Honey Has Variety of Health Benefits

Researchers Say Honey's Antioxidant Content Is a Boon for Health

Medically Reviewed by Dominique Walton, MD on July 19, 2000
From the WebMD Archives

July 19, 2000 -- Winnie-the-Pooh may have been a "bear of very little brain," but he was ahead of his time when it came to his fondness for honey. Pooh's favorite dish has components that may help prevent cancer and promote wound healing, according to a report in a recent issue of Nutrition Today.

But because infants don't have the constitution to fight off a particular type of food poisoning associated with honey, pediatricians advise against feeding it to children under age 1.

"Beekeeping probably dates back 5,000 years to the Egyptians, who used honey for food, medicine, and embalming," says author Ann Coulston, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant and past president of the American Dietetic Association. "And today, there are over 200 million pounds produced every year in the U.S. alone," she adds.

With 64 calories in each tablespoon, honey is more than just sugar and water. It contains several antioxidants, including vitamin E and related substances, flavonoids, and phenolics, which are found in many fruits, such as apples and bananas. It also contains ascorbic acid, or vitamin C.

Studies have shown that the antioxidant content of honey varies by floral source, with dark buckwheat honey containing the most and lighter honey containing the least.

Doctors say a diet rich in antioxidants helps prevent cancer. "Antioxidants protect our genes against damage from free radicals," says Mitchell Gaynor, MD, assistant professor at Cornell University and director of medical oncology and integrative medicine at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center in New York City. "After reacting with oxygen, free radicals are unstable molecules that steal atoms from other molecules," he explains.

Besides honey, a balanced diet should include many other antioxidants. "Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants and fiber, all of which should be part of an anticancer diet," Gaynor tells WebMD. "You should also consider dietary supplements such as folic acid, calcium, and selenium," he advises.

Because honey was used to treat burns and ulcers in ancient times, there's renewed interest in its use as a wound dressing. In fact, recent studies suggest that honey reduces swelling, prevents bacterial growth, and provides a moist environment for healing.

But before honey is used in clinical practice, experts say the findings have to be repeated in larger studies. "It looks as though honey might have some merit, but before we can use it as a wound dressing, we need to know more," says Jo Ann Waldrop, MSN, RN, CWOCN, assistant program manager of the Wound Ostomy and Continence Nursing Education Center at Emory University in Atlanta.

Until the data are in, the best advice is to stick with the basics. "You can provide a moist healing environment by just covering minor wounds with a Band-Aid," Waldrop tells WebMD. "Some brands are now coated with antibiotic ointment, and others are waterproof," she adds.

But despite its long history and bright future, honey has been associated with food poisoning. Since infant botulism, a type of food poisoning, was first recognized in 1976, there have been more than 1,200 cases reported. Fortunately, new reports declined after the American Academy of Pediatrics advised against feeding honey to children under the age of 1.

Infant botulism is caused by dormant bacteria that aren't killed with heat disinfection. Older children and adults aren't affected, but infants don't have enough "healthy" intestinal bacteria to fight the disease.

Vital Information:

  • Honey is a source of antioxidants, compounds known for their cancer-prevention properties, and dark buckwheat honey has the most.
  • Experts warn that children under age 1 should not eat honey, because there is a risk of food poisoning.
  • Scientists are also looking into whether honey can be used to treat wounds, because it reduces swelling, prevents bacterial growth, and provides a moist environment for healing.