Ottawa Honey House

Know your honey

Healthy, hype or magic?

Honey Thermometered

Fig 1. Is honey healthy?

More than a dozen people this past month have approached me and espoused the health benefits of honey, bee pollen and/or royal jelly. There is a passion with which people speak of the healthiness of these substances that makes me want to believe it’s true. Who wouldn’t want to live longer and feel healthier?

For over a month I’ve scoured both the internet and electronic journal databases to learn more about the beneficial qualities of bee products and it’s been disturbing how much these sources differ in their findings. Please understand that as a beekeeper who will be selling bee products I really do want to find evidence that the harvest from my hives is super-healthy and uber-awesome. I would like to inform my future customers but I first want to ensure that the information I provide them is accurate and scientifically tested.

I’ve found a plethora of magazine articles and a few videos which tout a multitude of bee product benefits. One article published in NaturalLifeMagazine.com even went so far as to claim different honey varieties have distinctive “beneficial qualities”:

Natural Life Magazine 2004

Table 1. Unsubstantiated benefits of honey

It’s been a struggle, however, finding reliable scientific peer-reviewed research on the subject. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to be found; testimonials from people about what happened when they introduced a bee product into their diet. There is, however, a lack of controlled clinical trials on bee product ingestion.

Fig 2. Pollen Granules

Fig 2. Pollen Granules

Bee products do contain nutrients, amino acids and some of the much heralded anti-oxidants (whose alleged benefits are a discussion for another time) but it’s important to consider the benefit vs. cost of bee products as a delivery system for “healthy” compounds.

Bee pollen nutrition: Bee pollen has been described as “the most nutrient dense food” on the planet and I’m not going to argue the point. Pollen is definitely an excellent source of nutrition especially if your stomach is the size of a golf-ball. If, however, your stomach can handle a sandwich you can get all of the same protein and nutrients in a larger yet more cost-effective (and tastier) package.

Bee pollen anti-allergen: There’s a fair amount of fervour about bee pollen supplements helping to reduce seasonal allergies. I’ve seen these claims being backed up by data from the “Journal of Allergy” with a bunch of great statistics:

“73 % of patients with hay fever averaged a 75% improvement in their symptoms when given Bee Pollen orally and 78% of patients with asthma averaged a 75% improvement after taking bee pollen”

but I cannot find any actual peer reviewed scholarly article which contains these statistics. In fact I’ve been unable to find ANY controlled clinical results which confirm that ingesting bee pollen reduces allergies in humans.

Royal Jelly Magic: Royal Jelly has been described as having almost magical qualities. It’s miraculous ability to transform what would’ve been a common worker bee into a queen has been used as a parallel for it’s ability to work wonders in humans. This is an example of the human brain’s ability to associate like with like. This effect (also known as the magician’s folly or sympathetic magic) is also found in traditional Chinese medicine where extracts made from tiger are supposed to make you strong because tigers are strong. In the spring of 2011 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that there was “no evidence to suggest that royal jelly could boost the immune system or vitality” and that the claim that bee pollen and royal jelly balances hormone activity in menopausal women was too “general and non-specific” to be referring to the treatment of a specific health claim. I have also been unable to find any credible evidence of a relationship between ingesting royal jelly and improvements in human fertility or ovulation.

Honey nutrition: Although the composition of honey is variable depending on which nectar sources were used in it’s production it is safe to say that honey is mainly glucose and fructose dissolved in some water with a smattering of enzymes, other proteins and trace amounts of minerals. If you’re looking for a sweetener honey is the most delicious shelf-stable calorie delivery system available but if your looking for a source of protein or minerals or anti-oxidants you’d be better off having a salad with toasted walnuts and dried cranberries.

Honey as antibiotic: The sugar to water ratio of honey is too high to support life. Bacteria and moulds can’t survive in honey as the osmotic pressure differential between the inside of a micro-organism and the honey that surrounds it will suck the water right out of the micro-organism. It’s this high sugar content (low water activity) that causes honey to be shelf-stable for thousands of years. Diluted honey (eg. injested honey or the honey found in moistening beauty products) doesn’t retain it’s initial antibiotic properties and it most often becomes food for whatever microbes are afoot. There is evidence, however, that under the right conditions (an oxygenated environment within a specific pH rage) an enzyme in raw honey can convert some of the glucose molecules into germ killing hydrogen peroxide. This quality doesn’t mean that raw honey is a miracle bug-killer. If you’re still convinced that dilute raw honey will kill off pathogens I ask you to consider the live yeast populations that ferment watery honey into mead. The bottom line is that although honey could be used as a dressing for surface wounds there are far more convenient and efficacious substances for the task (eg. Polysporin) .

Honey enzymes: There’s also the matter of the “active enzymes” found in raw honey which are supposed to be beneficial to the human digestive system. Not only is there limited evidence in the literature on the benefits of exogenous (externally introduced) digestive enzymes but the human digestive system breaks down proteins shortly after ingestion. Yes the enzymes (most enzymes are proteins) in raw honey aren’t denatured before they go in your mouth but they are likely altered from their active state within minutes of being swallowed.

The EFSA also determined that a relationship cannot be established between honey and the protection of cells and molecules from oxidative damage, defence against pathogens, or the maintenance of blood cholesterol concentrations. So if local raw honey isn’t a super-food and it doesn’t cure cancer of the pinky toe why would anyone buy it?   The most obvious answer is because it TASTES good. Two important but less obvious answers are:

  • Supporting local beekeepers is one way for you to help increase your local pollinator populations. Bees are struggling right now and can use all the help they can get.
  • Moving away from sugar as your sweetener is a way to stop supporting the negative environmental and social repercussions of sugar cane production.
Fig 3. Apis Mellifera in flight by Alexander Wild

Fig 3. Apis Mellifera in flight by Alexander Wild

This is a controversial topic with plenty of passion on all sides and I would very much like to find evidence to back up the claims that I’ve heard. I’ve contacted some of the periodicals containing bee product information in search of their references but haven’t yet heard back from them. If you know of scholarly research that has been done on the effects of ingesting bee products on human health and can provide the name of author, the journal in which it was published and the date of publication I’d be very happy to update this post and share it here.

 

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2 comments on “Healthy, hype or magic?

  1. I’m not sure exactly why but this weblog is loading extremely slow for me.
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    • beewhispers
      May 15, 2014

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2014 by in Bee Philosophy, Bee Research, Honey Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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