Natural honey

Natural honey consumption by diabetics is complex and controversial. Too much of a good-thing is not helpful.

Honey is made up of a mixture mainly of fructose and glucose, plus various vitamins, minerals and enzymes; and a complex-assortment of phytochemicals depending on which plants the bees have been feeding.

Natural honey that will crystallise or set within a few weeks.

Researchers have found in the past that both glucose and fructose alone have unfavourable influences on diabetics causing weight gain and greater insulin-resistance. Yet natural honey has the exact opposite effect; a group taking large amounts over a period of 8 weeks lost on average 1.8 kg.

Clearly some other component is at work.

The authors of a trial published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition of the effects of honey consumption on non-insulin dependent diabetics make no bones about the fact that there is the natural product of the beehive competing with artificial and adulterated fakes.

It is those micronutrients that make honey so special; otherwise it is little better, if any, than sugar[1].

Artificial honey is concocted by adding glucose or fructose. Researchers have found that these sugars have unfavourable influences on both obesity and insulin-resistance[2], despite the previous belief that the latter was considered a positive treatment for diabetic control.

Understanding crystallised, set and creamed honey helps one to distinguish between that which is natural and the fake which crafty-bottlers have adulterated.

Unnatural honey has been processed in some way. It may have been warmed too much which destroys the essential heat labile compounds that have made this food so venerated over thousands of years; an elixir of wellness. Perhaps the bees were force-fed on sugar; or some mixture of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup was added directly to the product. 

Natural honey has small amounts of pollen and propolis which have anti-microbial properties. It is totally unprocessed after extraction from the combs, and lightly filtered to remove contaminants like bee-parts and bits of wax.


"Unsurprisingly when asked about what varieties of honeys they often turn to, the pastry and sweets-inclined chefs I talked to shouted out that local farms and apiaries are their favorite suppliers."

- Epicurious


Natural honey

The fructose in natural honey is absorbed more slowly in the small intestine than glucose; but it is rapidly taken up by the liver causing blood-sugar levels to rise ever so slightly. It is insulin independent which is why it was often used as a sweetener by diabetics.

What astonished the authors is that the natural honey group lost on average 1.8 kg over an 8-week period, despite consuming initially 10 tsp per day, increasing to 25; the control members did not lose any weight.

Weight loss research is a very contradictory and confusing subject; but certainly natural honey is not all bad. Those suggesting it is no better than sugar are ignorant of the research and have no understanding of what processing can do to a food.

The two groups were permitted to choose their food freely, but after analysis it was found that the caloric intake of the groups was much the same before and after the experiment; the honey-eaters compensated, automatically reducing other parts of what they ate previously. 

Studies on the anti-oxidants in green tea by other scientists have shown that they too help with weight loss. The authors speculated whether it was these other nutrients in natural honey that promote such significant mass reduction. 

Half a teaspoon of natural honey in this perfect butternut smoothie is a delight. Avoid that found on supermarket shelves.

The scent of a million flowers

When you open a bottle of natural honey the first thing that will strike you, powerfully, is the scent of millions of flowers escaping. It can be quite over-powering; flirty and floral. Then you know that this is the real McCoy. When it has been processed these gorgeous fragrances are driven off; one sniff and you will know the difference.

Only a beekeeper can truly appreciate this fragrance yielded by the flowers along with pollen and nectar; as he or she walks into the apiary it is almost overpowering during a honey-flow.

Watch the entrance to the hive carefully and you will notice a group of bees madly fanning their wings; they are pumping air through the hive to evaporate off the excess-moisture in the nectar and it carries with it some of these marvelous fragrances.

Fasting blood glucose

Consumption of natural honey had a lowering effect on fasting blood glucose, reducing it from 153 mg/dl to 124 but there was no change in the control-group. After adjustment of the figures however the statisticians were unconvinced this was a meaningful drop.

Science it would seem is riddled with damn-lies and statistics as Mark Twain once quipped.

Lipid parameters

All the lipid parameters in the natural honey group were quite dramatically improved. For example, total-cholesterol was lowered from 214 to 177, and LDL dropped from 125 to 108.

The important LDL/HDL-ratio and triglycerides also improved markedly.

Haemoglobin A1c

HbA1c gives a long-term measure of how much glucose has combined with the haemoglobin in red blood cells. It is the one negative from consuming such large amounts of even natural honey.

In both the control and the honey groups HbA1c rose inexplicably, but by double the amount in the latter. From an initial reading of 7.1 (already high) it rose by 8.5%. That is not at all surprising considering they were consuming 25 teaspoons of honey per day; over 100g of carbohydrate.

Other contradictory research

In other research published in the Journal of Nutrition[4] the authors describe the effect of giving drinks containing 50g of honey, sugar or HFCS to two groups. The effect of all three beverages on blood glucose and triglycerides was nearly identical.

On those who had impaired glucose tolerance there was a significant rise in inflammatory markers.

The honey group reacted just as badly as the other two to the overload of sugars.

Three comments are worth making:

  1. This was almost certainly not natural honey that was used.
  2. I have never heard of anyone consuming a drink with 10 tsp of honey before.
  3. The beverages were not given in the context of a normal meal.

It is my understanding is that it is specious to extrapolate this finding and conclude that any and all honey is no better than sugar or HFCS.

It is for the very reason that even the best honey in excess will raise blood glucose, as will any starch, that we should limit it to perhaps 3 tsp per day. That is simply my own opinion based on 60 years of keeping bees.

Polyphenols

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are formed during normal cellular-respiration. They are highly damaging causing what is known as "oxidative-stress" so the body quickly neutralises them.

Any pro-oxidant species in the body, such as cigarette smoke and air pollution in general, raise the spectre of tissue-damage and disease.

Conversely anti-oxidant species from our food help to neutralise these ROS compounds.

Researchers have found that natural honeys contain large amounts of polyphenols and flavonoids which have strongly anti-oxidant properties[5].

They add that natural honey contains an enormous array of other anti-oxidant compounds such as vitamins, certain amino acids and biogenic elements; more than 70 different compounds in total.

They would certainly not be found in adulterated-honey and processing by commercial bottling would undoubtedly take its toll as well.

Pandemic

52% of those who have died in the pandemic are frank-diabetics[3]. Since half of those with the disease in the world are generally reckoned to be walking the streets undiagnosed and unaware of the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, it is not unreasonable to assume the percentage is actually considerably higher.

Add to those like myself who are prediabetic, yes, I have a morbid interest in the subject, the numbers probably are approaching 75-percent.

Research in South-Africa shows that the prevalence of diabetes is nearly a third of all adults in two large population-groups[4].

Researchers publishing in Arch Med Res have found that honey has a potent inhibitory activity against the influenza virus[6].

Can diabetics eat natural honey? In moderate amounts up to perhaps five teaspoons per day will lower fasting blood glucose and improve lipid-profiles. More than that would contribute to a raised A1c.

Can they consume processed-honey? Definitely no, nor should they have sugar, fructose or artificial-sweeteners; not least because of the detrimental effect on the microbiome in the intestine.


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Tony Jackman's column

Tony Jackman writes a wonderful column in the Daily-Maverick. This week he has a lovely piece on honey from the Karoo[7].

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