The sweet truth about honey and your heart

We’ve been hearing the drumbeat for a while now — too much sugar is bad for your health. But does that mean all sugar?

If a food naturally contains carbohydrates, then it contains naturally occurring sugar. That includes pretty much all fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products.

Consuming this type of sugar is not so bad. Your body digests these foods slowly, allowing your body to steadily convert the sugar into energy.

But when it comes to other sweet options, there are some you definitely need to avoid — and one that offers newly discovered benefits that should make your choice of sweetener a little easier…

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Beware of (most) added sugars

The problem starts with added sugars. Food manufacturers add many different forms of sugar to their products to increase their flavor and/or extend their shelf life.

Excess sugar consumption has been implicated in everything from obesity and diabetes to high blood pressure, inflammation, fatty liver and a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Some more obvious sources of added sugar include soft drinks, ice cream, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, cereal, candy and baked sweets. But sugar is also added to many processed foods we don’t think of as sweet, including ketchup, soups, bread and cured meats.

Because of all this, the average American consumes roughly 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That’s equal to an extra 270 calories!

Some added sugars are chemically derived, like that infamous bad boy high fructose corn syrup. Others are considered more natural — like fruit juice concentrates, molasses and honey.

But there’s been debate about whether natural added sugars are any healthier.

The answer is complicated — but leans towards “yes” in the case of honey.

At 80 percent sugar, honey is definitely a source of added calories. However, it also has shown a number of health benefits beyond those of other natural sweeteners….

Honey lowers cardiometabolic risks

Your cardiometabolic health encompasses many of the factors you may be familiar with in regard to metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and larger waist circumference.

In a review of clinical trials, researchers at the University of Toronto found honey improves key measures of cardiometabolic health. This is especially true of raw honey from a single flower source.

When selecting the studies, the researchers were careful to include only those studies in which the participants followed a healthy diet, with added sugars accounting for 10 percent or less of daily caloric intake.

The studies reviewed by the researchers showed honey lowered fasting blood glucose levels, as well as total and LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides and a marker of fatty liver disease. Honey also increased HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and some markers of inflammation.

Tauseef Khan, a senior researcher on the study and a University of Toronto research associate, observes that honey is a complex composition of common and rare sugars along with proteins, organic acids and other bioactive compounds. These ingredients very likely have health benefits, he adds.

“The word among public health and nutrition experts has long been that ‘a sugar is a sugar,’” says John Sievenpiper, principal investigator and a University of Toronto professor. “These results show that’s not the case, and they should give pause to the designation of honey as a free or added sugar in dietary guidelines.”

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Honey: A healthy replacement

Khan cautions that the researchers aren’t saying to add honey if you’re currently avoiding sugar. “The takeaway is more about replacement — if you’re using table sugar, syrup or another sweetener, switching those sugars for honey might lower cardiometabolic risks,” he says.

The average daily dose of honey in the studies was 40 grams or about two tablespoons, and the average study length was eight weeks. Raw honey showed many beneficial effects, as did honey from single sources of flowers such as clover, a common North American honey, and Robinia, which is marketed as acacia honey.

Khan notes that, unlike raw honey, processed honey clearly loses many of its health benefits after pasteurization, typically at 65 degrees Celsius for at least 10 minutes. However, putting raw honey in a hot beverage likely doesn’t destroy all its benefits, he adds.

The researchers say future studies should focus on unprocessed honey from a single floral source, with the goal being higher quality evidence and a better understanding of the health benefits in honey’s many compounds.

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Sweet: Honey Reduces Cardiometabolic Risks, U of T Study Shows — University of Toronto

Effect of honey on cardiometabolic risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis — Nutrition Reviews

The sweet danger of sugar — Harvard Health Publishing

Added Sugar — Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.