Ah, Honey Honey
Sweeten your health with the golden antioxidant.

By Mitchell Clute

"The secret of my health is applying honey inside and oil outside," said the Greek philosopher Democritus, who is believed to have reached the sweet old age of 109. His view was widespread in the ancient world, where honey was often regarded as a healing agent, used by the earliest Olympic athletes, and prized as a tempting and highly valued food.

The restorative properties of honey have been largely forgotten today. Many people have come to think of honey as no different than white sugar and other sweeteners. But recent research suggests that the ancients may well have been right.

Sweet Recovery
Athletics are one surprising area where honey has re-emerged as a champion. "It's amazing; when I was in high school, the basketball coach instructed us to take some honey at halftime," says Marcia Cardetti, director of scientific affairs at the National Honey Board, based in Longmont, Colo. "Studies are showing honey is a good thing [in athletic recovery] and are bringing it back to the forefront." In one study, Richard Kreider, PhD, a sports nutrition researcher at the University of Memphis, compared honey to other sweeteners, including dextrose, sucrose, fructose and maltodextrin, currently used in protein supplements for athletes. Kreider found that when subjects were given one of several sweeteners after an intensive weight-training workout, those who received honey did not display the drop in blood-sugar levels after 60 minutes that affected other participants.

"In addition to promoting muscle recuperation and blood-sugar restoration, honey-protein combinations also seem well suited to sustain favorable blood-sugar concentrations after training," Kreider says. "The lower glycemic index profile of honey is an important consideration for sports enthusiasts, because when ingested just prior to exercise, higher glycemic index carbohydrates (like dextrose, maltodextrin or sucrose) may promote fatigue more quickly." Still, while honey has a lower glycemic index than many sweeteners—or even than baked potatoes—it is not considered a truly low-glycemic food, and diabetics should use it with caution, as with other sweeteners.

Why Honey Preserves
Honey has three main components: fructose (38 percent), glucose (31 percent) and water (17 percent). That means that 14 percent of honey's chemical makeup consists of other substances, including vitamins, minerals, enzymes and oligosaccharides. It is these substances, not found in sugar, that are thought to be responsible for honey's beneficial health effects.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have begun to explore the antioxidant properties of honey, with promising results. "Our eventual goal is to show that people might be wise to substitute honey for some of the other sugars in their diet," says Nicki Engeseth, PhD, assistant professor in the department of food sciences. For home cooks, honey's antioxidants mean that the sweetener not only adds flavor but also helps dishes last longer after preparation, and may even add protective antioxidant properties to the food.

Earlier research, Engeseth says, correlated honey's antioxidant content to its color, with darker honeys having a higher level of antioxidants. Those studies showed that honey slows the browning process in fruits and vegetables. The University of Illinois studies are now concentrating on honey's role in protecting against lipid oxidation in meats. Using ground turkey patties, researchers added honey equal to 5 percent of the meat's weight and compared it to meat containing the legal limits of vitamin E and BHT, two known meat preservatives. "The honey was much more effective," Engeseth says, allowing the cooked meat to last longer without spoilage.

"We found that antioxidant content was correlated with the phenolic content in honey," she says, referring to the phenolic compounds that also give grapes and tea their antioxidant abilities. "We don't know yet how much of the antioxidants are absorbed and used by the body, but we can say that they protect against oxidative reactions in foods. That provides healthier food products by lessening consumers' exposure to free radicals."

The Sticky Parts
In spite of these many healthy attributes, honey also merits a health warning. Because it contains botulism spores, infants under 1 year of age should not eat honey, whether raw or cooked, because their gastrointestinal systems have not yet developed the beneficial flora necessary to neutralize these disease-causing agents.

For the rest of us older than 1, honey is fair game. Given the wealth of recent studies on its healthy properties, honey lovers can claim sweet revenge against those who say all sweeteners are the same.

Mitchell Clute is a musician, journalist, editor and avid home chef.