What researchers are learning about honey’s possible health benefits.
By Julie Edgar
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
Honey has a long medicinal history. The ancient Egyptians not only made offerings of honey to their gods, they also used it as an embalming fluid and a dressing for wounds. On that last point, at least, they were on to something.
Today, many people swarm to honey for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Holistic practitioners consider it one of nature’s best all-around remedies.
But outside of the laboratory, claims for honey’s healthfulness are unproven — except in the area of wound care and, to a lesser extent, cough suppression.
Here’s the truth behind the claims about honey’s health benefits — and an important warning.
Never Give Honey to an Infant
Honey is natural and considered harmless for adults. But pediatricians strongly caution against feeding honey to children under 1 year old.
“Do not let babies eat honey,” states foodsafety.gov, a web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s because of the risk of botulism. The spores of the botulism bacteria are found in dust and soil that may make their way into honey. Infants do not have a developed immune system to defend against infection, says Jatinder Bhatia, MD, a Georgia neonatologist who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition.
“It’s been shown very clearly that honey can give infants botulism,” a paralytic disorder in which the infant must be given anti-toxins and often be placed on a respirator in an intensive care unit, he says. Bhatia has never seen a case of infant botulism.
But parents may feed their infants cereals that contain honey, he says. “It’s cooked, so it’s OK,” Bhatia says. He explains that when it comes to botulism risk, “we’re talking about honey out of the bottle.”
The National Honey Board, which the USDA oversees, also agrees that infants should not be given honey. “The concern for babies stems from the fact that infants lack the fully developed gastrointestinal tract of older humans,” the Board’s web site states.
In the laboratory, honey has been shown to hamper the growth of food-borne pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, and to fight certain bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, both of which are common in hospitals and doctors’ offices. But whether it does the same in people hasn’t been proven.
Shop for honey and you’ll see that some are lighter, others are darker. In general, the darker the honey, the better its antibacterial and antioxidant power.
Honey comes in many varieties, depending on the floral source of pollen or nectar gathered and regurgitated by the honey bee upon arrival in the hive.
Honey producers may apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a grade on their product, but the score does not account for color. Rather, the honey is judged for clarity, aroma, and flavor, and the absence of sediments, such as honeycomb particles.