “on their honor” not to eat any other form of sugar during this study other than what was fed to them\xC2\xA0at the USDA office in North Dakota.

After the two weeks were up, there was a 2 to 4 week “wash out period” where they did not eat any sugar at all. \xC2\xA0Once the washout period was up, they were then randomly assigned to 50 grams of processed honey, high fructose corn syrup, or table sugar for another two weeks and the cycle was completed until everyone had rotated through each of the 3 sugar treatment strategies.

What did they find at the end of the study? \xC2\xA0In contrast to what I presented earlier in this article, processed honey did not beat out the other forms of sugar. \xC2\xA0In fact, there was no difference at all when it came to body weight, blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol, blood glucose levels, or diabetes among these 3 different forms of sugar.

Plain and simple, processed honey was just as bad for you as high fructose corn syrup or table sugar. \xC2\xA0Also, table sugar was no healthier for you than high fructose corn syrup. \xC2\xA0Their conclusion was that sugar was sugar, regardless of its form or source.

Take Home Message

The take home message of this study is that the processed honey you buy in the grocery store is no better for you than the high fructose corn syrup in a bottle of Coca-Cola. \xC2\xA0Store bought honey is anything but a health food.

For the raw or natural honey enthusiasts, this study doesn’t apply. \xC2\xA0Many small studies still argue for a potential cardiovascular benefit of natural honey. \xC2\xA0Unfortunately, the definitive study has not yet been done so we can’t say that raw honey is a health food.

What should you do? \xC2\xA0If you have a sweet tooth, like me, then natural honey from reputable suppliers\xC2\xA0for people over the age of one is probably healthier than high fructose corn syrup or table sugar. \xC2\xA0However, please keep in mind that even raw honey is mostly sugar and should be eaten in limited quantities for a heathy cardiovascular system.

Have you tried raw or natural honey? \xC2\xA0What has your experience been? \xC2\xA0Please leave your comments below for our rapidly growing community

Honey isn’t as healthy as we think


Courtesy of Flickr user Thien Gretchen By Peter WhoriskeyPeter Whoriskey Reporter focusing on investigations of economic and financial issues September 11, 2015

Honey has an aura of purity and naturalness. Fresh air, birdsong, forests and meadows.

High-fructose corn sweetener? Not so much.

So you might think that honey is better for you. But a study published this month compared the health effects of honey and the processed sweetener and found no significant differences.

“The effects were essentially the same,” said Susan K. Raatz, a research nutritionist at the USDA who conducted the study with two colleagues.

The belief that HFCS may be harmful – linked to obesity or diabetes – has helped sink consumption of HFCS over the last ten years.

Researchers at the USDA decided to put that belief to the test. The honey industry, likely hoping that that honey’s suspected health benefits might be proven, helped fund the effort.

The researchers gave subjects daily doses of each of three sweeteners – honey, cane sugar and high-fructose corn sweetener – for two weeks at a time. They then compared measures of blood sugar, insulin, body weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in the 55 subjects.

The researchers found that the three sweeteners basically have the same impacts. Most measures were unchanged by the sweeteners. One measure of a key blood fat, a marker for heart disease, rose with all three.

“Honey is thought of as more natural whereas white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are processed from the cane or the beet or the corn,” said Raatz, whose paper appears in the Journal of Nutrition. “We wanted to find out if they were different. But chemically, they are very, very similar, and that’s what it seems to break down to.”

Introduced in the ‘70s, high-fructose corn sweetener quickly gained favor among soft drink and snack producers. Sales soared and by 2003, consumption of HFCS reached just about the same level as sugar.

Since then, though, sales have been sliding.

That’s at least partly because of widespread concerns that fructose might be linked to obesity and diabetes. Many health authorities, however, say that evidence of any potential harm from HFCS, at least relative to other sweeteners, is scant at best.

“At this time, there’s insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.

“We are not aware of any evidence…that there is a difference in safety,” the Food and Drug Administration’s website says.

Some studies do raise questions about how the body metabolizes fructose. But even if fructose, which is found in apples and pears, turns out to be particularly harmful, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that HFCS is worse for you than honey or table sugar. All three contain fructose, and all three are composed of similar proportions of fructose and another simple sugar, glucose. (Honey and HFCS are composed mainly of fructose and glucose; cane sugar is sucrose, a compound of fructose and glucose.)

When it comes to consumer perceptions, the trouble for HFCS arises at least in part from its name – “high fructose” may suggest that it contains much more fructose than the other sweeteners, though it doesn’t.

Honey, meanwhile, maintains a halo. It is not for nothing that the Kellogg Company renamed Sugar Smacks to Honey Smacks.

The marketers “made a big mistake when they called it ‘high-fructose corn syrup,’” said Raatz. “A sweetener is a sweetener, no matter the source.”

The 5 Best Sugar Substitutes (and Sweeteners to Avoid)

Wouldn’t it be sweet if you could eat sugar without worrying about health consequences? Well, you can. You just have to choose the right sugar.

Here’s the deal: processed sugars can be toxic to the body. Beyond providing nothing but empty calories, refined sugar is highly addictive, causes blood sugar levels to spike, interferes with nutrient absorption, and even has been linked to contributing to heart disease, weight gain and other degenerative disease. But there’s no need to live a sugar celibate life.

Swapping out the white stuff for another minimally processed, more natural sugars could be better for your body—and your recipes. There are alternatives to the processed regular sugar that provide some surprising benefits. While still sugar, these alternatives sweetners are much easier for the process and boast a range of other nutrients and health benefits.

But First, Some Science

To understand the difference between bad sugars and better sugars, first it’s important to note the difference between fructose, glucose, and sucrose.

Better sugars—including maple syrup, coconut sugar, and date syrup—score low on the glycemic index and have lower amounts of fructose. Sucrose (which is what cane sugar is) and glucose are what cause insulin levels to spike, whereas fructose does not.

Fructose is what’s found in fruit (for the most part). However, too much fructose can be challenging for the liver to metabolize. The recommended quantity of fructose per day should not exceed 50 grams. Over this quantity, the metabolism of fructose in the liver starts to produce free radicals. (That’s one reason why high-fructose corn syrup is so awful.)

All of the best sugars score lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, which means they won’t cause your insulin levels to spike.

In essence, what you’re looking for in a better sugar is both a low glycemic index, a fructose content that is not too high, and additional nutrients that cane sugar does not offer.

Whether you’re looking for sugar substitutes for baking, cooking or to sweeten your morning coffee, here’s a list of the best natural sweeteners you can use and why.

The Best Sugar Substitutes

1) Date Syrup
Date syrup is not just sugar — it’s actually a food made from a fruit. Date syrup is both low on the glycemic index due to its high fiber content and lower in fructose than most sweeteners. Moreover, date syrup is packed with nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. It also has an antioxidant level that’s the same as maca or raspberries, making it the most nutritionally dense sweetener out there. The potassium in date syrup actually helps your body slowly absorb and regulate sugar in the bloodstream.

2) Raw Honey
Raw honey, especially raw local honey, is much like dates in that it’s a real food—and also the nectar of the gods. In addition to sugar, honey has amino acids, electrolytes and a bounty of antioxidants. It has been touted for it natural antiseptic properties, and ability to alleviate allergy symptoms. While honey does contain higher fructose levels, it’s relatively low on the glycemic index, making it one of the best sugar substitutes of the bunch. One study found that replacing sugar with honey could actually lower blood sugar levels and prevent weight gain or aid in weight loss.

3) Maple Syrup
Real maple syrup has all the markers of a better sugar alternative, including a low glycemic index score and a low fructose content. Sourced straight from trees, it’s minimally processed and packed with even more minerals and antioxidants than honey, including manganese, riboflavin, zinc and magnesium. It’s also lower calorie than most sweeteners. The only catch is that you must be cautious when buying maple syrup that the label says “100% maple syrup”—otherwise you’re likely getting corn syrup with “maple flavoring” (whatever that means).

4) Coconut Sugar
Boasting high amounts of potassium and electrolytes, coconut sugar, which comes from blossoms of the coconut tree, is the best replacement for white sugar in recipes, since it behaves similarly. However it’s still pretty processed and not as nutrient-dense as the others. The upside is that it contains inulin fiber, which has been shown to help slow the absorption of glucose to keep blood-sugar levels balanced. It’s probably one of the best substitutes for regular sugar in baked goods.

5) Blackstrap Molasses
Rich in iron, potassium and calcium, blackstrap molasses is another one that’s nutritionally superior to many other sweeteners. One tablespoon has more iron than a 3-ounce serving of steak—more than 10 percent of the daily recommended intake. The by-product of refined white sugar, blackstrap molasses is the darkest grade and processed three times to remove as much sucrose as possible.

Alternative Sugars You Should Actually Avoid

Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial and low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and neotame are considered the worst of the worst in the realm of alternative sweeteners. While the actual science is still out on the safety of aspartame and saccharin, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows this stuff just isn’t that good for you.

Many people report headaches, stomach aches and a general ill feeling after eating artificial sweeteners. And some studies have shown that chemical sweeteners can actually change the bacterial makeup of your microbiome, throwing your entire gut health out of whack.

The FDA does a pretty terrible job of regulating this industry, so it’s pretty hard to know if what you’re eating is safe. Sucralose (better known by its brand name Splenda) is the worst offender. Others like Nutrisweet, Truvia and a number of brands from the stevia plant claim to be better, but there’s little data to support any claims.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

This one almost goes without saying. High-fructose corn syrup, which is made through a chemical process that’s anything but natural, is one of the worst offenders for insulin spikes, as it doesn’t have to be digested by your body. This stuff simply filters right into your bloodstream and goes wild.

Agave

While agave gained notoriety for its low glycemic index, it ultimately was shown to have a higher fructose content than high-fructose corn syrup (about 70% to 90%). It has been marketed as a healthier alternative, but it’s really no better than the worst offenders.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol and sorbitol are generally recognized as safe and are most commonly in chewing gum and toothpastes because they’ve been found to protect against tooth decay. They also score low on the glycemic index. While those are both great benefits, the verdict is still out over the side effects on your gut, as they have been found to cause digestive problems.

The problem is that your body can’t digest most sugar alcohols, so they travel to the large intestine where they are metabolized by gut bacteria.

If you eat a lot of sugar alcohols in a short period of time, it can lead to gas, bloating and diarrhea. The biggest offenders are sorbitol and maltitol.

Fructose is a natural simple sugar found in fruits, honey, and vegetables. In its pure form, fructose has been used as a sweetener since the mid 1850s and has advantages for certain groups, including people with diabetes and those trying to control their weight. Of course, fructose has been consumed for centuries in foods we still eat. It is known as a simple sugar because it is a single sweetening molecule. Fructose is also known as a monosaccharide.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also a sweetener and is used to sweeten foods and beverages. However, HFCS is not the same as fructose. HFCS is a mixture of fructose and glucose, made by an enzymatic process from glucose syrup from corn. The most common forms are HFCS-42 and HFCS-55, which contain 42% fructose (and 58% glucose) or 55% (and 45% glucose). Table sugar (sucrose) has 50% fructose (and 50% glucose) and so is very similar to HFCS.

Misinformation about fructose recently appeared in the media. This misinformation alleges obesity and negative health consequences from the consumption of HFCS and fructose. Many incorrectly use the terms “fructose” and “HFCS” interchangeably, confusing the public as well as health and nutrition professionals. It is important to be aware of the differences between these sweeteners.

Fructose

Fructose is one of the main types of sugars found in fruits such as apples, in fruit juices, and in honey. It is also a component of sucrose (table sugar) in equal quantity to glucose to which it is linked. As with table sugar, fructose can be bought at the supermarket; both can be used in the same ways in home cooking and processing. Hence fructose is found also in processed foods such as desserts, dairy products, and preserves.

An important difference is that fructose is up to twice as sweet as sucrose, and sweeter than HFCS. This means less fructose can be used to achieve the same level of sweetness. Consequently fewer calories are consumed from foods of similar sweetness where fructose replaces sucrose or HFCS.

Unlike table sugar or HFCS, fructose does not cause a rapid rise and subsequent large fall in blood glucose levels, which means it has a low glycemic load or glycemic index (GI). Glycemic index (glycemic load per gram carbohydrate) is a measure of how carbohydrates affect blood glucose concentrations. As expected, glucose itself has a high value because it is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream; its GI or glycemic load per gram is 100. In contrast, the glycemic load per gram fructose is only 19, while that of table sugar is 65 – midway between its component parts glucose and fructose. HFCS has a similar GI value to table sugar, though its precise value depends on the fructose content of the HFCS that is used.

When foods high in sugar are eaten, blood sugar rises rapidly to a peak. The higher the rise the greater the fall, which then quickly results in a dip below normal blood sugar levels, and may arouse appetite. Some researchers believe that carbohydrate foods with a low glycemic effect have health benefits, which remains controversial. The World Health Organization concludes that low GI foods may help to prevent obesity, weight gain and type II diabetes. The U.S. Institute of Medicine made no recommendations on GI due to a lack of sufficient evidence of benefit long term against the economic costs of change towards low glycemic carbohydrate diets.

Low glycemic carbohydrate foods may be of benefit to people with diabetes, as they can help to prevent surges in blood glucose. While the American Diabetes Association recognizes that fructose produces a lower blood glucose response when used in foods in place of sucrose or starch, it does not believe GI to be sufficiently important at this time to merit changes to its existing advice on carbohydrate exchanges.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

The name “high fructose corn syrup” is used because HFCS has a higher content of fructose compared to “regular” corn syrup, yet it contains a substantial amount of glucose and may be more glucose than fructose. HFCS and table sugar (sucrose) usually contain similar amounts of glucose and fructose.

HFCS is obtainable mainly in two forms:

  • HFCS 55 contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. It is commonly used in soft drinks, and is very similar in sweetness to table sugar.
  • HFCS 42 contains 42% fructose and 58% glucose. It is commonly used in canned fruits, ice cream, desserts and other sweetened processed foods.

Although high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and fructose are often confused as being the same, they are not interchangeable as the two sweeteners are quite distinct. There is also a difference between table sugar and HFCS, though this appears to be of little consequence. It is that the glucose and fructose in table sugar are linked chemically and so table sugar needs digesting before absorption can occur. This digestive process occurs very rapidly for sucrose and so there is no significant difference in the overall rate of absorption. Because both table sugar and HFCS are absorbed into the blood stream as glucose and fructose, their subsequent metabolism is identical.

Obesity and Diabetes

Some have suggested that a rise in the use of HFCS in the United States (US) over the past 30 years could explain the rise in obesity and type II diabetes, and that this is due to increased fructose consumption. However, there is no scientific support for this suggestion.

In the US, table sugar accounted for 83% of all sweeteners used in 1970, and for only 43% in 1997. During the same period, use of HFCS increased from 16% to 56%. However, as table sugar and HFCS contain similar quantities of fructose, the overall level of fructose in the US diet has stayed unchanged.

As in the US, Europe has experienced a dramatic rise in the prevalence of obesity and type II diabetes. Unlike the US, the production of HFCS is controlled in the European Union (EU). This means that far less HFCS is consumed in Europe than in the US. As a result, the increased rates of obesity and type II diabetes in the EU cannot be explained by increased consumption of either fructose or HFCS.

The ultimate cause of obesity is consuming more calories than are expended during rest and physical activity. In view of the wide choice of foods now available and of the sedentary lifestyles in the US, a specific food or ingredient cannot be blamed for increased incidence of obesity and diabetes in the US or Europe. Physical activity or the lack thereof is an important factor along with the amount of calories consumed.

A group of experts convened during 2004 by Virginia Tech’s Center for Food and Nutrition Policy and the University of Maryland’s Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has concluded, “Currently, there is no convincing evidence to support a link between HFCS consumption and overweight/obesity. There is also no evidence to suggest that humans absorb or metabolize HFCS any differently than sucrose.”

Appetite

Appetite and the amount of food consumed are influenced by a range of complex factors. External influences can override the body’s own control, for example eating with friends for social benefits or experiencing a wide variety of foods or just eating for pleasure.

Though it has been claimed that fructose does not suppress appetite in the same way as other sugars, fructose does not cause rapid surges and dips in blood glucose levels, which is one factor thought to stimulate eating.

Triglycerides

Recent news stories have focused on the potential effect of fructose on triglyceride levels in blood. Differences in the observations make it easy for individuals to fall into the trap of justifying a belief rather than scrutinizing and refuting a hypothesis. Consequently, stories arise that overemphasize a few studies which claim effects for high levels of fructose while largely ignoring others that find no effect or even an opposite effect, both in the morning before eating (fasted state) and after a meal (post-prandial state). These stories fail to account for the high variability in circulatory triglyceride responses to diet and there is over-interpretation and extrapolation from studies in animals with a different metabolism to humans.

Malabsorption

All carbohydrates, even rapidly digestible sucrose, cause abdominal discomfort when consumed to excess. Some individuals may exceed their capacity for fructose absorption if large amounts are eaten. Under such circumstances, fructose may be associated with abdominal complaints, such as bloating and flatulence.

Conclusions

  • Although some imply that HFCS and fructose are the same, they are different sweeteners.
  • Consuming HFCS has essentially the same results as consuming table sugar (sucrose).
  • Fructose is sweeter than sugar and so less can be used to sweeten foods and beverages. This helps to reduce calories in foods and drinks when used in appropriate product formulations, and may reduce subsequent arousal of eating.
  • Obesity and diabetes are unlikely to be caused by one particular food or food ingredient.
  • Fructose does not cause surges and dips in blood glucose levels so it may be helpful to people with diabetes to reduce post-prandial glycemia and to help limit calories in foods requiring bulk sweeteners.

For more information visit FructoseFacts.org.

American Diabetes Association. Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes. Diabetes Care, Vol 28 Supp 1, 2005.
Anon. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Protein and Amino Acids (Macronutrients) www.nap.edu/openbook/0309085373/html. The National Academy of Sciences, 2002.
Forbes A.L., Bowman B.L., eds. Health effects of dietary fructose. Supplement to Am J Clin Nutr, 58, 721S, 1993.
Havel P.J. Dietary Fructose: Implications for Dysregulation of Energy Homeostasis and Lipid/Carbohydrate Metabolism. Nutrition Reviews, 63, 133-157, 2005.
Hein G.L., Storey M.L., Lineback D.R. Executive Summary: Ceres® Workshop on the Highs and Lows of High Fructose Corn Syrup. 2004.
Jürgens H., et al. Consuming Fructose-sweetened Beverages Increases Body Adiposity in Mice. Obesity Research, 13, 1146-1156, 2005.

Comparing honey, high-fructose corn syrup

QUESTION: In your recent columns about high-fructose corn syrup, you mentioned that this sweetener is similar to honey. I have problems with that comparison, as I continue to read how honey has special properties. One emphasis is that honey contains levulose, and there is also mention of honey’s ability to heal wounds. Please comment on the science here as it relates to honey and your comparison with high-fructose corn syrup.

— RH, New Orleans, LA.

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ANSWER: Sugars tend to have a number of aliases. The levulose you mention is another name for fructose, which is also referred to as fruit sugar. Honey also contains glucose, which can also be referred to as dextrose or as blood sugar. Most types of honey have a bit more fructose than glucose. Sucrose, also known as table sugar or white sugar, is also made up of fructose and glucose. The difference between honey and sucrose is that the fructose and glucose exist separately in honey, but they are bound together in sucrose.

High-fructose corn syrup is similar to honey in that it is made up of separate fructose and glucose. From a straight nutrition point of view, we are talking about similar substances, both being made up of the same carbohydrates. The issue concerns the foods that make use of the high-fructose corn syrup, and the amount of these foods that are consumed. If you overdo it with honey, you will have the same problems as overdoing it with corn syrup.

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Back to honey, though: One thing that it does offer is that it is a natural product of bees, being derived from the sweet nectar of flowers, and it can contain small amounts of antioxidant phytochemicals. Honey, when used externally, can have antibacterial properties due to its phytochemicals and its ability to produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. This, combined with its viscous water-absorbing nature, makes for an environment that does not favor bacterial growth.

A study in the June 1999 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (tinyurl.com/ceslno) reports on antibacterial properties of honey in culture. But the question of whether honey is practical for wound healing is a topic of debate (tinyurl.com/db43cf). Before you consider slathering store-bought honey on a wound, an article in the September 2008 issue of the British Journal of Nursing points out that honey used for wound healing or other medical uses should be “medical grade” to ensure there are no unwanted contaminants.

Honey is not recommended for infants under a year old. The reason is that there can be small amounts of botulism spores from dirt or dust that was picked up by the honeybees. This small amount doesn’t represent a hazard to adults or older children, but it can represent a risk for an infant’s immature immune system.

Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutritional scientist based in Northern California. General-interest questions about nutrition can be mailed to: Ed Blonz, Focus on Nutrition, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA 92112-0191, or sent via e-mail to [email protected] .

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On a Paleo diet, sugar is definitely out – even the fancy “Sugar in the Raw” packages that try to tempt you with a more “natural” brown color. But the case of honey isn’t quite so clear-cut. While it’s very sweet, honey is a whole food, and it was probably available in the Paleolithic, albeit not in a cute little squeeze bear. And we also have some evidence of very healthy and lean people in traditional societies who consume honey in fairly large amounts.

So are its natural origins enough to give honey the Paleo seal of approval, or is it really just another kind of “real food candy” that ought to be minimized?

Honey and Fructose

The big point against honey is its fructose content.

A quick review of some key terms (you can skip this paragraph if you already know about the difference between glucose and fructose): once you eat them, all carbohydrates are broken down into their basic building blocks, called simple sugars or monosaccharides. Even though they’re all “carbs,” not all of these simple sugars are equal. Glucose, for example, is your brain’s favorite fuel; it’s easy to store as energy in your muscles for a future workout, and it’s generally good for you. Fructose, on the other hand, is a lot harder to metabolize because it has to be processed in your liver first (just like alcohol). So for a Paleo-friendly carb intake, the ideal is to prefer glucose and avoid fructose where possible.

Honey varies in its ratio of glucose to fructose; an average set of numbers is something like 38% fructose and 30% glucose, with small amounts of other carbohydrates making up the balance. For comparison, pure table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose with nothing else.

Another way of thinking about is to look at the total amount of fructose. 1 tablespoon (21 grams) of honey contains about 8 grams of fructose, although again, it varies depending on your honey. For comparison, that’s approximately equivalent to the amount of fructose that you’ll find in:

  • 1 small Granny Smith apple, or
  • 2 cups of strawberries, or
  • 1 large peach

But while the fruit comes packaged with nutrients and fiber along for the ride, the tablespoon of honey doesn’t really have much to brag about. Look up the nutrition information and you’ll find a row of 0s: no fiber, no vitamins, no minerals, no protein, no fat. So if you want a healthy way to enjoy the sweet taste of fructose, the fruit seems to be a better option.

Health Benefits of Honey?

On the other hand, this study suggests that we can’t just look at the dangers of pure fructose and apply them to honey: compared to an equivalent amount of purified fructose from a lab, fructose in honey was much less harmful. So is there something in honey, as a whole food, that minimizes the impact of the fructose?

Honey-lovers say yes: it’s not the vitamin or mineral content of the honey that matters; it’s all the other good stuff that comes in small but significant amounts. Each batch of honey is unique, but on average honey does contain about 180 component parts that might still have health benefits even if they aren’t technically “vitamins.” So what are the potential health benefits of all these bioactive goodies, and do they have any benefits outside of a test tube or a rat?

Antibiotic Activity and Immune Function

The special chemical compounds in honey are most famous for making it into a powerful all-natural antibiotic: it’s been used on wounds since we could figure out how to get it out of the hive, and it shows some promise for treating antibiotic-resistant germs.

This study (in mice, but still interesting) also suggests that at least some of those benefits may be available to people who eat honey. The researchers gave the mice the human equivalent of 2 tbsp. of honey per day, and then injected them with various antigens including E. coli. The honey group produced significantly more antibodies than the control group.

This doesn’t make honey a cure-all for bacterial infections: improving an already healthy immune response in mice is a far cry from curing a disease in humans. Honey will not substitute for antibiotics when you’re sick! But it does suggest that it might at least help. And this review also suggests that it may help reduce the symptoms of a cough. So on the whole, there’s some evidence that honey may have a small medicinal effect.

Seasonal Allergies

Honey from your own local area may also be able to help with seasonal allergies. This study examined 44 patients who were allergic to birch pollen. The patients got either honey that included birch pollen or honey that didn’t, and sure enough, the birch pollen honey group had reduced allergy symptoms in the spring.

On the other hand, another small study found that local honey had no benefit over honey-flavored sugar water in reducing allergy symptoms. The researchers tested both raw, unfiltered honey and the standard grocery-store variety and found no benefit from either.

It’s possible that honey is helpful for some types of allergies but not others; it’s also possible that it simply doesn’t do anything at all. Until we have some studies with larger sample sizes, the best anyone can really say is that there’s room for optimism.

Prebiotics

From a nutritional perspective, one advantage might be the carbohydrates in honey that aren’t glucose or fructose. About 5-10% of the sugars in honey come from a group called oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides are just chains of monosaccharides (glucose and/or fructose) stuck together. Their main benefit is their prebiotic activity: they provide food for your gut flora. This study, for example, found that honey compared to pure sucrose (glucose + fructose with no other sugars) increased the number of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in rats.

There’s always an “other hand,” though, and in this case the other hand is FODMAPs. Those beneficial prebiotics might not be quite so beneficial if you struggle to digest FODMAPs carbohydrates, so consider your individual gut tolerance before you turn to honey as a savior.

Blood Lipid Improvements

In some studies (this one, for example), honey has also been effective in slightly improving blood lipid profiles, by lowering LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), and increasing HDL cholesterol. The effects of honey in this study were tested against “imitation honey” (the right ratio of fructose:glucose but nothing else) and also against pure glucose, and honey clearly came out on top. But some other studies have shown less impressive results or no difference, and the effects, if they exist, are likely to be small.

Antioxidants

Honey also has some antioxidants: this study, for example, found that buckwheat honey increased antioxidant activity in real live humans (namely, not in a test tube or a rat). You can get antioxidants from plenty of other places, but a few more never really hurt.

Blood Sugar Response

Honey is easier on blood sugar than other sweeteners and doesn’t require insulin to metabolize, prompting this study to examine it as a potential antidiabetic. But there’s a catch: the lower glycemic index is a direct result of the higher fructose content, which comes with its own drawbacks. So it’s really a “pick your poison” scenario: would you rather have stress on your liver or stress on your blood sugar? Also, as the study points out, the research into this topic is complicated and incomplete, with many studies done on rats or in test tubes rather than human subjects. So file this one firmly under the “potential” label, and keep an eye out for further research.

Raw vs. Pasteurized Honey

There’s a lot of buzz about raw honey, but surprisingly little evidence backing up the assumption that raw is automatically better than pasteurized. For one thing, most of the “proof” that pasteurized honey is somehow toxic rests on the idea of “enzymes” in the raw version – but if you eat the honey, those enzymes will get destroyed in your stomach anyway, so it makes no difference.

Supporting this theory, this study found that allergic responses to honey showed no significant differences when the honey was pasteurized.

Pasteurization can even sometimes be beneficial. In this study, for example, pasteurized honey was even more effective against some species of bacteria than raw honey. This study found that pasteurization had mixed effects: sometimes it increased antimicrobial activity and sometimes it decreased it. This study found the same effect with antioxidant capacity: some honeys showed increased antioxidant content after heat-treating; others showed a decrease or no change.

Another process that honey sometimes goes through is gamma irradiation: this sounds alarming but actually isn’t. In fact, this study showed that irradiation actually increased the antioxidant and antibacterial properties of honey.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a huge or obvious benefit to raw over pasteurized honey. If you’re getting your honey from a local beekeeper (the only way to get the benefits for seasonal allergies or hayfever), it will probably be raw, and that’s fine. But if it’s pasteurized, that’s fine, too; the evidence doesn’t really point to a decisive difference.

Royal Jelly, Pollen, and Other Fruits of the Hive

On the topic of honey, a lot of people also wonder about the whole array of other bee-produced foods – and the health claims seem to get crazier and crazier the more obscure or strange-sounding the product is. Here’s a rundown:

Pollen

Bee pollen is exactly what it sounds like: the mixture of pollen and saliva that’s collected by bees and brought back to the hive. It’s touted as a very stable source of protein, an immune booster, an ergogenic supplement, a fertility aid…if you have a health complaint, somebody somewhere is trying to sell you bee pollen to treat it.

Unfortunately, none of this is actually backed up with any solid evidence. The exercise-enhancement claims, for example, are debunked in this article, and the rest of it simply has no solid evidence at all. Some of the health claims about bee pollen also center around its enzyme content, but just like the enzymes in raw honey, any enzymes in the pollen will be destroyed by your stomach acid long before they have the opportunity to do you any good.

Not only is it ineffective, but bee pollen also has serious risks for people with allergies. It’s caused several cases of severe anaphylactic reactions: don’t go near it if you have (or ever had) seasonal allergies or hayfever!

Propolis

Propolis is a kind of all-natural “glue” that bees collect from sap and other sticky substances and use to patch up their hive. By weight, it’s about 50% resin, 30% wax, 10% essential oils, 5% pollen, and 5% everything else. Like honey, it shows some promise as a topical antimicrobial and treatment for wounds, but the research is very inconclusive. One of the best-studied medicinal effects is for dental health: in this study, for example, a mouthwash containing propolis was more effective at preventing plaque formation than a placebo. And this trial found a mouthwash containing propolis to be as effective as one containing sodium hypochlorite (bleach) for inhibiting fungal growth in the mouth.

Propolis also does have some antioxidants and other bioactive compounds, but very few of these have been studied with any thoroughness. They probably do something, but we’re not sure yet what specifically that “something” is. Claims about curing cancer, heart disease are based exclusively on test-tube studies (which may or may not carry over to real life) and animal models (which may or may not carry over to humans), so it’s far too early to start making confident pronouncements about the miraculous health benefits.

Ultimately, propolis is a “superfood” to look at with a very healthy dose of skepticism. Demand a credible scientific source if someone’s trying to sell it to you, and check to make sure the study wasn’t done in a test tube or on animals. Also, like bee pollen, propolis can cause reactions in people who have plant allergies: this is another one to be very careful about trusting.

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a little like bee milk. All larvae eat it for the first three days, but only queens get it after that (in fact, the royal jelly is what triggers a larva to develop into a queen). Queens continue to eat it throughout their lives.

By weight, royal jelly is mostly water, with 12-15% protein, 10-12% sugars, 3-7% fat, and some trace vitamins and minerals. Because the royal jelly turns a short-lived and infertile drone bee into a long-lived and fertile queen bee, many people take it as a supplement to improve fertility or forestall aging.

Very few real studies have been done to test out this assumption. This study found a slight improvement in red blood cell counts and iron status, glucose tolerance, and mental health compared to placebo, possibly related to the effect of the jelly on sex hormones, but it still doesn’t support a lot of the claims.

There’s also some interesting research into anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties of royal jelly, but this has mostly been done in rats and test tubes, and the usual caveats apply. Overall, the “benefits” of royal jelly are 90% hype at this point: it’s expensive, it’s not proven to do much of anything, and it’s definitely not necessary.

Fake Honey and Food Safety

If you’re going to pay for honey, you want to make sure you’re actually buying honey – according to one report, 75% “honey” on grocery-store shelves is fraudulently labeled.

According to the USDA, honey must still contain some traces of pollen: as well as potentially adding to the health benefits, this makes it possible to trace the honey back to the flowers in a particular region. But most commercial brands of “honey” have been ultra-filtered to strip out the pollen and remove any trace of the honey’s origin. This is no longer legally considered to be “honey” – and what’s more, it often hides some extremely sketchy origins.

Most commonly, honey contaminated with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals is imported from India and China. Stripping the honey of pollen allows unscrupulous importers to hide where it comes from (this article has the whole sordid story if you’re interested). And sometimes, the honey isn’t even produced by bees; it’s just a mixture of corn syrup and food coloring.

In a test by one of the world’s leading honey experts, contaminated brands included all drugstore brands (CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens), almost all store brands (Archer Farms, Giant Eagle Great Value, Kroger, Market Pantry, Safeway, Wegmans), and several name brands as well. To avoid contaminated honey, your only safe bet is to buy local from a small producer. It’s more expensive, but otherwise you’re basically just paying for sweet, yellow-colored liquid with absolutely no guarantee that it’s really honey.

The honey that you buy from a local beekeeper might not look perfectly golden and clear: it may vary in color or look slightly cloudy, and it may also solidify after a few days on the shelf. That’s all fine – honey is a natural product, and it’s not going to be totally uniform every single time. The small variations are actually a benefit to you, because that’s how you know you’ve found an honest source.

Also, most parents already know this, but never give honey (especially raw honey) to children under 1 year old. The reason: the risk of infantile botulism, a dangerous and potentially fatal disease caused by a poison called the botulinum toxin. Nobody quite knows how Clostridium botulinum bacteria (the bacteria that secrete botulinum toxin) end up in honey in the first place, but the fact is that they do, and very young babies aren’t equipped to deal with them. Adults with more developed immune systems aren’t in any danger from this; it’s just babies who are potentially at risk.

Summing it Up

To very briefly sum up the evidence for a Paleo take on honey:

  • There’s some evidence that eating honey may be better for you than eating table sugar.
  • But limiting the amount of sweeteners in your diet matters much more than which type of sweetener you choose.

Ultimately, sugar is sugar no matter where it comes from or how “natural” it is. Honey is still a fairly concentrated source of fructose; don’t let it replace more nutritious foods in your diet. It’s not a miracle cure for allergies, insomnia, immune function or anything else; it’s just a delicious treat that humans have been chasing down for centuries because we can’t get enough of the taste. And the other bee products (royal jelly, bee pollen, and propolis) have very little evidence to justify their hefty price tag.

If you like honey as an occasional treat, it’s certainly not the worst thing you could be eating; just keep it for special occasions, and enjoy the good stuff when you do.

Does honey have fructose

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