While I was at the Experimental Biology conference earlier this week, I had the chance to have some great scientific conversations about a hot topic: sugars. One interesting conversation was with a student who firmly believed that because honey contained “some nutrients”, it would be a superior choice of sweetener, over food sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup. She argued, “You can’t tell me that you’d choose corn syrup over the honey? Honey provides nutrients!”
I told her that honey mostly supplies sugar to our body. While the student couldn’t list the nutrients in honey when queried, the astonished look on her face clearly gave me the idea that she was certain I was out of my mind for not recommending honey as THE sweetener because it contained “other nutrients”. I explained that the trace nutrients in honey are not significant. I would never recommend honey as a good source of any vitamin or mineral for example, since it’s primarily sugar (a simple carbohydrate).
Honey Nutrition Facts
I like honey. It has a unique flavor and is wonderful in tea. I often use it to make salad dressings or marinades when I want to add a touch of sweetness. But I don’t recommend it as a good source of calcium or B vitamins. According to the USDA 1 tablespoon of honey provides about 64 calories as 17 grams of carbohydrate (sugar) and only provides 1 milligram of calcium (there are about 350-400 in an 8-ounce glass of milk), 0.1 milligrams of Vitamin C (there are about 60 milligrams in 6 ounces of orange juice or a cup of strawberries), and 0.017 milligrams of niacin (there are about 18 milligrams in a serving of chicken). So, do you see my point?
Man VS Bees
Anther notion is that honey is “more natural” than other sweeteners. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are made from natural crops (sugarcane and corn) and are processed to create sweeteners. I’ll often hear people voice concerned about “processed foods” but they may also put a health halo on other foods, “organic foods” for instance, even though many of them are processed as well.
So, what’s a process? While made by bees, and not humans, honey results from bee regurgitation, and there is “processing” which must occur to get honey from the bee’s mouth, to his stomach, (“Ew!” you say? And you thought Pink Slime was bad) and finally to the jar, just as processing must occur to manufacture other caloric sweeteners.
In the case of honey, it’s the bees running the production (and man only steps in to empty the honeycombs, strain, and get it into a jar or squeeze bottle fit for human consumption). Bees get nectar from plants then store the nectar in their special “honey stomach”. When they fly back to the hive, the nectar is transferred to another worker bee, via mouth-to-mouth, who then treats the nectar with his own enzymes, and transfers the watery nectar to the combs, where it makes its final conversion to a more viscous liquid over time (mostly via evaporation). The bees also hasten the evaporation process by fanning the combs with their wings.
No matter what your preference, the end result of all of these processes – whether by man or bee, whether honey, table sugar, or high fructose corn syrup – is sugar: A mixture of fructose and glucose. Read labels, and consume less of it.