The truth about the health benefits of honey

A honey pot and Honeycombe illustration

Children are like bees to honey when it comes to sugar. So is the sweet stuff from nature actually better? Tiffany Brown explains.

Refined sugars contain absolutely no nutrients whatsoever, apart from the rapid-release carbohydrates we use for energy, the ones responsible for that sugar rush effect on children after they’ve eaten a load of sugary treats. So, is honey a better choice?

Although research is limited, there are some clear beneficial components to honey. High quality honey is full of antioxidants — the clever little helpers that sweep around our blood collecting up and neutralising free radicals before they can do us damage — and they have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Sweet stamina

Children seem programmed to seek out sweet flavours, and most of us face years of frustration trying to encourage toddlers and school-aged children to enjoy salty, sour, umami or bitter flavours, as well as their favoured sweet taste. There’s an evolutionary principle at work here; sweet foods generally deliver energy, which is what kids need during their years of rapid growth and development. That makes them pretty smart in seeking it out, but it’s tough for us these days when so many sweet foods are highly processed and offer little nutritional benefit.

Honey is in fact very slightly higher in calories than sugar, and with its other benefits like antioxidants makes a preferable sweetener based on its nutritional profile. Make no mistake though, honey is still in itself a type of sugar, composed of fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, and eating too much honey can contribute to weight gain and elevated blood sugar levels. If your child is diabetic, it’s a slightly better option than refined sugar, with multiple studies showing it can lower triglyceride levels, one of the drivers of type 2 diabetes. But it’s best to think of honey as ‘less bad’ than sugar, rather than as some sort of superfood.

The medical benefits of honey

Honey has been shown to reduce coughing for children; in fact several studies found it more effective than over-the- counter medications, which is great news for kids suffering upper respiratory infections. It can also be beneficial for wound healing.

Wait until one

Honey has been associated with a risk of infant botulism, a condition caused by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria which may be present in soil or food and can cause rare but serious reactions including paralysis and death. Standard advice is to avoid giving honey to children under the age of one (orally or topically for wound healing). Given the severity of the potential reaction, it’s understandable parents and caregivers do follow the advice, but it is interesting to note the vast majority of infant botulism has been recorded in the USE and the highest at risk are babies between three weeks and six months of age. If you follow the advice to delay the introduction of solids until the age of six months, you may be out of the woods when it comes to honey. That said, another six months isn’t hard to hold out for, and besides, introducing babies to a limited range of sweet foods makes good sense.

Quality assurance

Unlike other countries with looser rules around their honey processing, you can be assured New Zealand-made honey is pretty pure. Recently, rigorous identification and labelling laws have been introduced, ostensibly to safeguard the future of Kiwi honey export potential and to ensure export consumers receive what they expect, particularly in terms of our famous mānuka honey, a type of honey made by bees that predominantly extract nectar and pollen from mānuka bushes.

Go raw

If you’re keen to maximise the benefits of honey for your family, in preference to just feeling better about how foods are sweetened at home, consider raw over regular. Raw honey is simply removed from the hive, drained to remove impurities and bottled. This kind of honey is usually available directly from producers, and is subject to crystallisation. The public appetite for a smooth, clear honey, as well as the public’s appetite for honey itself, has resulted in most commercially available honeys being heat- treated before they’re sold. This treatment makes a smooth honey but can reduce the efficacy of the antioxidant compounds in the product. It’s also why you’re always best to make honey and lemon drinks warm rather than hot to give the honey every chance to work its magic on the inflamed area and relieve coughs or sore throats. A spoon of room temperature honey may be more beneficial, and will surely sit well with your small, sweet-toothed patients.

MĀnuka honey ratings

Mānuka honey has been scientifically shown to have a more active and beneficial profile than other honeys. The flip-side unfortunately is a bit of consumer confusion around various labelling, including
the newly-coined UMF (Unique Mānuka Factor) trademark. The UMF label refers to a lab-derived measure of NPA (non- peroxide activity) of the methylglyoxal, or MGO, level in the honey. This measurement can be conveyed using the UMF label, which requires honey producers to buy
a licence and pay a royalty on each product sold, or by the MGO level, which is not trademarked, and therefore more appropriate and less costly for smaller scale honey producers.

Visit for a Mānuka Honey UMF vs MGO calculator.

More on health from Tots to Teens:

Top 5 Supplements To Keep Kids Healthy In Winter

Keeping Your Gut Happy

Is Coffee Okay For Kids?

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