Not many people would argue that pure, unadulterated honey is one of the most delicious tastes in the world. But very few are aware of the benefits of honey on human health, which range from providing vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients to improving metabolic health and boosting the immune system.
In this article, we’ll dive into the history of honey, how it has been used as a sacred food for thousands of years, its unique nutritional profile and variety of health benefits, as well as how honey matches up against other "healthy" sweeteners.
What is Honey?
Honey is the sweet, viscous liquid produced by bees made with the nectar of flowering plants. Honeybees collect nectar and turn it into honey through a fascinating process that involves their own digestive enzymes and water evaporation. Whether bees are living wild, or domesticated and looked after by beekeepers, they work diligently to make honey their entire lives.
Unlike many sugars and artificial sweeteners available on the market today, bees create an entirely natural, unrefined sweetener that is highly nutritious and even medicinal when consumed mindfully.
Honey Throughout History
The majority of sweeteners in the modern diet are highly refined, meaning they are put through a large amount of processing before they make it to grocery store shelves. Although many sources of sugar are derived from naturally sweet foods like beets or corn, the refining process strips many of these whole foods of their nutrients and fiber that work to slow down the metabolism of sugar and keep blood glucose levels in check.
Additionally, the more processed a sugar is, the more concentrated the sweetness becomes. For example, cane sugar in its raw form is highly fibrous. Although sweet to taste, the amount of sugar it provides is naturally limited by the delivery system, which contains a large amount of fiber and requires a tiresome amount of chewing. You would have to chew on a natural sugar cane stick for hours to get the same amount of sugar that’s dumped from a small brown packet into a Starbucks coffee in the blink of an eye.
Honey, on the other hand, is naturally sweet without any added processing. Having remained unchanged throughout history, honey has played a crucial role in providing our hunter-gatherer ancestors with nutrition during certain times of the year. Some scientists believe that honey, as well as starchy vegetables, provided our ancestors with the concentrated glucose required for brain development and evolution. Unlike meat, honey does not leave fossil records to highlight how important the food may have been to our ancestors, but behavioral ecologists and nutritional anthropologists are making the case in other ways.
The very first written reference to honey dates back to 2100-2000 BC, where the Sumerian tablets describe honey as an ointment and a drug. Rock art depicting bees, honeycomb, and honey collecting methods dating back 40,000 years have been found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
The Hadza tribe in Tanzania use certain bird species to lead them to hives and then smoke out the bees by burning nearby bushes. The men from the Gurung tribe in Nepal climb down a hundred feet on bamboo and hemp rope ladders in handmade bee-protective suits to harvest psychotropic honey on cliffsides. And of course, there are our primate cousins, who harvest honey from stingless bees directly with their hands and mouths or use sticks and other tools to access honey from stinging bees.
Congo’s Mbuti and Efé pygmies’ caloric intake can include up to 80% honey during a few months of the year. The modern hunter-gatherer Hadza tribe consumes as much as 20% of their diet by weight, meaning that honey represents a major part of their overall caloric intake. One study hypothesizes that honey may have played as big a role in the diet of our ancestors as sugar does today!
Our ancestors actually prized sweet foods for their ability to provide ample nutrients and a quick source of energy. Their regular consumption of these natural sugars paired with vibrant health may demonstrate that carbohydrates themselves are not the sole driver or disease and obesity, and the presence of sugar in the diet alone is not enough to predicate poor health. (In our opinion, it really depends on the source: Not all sugar is created equal.)
On the other hand, instead of valuing nutritional density, modern diet culture promotes low caloric (and nutritionally void) foods in the pursuit of perfect bodies. However, the substitution of low-calorie, artificial, and nutrient-poor sweeteners isn’t doing much for our collective health, but instead, merely leaves us craving the real stuff.
Nutritional Benefits of Honey
Honey is so much more than just a sweetener. Although it contains natural sugars, it also contains a surprisingly low (albeit varying) glycemic load, as well as a wide range of micronutrients and nutritional benefits. Here are a few of the benefits of honey.
Honey contains over 181 nutritional substances, including:
- 25 different oligosaccharides
- Amino acids (including proline, phenylalanine, tyrosine, lysine, arginine, glutamic acid, histidine, and valine)
- Vitamins (including ascorbic acid, pantothenic acid, niacin, and riboflavin)
- Minerals (including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc)
- Trace elements
You might call it "liquid gold."
Although all these quantities are provided in microdoses (particularly considering the average serving size), honey is still a considerably nutrient-dense food, especially when compared to other modern sweeteners.
A single serving of honey (one tablespoon) generally contains 64 calories and 17 grams of carbohydrate.
Honey generally contains approximately 38 percent fructose and 31 percent glucose (the rest being mostly water), but the glycemic index actually varies wildly depending on the botanical source. Certain flowering plants provide a sweeter honey than others, and there are actually over 30 kinds of honey!
It’s important to note that although the glycemic index (a relative ranking of carbohydrates in food to how they affect blood glucose levels) varies, honey’s glycemic load (how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose after eating it) remains relatively low.
A low glycemic load means honey is readily absorbed without significantly spiking blood glucose, resulting in stable energy levels.
The Health Benefits of Honey
The "sugar is sugar" mentality being perpetuated by the low-carb community is truly misguided. Albeit a source of sugar, honey is rising above the rest and increasing evidence suggests that honey is actually a functional food that has a unique impact on human physiology. The health benefits of honey include:
- Beneficial impacts on cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein.
- Lowered blood glucose and homocysteine levels.
- Increased serum antioxidant levels, including glutathione reductase.
- Reduction in plasma prostaglandin, a marker of inflammation, in as little as 15 days.
- Potent antibacterial properties, which may be beneficial against certain infections.
Although a spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, it turns out a spoonful of honey may itself be the medicine!
Why We Use Honey in Our Kion Bar
Many people have questions about why honey is used in our Kion Bar, so let’s explore the many reasons why honey is one of our all-star ingredients.
Many energy bars contain sneaky, sweet-tasting, artificial ingredients that can make them appear low-calorie or low-carbohydrate at first glance. A common ingredient is isomalto-oligosaccharide (IMO), a high-maltose syrup made up of a mixture of short-chain carbohydrates. Although this substance is marketed as a zero-calorie, prebiotic-rich sweetener, a deeper look will reveal that most bars use artificial sources of IMO that don’t actually live up to these claims.
We definitely wanted the Kion Bar to taste delicious but were committed to using a natural sweetener that wasn’t empty calories and still provided a nutritional punch. Honey adds that touch of sweetness to the bar, along with a host of micronutrients and beneficial compounds you can feel good about.
Low Glycemic Load (GL)
Although honey’s glycemic index and load values vary depending on the source of the honeybees nectar, its GL remains relatively low. Honey has even been shown in human studies to reduce blood glucose in comparison to other sources of sugar.
The impact that honey has on blood sugar also depends on what else it is being consumed with. Honey in the Kion Bar is paired with 10 grams of clean protein, and 13 grams of satiating healthy fats, both of which help to buffer against a blood sugar crash from consuming pure carbohydrate.
Despite a moderate 19 grams of carbohydrates, the Kion Bar also contains natural fiber from chia seeds, almonds, and kaniwa that help to slow the absorption of glucose. The high amounts of natural fiber also bring the net carbohydrate level down to 14 grams. Moreover, carbohydrates in the bar actually act like a shuttle for protein to make its way to your muscles, making it a great combination to refuel glycogen stores during or after exercise, or provide the body with a boost of clean energy on-the-go.
As a thick, viscous substance, honey is the ideal natural binder. A large majority of energy bars (and packaged or processed foods in general) contain added binders to hold them together. These include various processed starches, flours, lecithin, and artificial ingredients that have no business being in a "healthy" energy bar. Using natural honey allows us to create a bar that’s based entirely on whole, real foods while still standing up against the rigors of an adventurous life.
Honey has provided a nutritious and unprocessed source of food for humans and animals throughout history. Although sugar has been demonized in recent times, honey stands apart from other sweetener sources and has been scientifically proven to have a positive impact on human physiology and health. Its vast micronutrient profile makes honey a nutritionally dense food and pure source of energy that leaves you fueled and ready to conquer the day.
Experience the health benefits and delicious taste of pure, organic honey yourself with our Kion Bar, a chocolatey-coconuty-crunchy blend of real, whole food energy sources.