Carbohydrates | Sugars | 18 December 2018
Honey is a natural ingredient used for its sweetness, energy and potential health benefits. There are hundreds of different honey types such as clover, acacia or manuka, depending on the botanical origin. This article explores how honey is made, describes its composition, and discusses research on its reported health effects.
The journey from bee to bottle begins with flower nectar. Honeybees collect the nectar and enzymes in bee saliva break down the sugar into glucose and fructose which is stored in honeycombs to feed the hive over the winter. In the honeycomb, excess water evaporates through constant fanning from the bee’s wings. The resulting thick, sticky liquid is what we know as honey (see Table 1 for composition)1.
The European Union’s largest honey yields are found in Spain, Germany, Romania and Hungary2. However, as successful honey production depends on the honey bee thriving, it is of concern that Europe is seeing a significant decline in bee colonies (21% in the winter 2016/2017 alone)3.
Honeybees not only produce honey but undertake an important role as crop pollinators. Given that 84% of the EU’s crops depend on pollination, the European Commission developed a strategy for honeybee health.4 Multiple factors contribute to the decline in bees; one of which may be pesticides, which prompted the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to issue guidance on assessing the potential risks of pesticides to bees and more recently work towards the development of a database to actively collect information on bee health in Europe4,5.
Season, environmental conditions, processing techniques and varieties of flower nectar can all influence the composition of honey but, essentially, the main nutritional constituents are carbohydrates (simple sugars: fructose and glucose – LINK to carbs the basics article). In addition to water, honey contains very small amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, enzymes and polyphenols, including flavonoids from pollen, which can help identify the honey origin6.
Table 1. Nutritional composition of honey*7
Per 100 g
Per 20 g serving
288 kcal/1229 kJ
58 kcal/246 kJ
- fructose (g)
- glucose (g)
*based on analysis of 8 samples of assorted types.
Honey is typically a smooth liquid containing imperceptible tiny crystals. However, factors such as its origin, low storage temperature, longer storage time and higher glucose content, can all lead to crystallisation; larger crystals form and the texture becomes crunchy. The process can be momentarily reversed by gentle heating. However, heating and filtering of honey (to purify) may negatively affect its properties by for example darkening the colour, destroying enzymes, and removing health-beneficial anti-oxidants.
Honey & health
Honey has been used for millennia in traditional medicine for its potential antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Honey specifically prepared for medical use can be applied topically for wound dressings. Honey’s low moisture content, hydrogen peroxide, and acidity (average pH of 3.9) are inhospitable to bacteria and give honey its antibacterial properties8. The anti-inflammatory properties are thought to be due to antioxidant substances8, although the amounts in individual honey samples differ depending on honey origin, composition and dose6. Some evidence from individual and small-scale cell, animal and human studies also suggest that honey may be beneficial in the treatment of coughs, belly and digestive upsets8. Finally, honey may contain spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can cause serious infection in infants, leading to advice to avoid giving honey to children below 12 months of age9.
Overall, the evidence that honey has specific health effects in humans is severely limited, with large-scale studies in humans missing to underpin the current claims about its health promoting properties.
- National Honey Board (2014). How honey is made.
- European Parliament (2011) Key facts about Europe’s honey market.
- Brodschneider et al. (2018). Multi-country loss rates of honey bee colonies during winter 2016/2017 from the COLOSS survey. Journal of Apicultural Research, 57, 452-457.
- European Food Safety Authority (2018). Bee Health. Accessed 20 August 2018.
- European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (2013). Guidance on the risk assessment of plant protection products on bees (Apis mellifera, bombus spp. and solitary bees). Parma, Italy: EFSA. 6.
- Bogdanov S, et al. (2008). Honey for nutrition and health: a review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 27:677-689.
- McCance RA & Widdowson EM (2010). The composition of foods (pp. 334-335) 6th Ed. Cambridge, England: Food Standards Agency.
- Pasupuleti et al. (2017) Honey, propolis and royal jelly: a comprehensive review of their biological actions and health benefits.
- Scientific committee on veterinary measures relating to public health (2002). Opinion of the scientific committee on veterinary measures relating to public health on honey and microbiological hazards. Brussels: European Commission.