Honey in Nutrition

By William Miller

Summary: An excellent overview of the value of raw honey. Author William Miller compares the nutritional qualities of this extraordinary food, manufactured by bees for millions of years, to those of refined sugar. His conclusion? They’re complete opposites nutritionally, with honey providing vitamins, minerals, and other factors critical for life and white sugar providing nothing more than empty calories. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 119, 1955. Original source unknown.

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Honey in Nutrition

Honey is the product of the bee’s matchless alchemy, perfected through millions of years of processing. It is a processing completely the reverse of man’s technology, which produces refined sugar and other debased products bereft of all the most nourishing and valuable elements to leave a residue of dubious nutritional value.

By contrast the bee creates a food that not only includes all the most valuable nutritive elements but is also immune from spoilage, permitting storage for almost indefinite periods. If milk, eggs, butter, and other highly perishable foods could keep as long as honey—preserving their original aroma, savor, and vitamin content for years—the savings in vital food resources would be incalculable. Refrigeration would be unnecessary, and contamination unknown.

Honey is also a predigested food, which requires no further work of assimilation by the digestive glands and pancreas. In further contrast to man’s processed foods, which require supplementary vitamins and minerals to facilitate metabolism, honey carries its own components of necessary vitamins to complete absorption and utilization by the system. It does not draw on the body’s stores of vitamins and other biochemical elements—certainly an invaluable feature.

Before our age of technology brought an unworthy substitute—refined sugar—honey had always been the favorite delicacy in man’s dietary. From time immemorial he found it would renew his energy, was a delight to the palate, and had excellent nutritional value.

Honey was included in the rations of Roman soldiers. It was combined with a paste of ground sesame seeds, forming a food both highly palatable and nourishing. For centuries this recipe, known as halvah, has been eaten with relish throughout the Near East. Unfortunately, the modern product on sale today only imitates the old sesame-seed–honey confection by substituting corn syrup.

Roman soldiers were reputedly aware of the germicidal properties of honey and rubbed it on their wounds and injuries. These many unique features of honey inspired the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians to inscribe tributes on their tablets and scrolls. Honey was served at banquets and religious festivals with great reverence. The wisdom of the ancients recognized its superb qualities by hailing it as “the nectar of the gods.”

The modern chemist perpetuates this high regard, for he has isolated in honey most of the necessary vitamins and minerals needed to sustain life, not only in the bee but in humans as well. Its two principal sugars, levulose [fructose] (fruit sugar) and dextrose [glucose] (grape sugar) are particularly rich in fractions of the B complex. Sucrose (cane sugar) is also present, though only at about 2 percent in amount.

The minerals of honey include iron, copper, phosphorus, silica, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.

Table 1. Variation in Silica, Phosphorus, Calcium, and Magnesium Content of Light and Dark Floral Honeys*

 Light Honeys Dark Honeys
 MinimumMaximumMinimumMaximum
%mg%mg%mg%mg
Silica (SiO2)1.60147.07361.03135.8272
Phosphorus1.03239.55500.84276.6758
Calcium3.542313.00680.4657.30266
Magnesium1.00119.24560.66711.47126

*Mineral amounts shown as both percentage of ash and mg per kg of honey.

According to Dr. Mykola H. Haydak of the University of Minnesota, though honey has an acid reaction, it is really a potentially alkaline food. Minerals determine the acid or alkaline potential, and the preponderance of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium make honey a potentially alkaline food. Chlorine, phosphorus, and sulfur predominate in acid foods. Honey therefore ranks quite favorably with fruits and vegetables for its alkaline value.

The acids of honey are mostly organic and break down into carbon dioxide and water in the human physiology and provide some of the elements necessary for heat formation.

The flavor and color of honey are determined by the variety of the flower or plant from which the nectar is collected. The U.S. government color classifications of honey are water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber, and dark. Grades of honey are not related to color but are based on the purity of extracted honey as well as the finish and whiteness of cappings in comb-section honey. Natural honeys carry slight amounts of pollen grains, which determine the type.

Table 2. Ash, Silica, Phosphorus, Calcium, and Magnesium Content [in Different Classifications of] of Honey*

Ash
[%]
Silica
(%, mg)
Phosphorus
(%, mg)
Calcium
(%, mg)
Magnesium
(%, mg)
 Light Honeys
  Water White.0454.83 247.23 3110.83 504.39 18
  White.0962.90 215.51 396.72 472.46 20
   AVG..0703.86 226.37 358.77 493.42 19
 Dark Honeys
  Light Amber.1253.42 374.00 425.05 602.59 32
  Amber.2212.22 462.92 523.03 601.76 36
  Dark.1202.97 264.10 482.63 332.96 38
   AVG..1552.87 363.67 473.57 512.77 35

*Mineral amounts shown as both percentage of ash and mg per kg of honey.

Natural honey is somewhat cloudy, which has unfortunately created the practice of clarification—the equivalent of processing in foods. Despite contentions that the original minerals, enzymes, and flavoring substances are not lost in clarification, which involves heating to temperatures of about 150 degrees Fahrenheit and filtering out so-called impurities, careful analyses of clarified honeys prove otherwise.

Haydak and associates, at the University of Minnesota, have investigated this aspect thoroughly, finding a significant loss of vitamin content after clarification, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Vitamin Content per 100 g of Clarified and Unclarified Honey

Thiamine
(µg)
Riboflavin
(µg)
Pantothenic acid
(µg)
Nicotinic acid
(µg)
Ascorbic acid
(mg)
Commercial samples:
Unclarified5.180.0100400.02.1
Clarified3.662.092.0290.01.9
Decrease %30.0%22.5%8.0%27.5%9.5%
[Sample type omitted]
Unclarified5.961.081.0720.02.0
Clarified4.333.063.0610.01.6
Decrease %27.1%45.9%22.2%15.3%20.0%
Laboratory process:
Unclarified8.493.0176.0870.02.7
Clarified5.464.097.0460.01.9
Decrease %35.7%31.2%44.9%47.1%29.6%

 

Haydak attributes loss of vitamin values to the removal of pollen, proving again that interfering with the natural content of a food robs it of quality.

Light honeys are more acid than the darker varieties, which are richer in iron, copper, and manganese. Darker honeys are therefore especially favorable for enriching the blood and increasing hemoglobin content.

This was proven in human nutrition [research]. The subjects were European children, selected for their uniformity in age, physical constitution, hemoglobin counts, dietary intake, and environmental conditions. Those children supplied with dark honey as a dietary supplement revealed consistently higher hemoglobin counts than those without this supplement. 

More thorough experiments along these lines—with rats, by Haydak and associates, at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station—confirmed the above findings. The rats were divided into three groups, all of whom were fed a uniform diet that was supplemented with milk and dark honey in one group, milk and light honey in another, and milk and beet sugar [sucrose] in the third. Dark honey was found superior to light honey for forming hemoglobin, and both honeys surpassed sucrose.

It has only been in recent years that the vitamin content of honey has been accurately established. Analyses by Haydak, Palmer, Tanquary, and Vivino, at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station in 1942, are summarized in Table 4.

Table 4. Vitamin Content of Territorial United States Honeys (per 100 g)

OriginNectar SourceThiamine
(B1)
(µg)
Riboflavin
(B2)
(µg)
Ascorbic acid
(Vitamin C)
(mg)
Pyroxidine
(B6)
(µg)
Pantothenic acid
(µg)
Nicotinic acid
(mg)
WashingtonMixed6.4730.6300870.78
WashingtonClover + alfalfa6.8671.5227960.24
WashingtonBlack locust7.4681.42331000.47
WashingtonFireweed8.2814.1397560.13
OregonLocust4.3350.52601030.04
OregonAlfalfa – sweet clover4.3361.34301750.92
OregonFireweed2.2621.4260870.84
OregonWild buckwheat4.3562.82501800.16
California (1941)Star thistle8.61376.5410900.11
California (1941)Orange8.6352.52101500.16
CaliforniaOrange4.3421.9310630.13
CaliforniaSage3.0365.4320560.04
TexasRattan6.5872.34401900.23
Long IslandMixed6.5462.02401550.26
Florida (1940)Tupelo4.3582.12501180.44
New YorkBuckwheat8.6621.3250470.13
TennesseeCrimson clover8.62.34000.56
HawaiiAlgaroba8.6462.3250500.32
IdahoDandelion6.4872.52671920.11
MontanaClover3.3773.24161410.18
Minnesota (1941)Mixed6.51.9310­–0.11

 

Similar analyses completed by Kitzes, Schuette, and Elvehjem at the Wisconsin Agricultural Experimental Station found lower nicotinic acid and pyridoxine values than those at Minnesota (see Table 5). Variations could be due to different methods of assay or extraction or to the origins of the samples of honey. Both series of analyses did agree on the loss of pantothenic acid in aged honey, indicating the possible instability of that vitamin in an acid solution.

Table 5. Comparison of Aged and New Honeys (Wisconsin Results)*

Honeys of Years 1935–1939Honeys of Years 1940–1942
MeanRangeMeanRange
Thiamine3.5± 2.51.4–6.24.4± 0.502.2–12
Riboflavin21.8 ± 3.09–6426.3 ± 2.17–60
Pyroxidine7.6 ± 0.669–1410.0 ± 1.14–27

 

Pantothenic acid20.4 ± 2.49–6054.4± 3.620–360
Nicotinic acid124.4± 11.663–600108.5± 9.172–590

*All values in micrograms per 100 g honey

Diabetics should not eat honey, various authorities believe, on the grounds that the dextrose can be dangerous, although the levulose is harmless and usually well tolerated. However, Dr. D.C. Jarvis advocates honey for diabetics, maintaining that lack of potassium and acid really cause the affliction and that sugar has little bearing on its real cause.

According to Dr. Jarvis’s theory, the pancreas requires potassium and acid for its work and cannot handle sugar if they are lacking. Honey supplies them both, and its sweetness counteracts the palatable bitterness of potassium, which is so necessary to the metabolism of diabetics. Honey is therefore the ideal medium for the consumption of potassium.

Vitamin K, the blood clotting factor, has been proven an element in honey. Chicks were fed vitamin K deficient rations, thinning their blood until often bruises led to uncontrolled bleeding and death. At this point honey was incorporated into their rations, with a definite and immediate improvement in blood clotting capacity.

Vitamin K is also known to inhibit tooth decay by halting the formation of acid bacteria in the mouth. Cane sugar loses its vitamin K in the process of refining, which supports the contention that refined sugars cause tooth decay but natural sugars such as honey and unrefined cane are actually preventives.

Clarification removes two valuable elements inherent in the beeswax of comb honey—vitamin F and the Wulzen factor. Vitamin F is polyfunctional, acting as a synergist for vitamin D by making calcium available to bones and teeth; assisting in the assimilation of organic phosphorus; being useful in reproductive processes; properly nourishing the epithelial structures; and relating to the functioning of the thyroid. The Wulzen factor is helpful in the treatment of arthritic conditions.

Dr. Haydak experimented both on himself and on associates with milk and honey as their exclusive diet. The diet was sufficient for maintaining a feeling of well-being, without diminution of physical or mental powers, for about thirty days. Signs of a vitamin C deficiency then began to appear, and Dr. Haydak concluded that this vitamin is not present in sufficient amounts in honey to counteract its loss in milk pasteurization. As yet, unpasteurized milk has not been used in this interesting experiment.

Honey is well known to athletes, deep-sea divers, mountain climbers, and others engaged in strenuous and hazardous occupations as a good quick restorative of energy. This can be attributed to its well-balanced components integrating their action to both restore and maintain blood sugar levels. Dextrose absorbs immediately into the bloodstream; levulose much more slowly. Consequently, honey not only restores blood sugar level quickly but maintains it for some time.

The Sports College of Canada strongly recommends honey for athletes. It proved to restore energy quickest, over all other forms of sugar, to subjects exhausted by a treadmill. At the last Olympic Games, 70 percent of the marathon contestants were confirmed consumers of honey. Long-distance swimmers and mountain climbers also rely on honey, not only to revive energy but for its tonic effect on the most heavily worked muscle of the body during strenuous effort—the heart.

Honey is now well recommended for sufferers with weak hearts, for the aged, and to overcome surgical shock. In postoperative cases honey is often injected intravenously instead of pure glucose, which often entails unfortunate aftereffects. European physicians have been prescribing 65 percent dry or whole milk with 25 percent honey and 10 percent glucose in cases of nutritional imbalance, alimentary dystrophy, postoperative loss of proteins, cardiovascular disease, nervous exhaustion, and asthenia. Reports have been extremely favorable.

Obviously, honey is universally acceptable—equally suitable to the healthy, the ill, the weak, the strong, the young, and the old. No age barrier exists. Giving infants honey has proven highly effective in building weight and preventing diarrhea accompanying an inability to absorb calcium and other elements. Honey has been proven superior to other sugars, including corn syrup, for its assistance in the retention of calcium.

Similar tests on the retentive capacities of honey and corn syrup in relation to magnesium produced identical results. Magnesium is concentrated most in the skeletal system—in the proportion of one to forty parts of calcium. The soft tissues utilize more magnesium than calcium, though not in the quantity the skeletal system requires. Magnesium has a number of functions, including activating the phosphatase and glycolytic enzyme system and preventing muscular and nervous irritability.

The bactericidal properties of honey are quite extraordinary due to several factors, one being the acids present, another being a hygroscopic capacity that forms an unfavorable environment for bacterial life. Also, the bacteria-killing substance inhibin has been recently isolated [from honey]. This combination of high-acid, hygroscopic, and germicidal factors accounts for the unique purity of honey and its remarkable preservability. It is also very probable that honey acts as an internal cleanser when eaten.

Such admirable qualities make honey an ideal food and one that cannot be adulterated to any great extent. Even the clarified honeys retain worthwhile fractions of their original elements, and, like any other natural food, they will not arouse an excessive craving. Refined sugar products are notorious for this pernicious effect, which leads to an unnatural appetite for candies, pastries, and soft drinks. Our per capita sugar consumption of over 100 pounds per annum, compared with less than 2 pounds of honey, is proof of that.

The intense sweetness of honey—double that of refined sugars—is immediately satisfying, and the slow absorption of levulose maintains a satiated feeling that prevents excessive intake. Refined sugar products, on the other hand, are immediately absorbed, and the system can develop an exaggerated capacity for consumption.

Modern science endorses the reverence of the ancients for “the nectar of the gods.” Though lacking modern scientific knowledge, the ancients knew all about the flavor, color, aroma, fermentation, crystallization, and preservability of honey. Their knowledge was sufficient for practical purposes, and modern research has paralleled their empirical conclusions.

Nothing of startling importance in the study of honey developed for many years until the recent amazing and sensational interest in the queen bee’s royal jelly. Many popular articles have publicized the purported power of royal jelly to reactivate sexual functions and prolong life. Mr. R.B. Willson, director of the American Honey Institute and active in other organizations of the industry, has written a most factual and interesting review of the current status of royal jelly.

Though reporting many interesting developments, Mr. Willson’s report leans to caution and scientific objectivity. Because [the promise of] sexual stimulation and a wish for longevity can give rise to misguided and fanciful notions, this review is all the more valuable. It is free of the ballyhoo that numerous writers have used to extol royal jelly as the long awaited elixir that will extend life for extra decades.

It is admittedly difficult to remain unimpressed upon realizing that royal jelly can transform a tiny insect into a glamorous, highly sexed queen bee. However, comparing the queen bee to a worker bee is misleading because the worker is actually a castrated, immature specimen that lives a shortened life of two to six months. The difference in size, life span, and procreative ability is known to be due to the deprivation of nutritional elements that only the queen bee is fed. She may therefore be only the normal, while workers and drones become subnormal from being denied the hormonal elements needed to stimulate full growth and development.

The future queen’s special food is responsible for her comparative longevity and amazing fertility, which enables her to lay more than her own weight in eggs each day for long periods. J. Langer, an Austrian scientist, made the first important and fundamental discovery about royal jelly in finding that it is a secretion of the pharyngeal glands of worker bees. It is comparable to the milk of mammals—also a product of glands—and is regarded consequently as the “milk” of honeybees. It also has the pungent odor and taste of cheese, conforming to the characteristic of milk products.

In recent years McCleskey and Mellampy, Haydak and Vivino, and Chedeling and Williams have devoted some study to royal jelly. They found a remarkable preservability in royal jelly despite its content of 65 percent moisture, 12.5 percent protein, 6 percent fat, and 4 percent undetermined. Ordinarily, exposing such a substance to the 90 to 95 degree temperature of the hives would result in decay, but the jelly is immune to it.

When a bacterial broth was inoculated with equal parts royal jelly, all the bacteria were dead within 1 minute, some in 15 seconds. When the proportion was reduced to one part jelly to ten parts bacterial culture, all bacteria were dead in 30 minutes. Certainly this is a high tribute to the germicides the jelly contains—far surpassing that of commercial carbolic acids available today.

Haydak and Vivino confirmed the vitamin assay of royal jelly previously completed by Pearson and Burgin, who found in it a highly concentrated source of pantothenic acid, the factor of the great family of the B complex that is associated with longevity.

Royal jelly is still unproven clinically, in spite of the many enthusiastic reports and claims. Much of these originated in France, where royal jelly has recently been the subject of many popular articles. Similar publicity has come from several beauty cream manufacturers capitalizing on its rarity and glamour by incorporating it into various brands of expensive creams.

Amid this furor the cautious scientific work of qualified investigators proceeds, though at a slow pace. In all probability the nutritive value of royal jelly will be eventually proven; whether it is much better than ordinary honey remains to be seen. It will require the same accurate clinical testing that has established honey as a highly desirable and nutritious food.

In brief, the scientific work of any authenticity on royal jelly has established these principal facts: that it is a glandular secretion comparable to the milk of mammals; that it is of variable vitamin content for larvae of different ages, though quite uniform in its gross composition; and that it has both a sex factor and a longevity factor, demonstrable [in] insects and certain mammals. Its value in human nutrition requires further study.

Summary and Conclusions

Honey is a remarkable product of natural food processing through the agency of the bee. It is almost totally immune from decomposition and universally suitable to the old, the young, the robust, and the ailing. It fits well into every diet, and though it is extremely palatable, it never leads to excessive craving. It permits but little modification and is undoubtedly nutritionally best as comb honey, with its pollen included.

Now that the world is becoming more and more conscious of the value of unrefined foods in human nutrition, the place of honey in the diet deserves high consideration. Uncooked honey is excellent as a spread on waffles, biscuits, and all other forms of bread; as a sweetener in sandwich fillings; and with various kinds of butters. It can be served as a sauce with ice cream, and some varieties also can be used in place of sugar to make ice cream.

Practically every dessert can be made with honey, including pies, meringues, jellies, confections, candied fruits, cakes, and cookies. Honey can be substituted for sugar in salad dressings, baked ham, custards, and puddings. All in all, it has a multitude of uses, which it has fulfilled admirably throughout the history of man as a highly pleasant, palatable food that is also nutritionally superior.

By William Miller. Original publisher unknown. Reprinted by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, Reprint 119, 1955. Received for publication September 25, 1955. 

Bibliography

1. Haydak, M.H. “Nutritional Value of Honey.” American Bee Journal, 95:185, 1955.
2. Haydak, M.H., Palmer, L.S., Tanquary, M.C., and Vivino, A.E. “Vitamin Content of Honeys.” Jour. Nut., 23:581; 24(6), 1942.
3. Haydak, M.H., Palmer, L.S., and Tanquary, M.C. “Role of Honey in Prevention and Cure of Nutritional Anemia in Rats.” Jour. Pediatrics, 21:763, 1943.
4. Haydak, M.H., and Vivino, A.E. “The Changes in the Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin and Pantothenic Acid Content in the Food of Female Honeybees During Growth with a Note on the Vitamin K Activity of Royal Jelly and Beebread.” Reprinted from Annals of the Entomological Soc. of America, Vol. 43, No. 3, Sept. 1950.
5. Jarvis, D.C. “Honey and Your Diabetes.” American Bee Journal, 95:196, 1955.
6. Knott, E.M., Shukers, C.F., and Schlutz, F.W. “The Effect of Honey Upon Calcium Retention in Infants.” Jour. Pediatrics, 19:485–494, 1941.
7. Langer, J. “Der Futersaft, die Kost der Bienenbindes.” Bienen Vater, 61:25–30; 45–8, 1929.
8. Lothrop, R.E. “Potential Alkalinity of Honey: Its Acid-Base Value as a Food.” Jour. Nut., 11:511, 1936.
9. McClesky and Melampy, R.M. “Bactericidal Properties of Royal Jelly.” Jour. Econ. Ent., 32:581–7, 1939.
10. Melampy, R.M., and Jones, D.B. “Chemical Composition and Vitamin Content of Royal Jelly.” Proc. Soc. Expt. Biol. Med., 41:382, 1939.
11. Pearson, P.B., and Burgin C.J. “The Pantothenic Acid Content of Royal Jelly.” Proc. Soc. Expt. Biol. Med., 48:415–7, 1941.
12. Perlenfein, H.H. “A Survey of Vitamin F.” Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, Report No. 3, February 1942.
13. Schlutz, F.W., Knott, E.M., and Gedgout, J.L. “The Comparative Value of Various Carbohydrates Used in Infant Feeding.” Jour. Pediatrics, 13:465–473, 1938.
14. Schuette, H.A., et al. “Mineral Constituents of Honey.” Food Research, 2:529–538; 3:543–553; 4:349–353, 1937–1944.
15. Schuette, H.A., and Remy, K. “Degree of Pigmentation and Its Probable Relationship to the Mineral Constituents of Honey.” Jour. Amer. Chem. Soc., 54:2909–13, 1932.
16. Shukers, C.F., et al. “Magnesium Tolerance Studies with Infants.” Jour. Nutr., 22:55–64, 1941.
17. Springer, G.A. Natural Food Cookery. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, 1955.
18. Townsend, G.F., and C.C. Lucas. “The Chemical Nature of Royal Jelly.” Bioch. Jour., 34:1155–62, 1940.
19. Vignec, A.J., and Julia, J.F. “Honey in Infant Feeding.” Amer. Jour. Disease Children, 88:43–5, 1954.
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21. Willson, R.B. “Royal Jelly: A Review.” Amer. Bee Journ., 95:15–21 and 95:55–59.

Reprint No. 119
Price – 10 cents
Reprinted by Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, nor shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.

Patrick Earvolino, CN

Patrick Earvolino is a Certified Nutritionist and Special Projects Editor for Selene River Press, Inc.

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