Do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you’re like many people worldwide who crave the vast assortment of deliciously sweet foods that tempt us on a daily basis. There’s nothing wrong with having a sweet tooth, but it requires that we indulge in moderation and choose healthier, more natural sources of the sweetness we crave.
For many of us, that means reaching for raw honey. But what’s the difference between raw honey and regular honey? And what are the benefits of raw honey vs. sugar? We’ll answer those questions and more below.
Refined Sugar and Your Health
While having an attraction for sweet flavors, and thus sugars, has been an evolutionary benefit for thousands of years, it’s become a huge disadvantage to our population over the past century. As sugar processing became more advanced, and sugar became a cheap commodity, it seemed that sugar was added to almost every processed food in one way or another.
As health concerns rose, we learned that high sugar consumption can be related to other health issues like unhealthy weight management, poor metabolic health, heart health concerns and decreased immune system function.1 Therefore, anyone who becomes health-conscious needs to make smart choices or seek other options when it comes to their consumption of refined sugar. One option is to minimize or eliminate processed sugars. The second option is making sure any isolated sugars consumed come from more natural, and nutritious sweeteners. This is where raw honey takes center stage.
What Is Raw Honey?
Raw honey has been used for at least 10,000 years playing a vital role in health, healing, religious and cultural traditions. Raw honey is essentially the same as the honey found in a beehive, except it’s been treated to a filtration process that includes straining the honey through a mesh or nylon cloth to eliminate impurities like dead bees and beeswax.2
Aside from the filtration, raw honey is honey in its pure, unheated, unpasteurized and unprocessed form. This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics and health benefits of the final product, as it preserves all the natural vitamins, essential minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients and other nutritional elements.3 True raw honey is quite different from processed, commercial honey for these main reasons.
Characteristics of Raw Honey
Raw honey can be purchased in liquid or solid (creamed) form. If you purchase raw honey that is in the liquid form, it may crystallize or solidify over time. Raw honey can be clear, or opaque, or milky. Its color can vary from white to various shades of yellow, and even brown.
All of these characteristics will depend on the type of flower that the bees retrieved the nectar for the honey from. It is not possible to tell whether honey is raw or pasteurized based on color, taste or form (liquid or solid) alone. While some honey experts believe that they can detect pure, raw honey by taste alone, this will not be the case for most of us.
How to Ensure You’re Buying Raw Honey
To ensure the honey you’re buying is raw, make sure to check the label. While there is currently no widespread, uniform regulation or certification for raw honey, words like "untreated" or "unpasteurized" can be helpful indicators, if not a 100% guarantee of a truly raw product.
While it goes without saying that any honey labeled as “pasteurized” is not raw, keep in mind that terms like “natural” or “pure” hold little significance in terms of whether or not you’re buying raw honey. For example, some beekeepers may not necessarily pasteurize their honey, but they may still heat it to some degree. If your honey label does not specifically say it is raw and it’s only labeled as untreated or unpasteurized it may not be raw. Contact the maker directly to be sure, or find a local farm or beekeeper you can trust, so you’ll know exactly where the honey comes from and how it’s prepared.
Why Organic Honey is Better
It is always best to source out raw, organic honey, and the only guarantee you’re getting a truly organic product is to look for the USDA Organic certification badge on the label. Beekeepers have to meet stringent production standards and conditions to be certified organic. Raw, organic honey cannot contain any pesticide residues or environmental pollutants. Organic hives also cannot use non-organic honey, sugar, or any antibiotics or pesticides for their bees.
Depending on your source, it is normal for raw honey to contain particles of bee pollen, honeycomb bits and propolis. These inclusions contribute to the popularity of raw honey because they can be beneficial to overall health.4
Natural Health Benefits of Raw Honey
First and foremost, being a sugar, raw honey offers a quick source of energy. It’s also a prebiotic food that helps the good bacteria in your gut thrive, provides many antioxidants and supports overall immune health. Key compounds within honey also provide additional benefits, which we’ll talk about more below.
The main health benefits for which we revere raw honey come from the unique blend of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other healthy components it possesses. The two key beneficial components of truly raw honey are bee pollen and propolis.
Bee Pollen in Raw Honey
Bee pollen is a super nutritious compound, containing an impressive number of the nutrients required by the human body. It is a source of proteins, vitamins, minerals, beneficial fatty acids, carotenoids and bioflavonoids, which are helpful to cardiovascular health.5 In fact, bee pollen contains over 250 active components, including a wide variety of antioxidants. Bee pollen is so incredibly healthy that some people take bee pollen supplements to gain even more of its health-boosting benefits.
Propolis in Raw Honey
Propolis is a resin-like mixture produced by bees to maintain and protect the hive. Bees make propolis with organic compounds they collect and it’s extremely rich in phenolic compounds, including 12 different flavonoids, plus many vitamins and minerals. The list of reported health benefits from propolis is as long and varied as the nutrients within it. Some benefits of raw honey include supporting immune system health, healthy blood sugar levels already within the normal range, healthy cholesterol levels already within the normal range and more.6 Raw honey does not ferment in the stomach and can actually be used in supporting digestive system health. Unlike most sugars, raw honey is not known to aggravate a sensitive digestive tract.6
Additionally, raw honey is alkaline forming, as opposed to acid forming, which means that it helps your body maintain a neutral alkaline balance. This is important because if alkaline is not obtained through diet, the body will leech calcium, which is an alkalizing mineral, from your bone structure.7 Natural honey, by contrast, is acid forming. For best natural health, our daily food supply should be higher in alkaline-forming foods, rather than acid-forming foods.
Things to Keep in Mind Regarding Raw Honey
While raw honey does have a place in a balanced diet, I’m also a proponent of “everything in moderation,” and raw honey consumption is, to be fair, something to avoid over-indulging in. With that in mind, there are a few raw honey concerns that every health- and planet-conscious individual should be aware of:
- Extra Calories – Honey is a fast way to add calories to a meal. 1 tablespoon on average yields 64 calories and 17 grams of carbs.8 Thus, if you are interested in losing weight, or not gaining excess pounds, you have to be careful about how much honey you use, and how often. Fortunately, due to honey’s intensely sweet flavor, it is hard to consume a lot of it at once.
- High Sugar Content – Honey is about 40% fructose and 30% glucose, with the remaining carbohydrates including maltose, sucrose, and other complex carbohydrates.9 Even though raw honey has been studied for aiding insulin regulation, regular or high consumption of any sugar can cause various imbalances.
- Bacterial Contamination – Because honey is very low in water content and very high in sugar content, this makes it undesirable for microbial growth. However, in rare cases, endospores of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that can cause botulism) have been found.10 This usually is isn’t a problem for an adult digestive system, but it’s why honey should not be given to infants.
- Bee Welfare – Fortunately, we live in times where concern over the welfare of other living creatures has become important to many people. Hence, buying honey from local beekeepers whom you know or companies who practice humane treatment is vital when purchasing raw honey.
- Disappearing Bees – Scientific reports show that bee numbers are on a sharp decline and this is naturally troublesome for our future food forecasts.11 We must remember that bees are responsible for the pollination of most of our plant food crops and without them, we face serious problems. Thus lowering the demand for honey has been proposed as a way to let bees thrive in their own natural habitat. Various chemicals, climate change and electromagnetic radiation are also being investigated in the issue of declining bee numbers.
Is it Safe to Eat Raw Honey?
In the end, raw honey can be beneficial to our health and environment if consumed in moderation and properly harvested by mindful beekeepers. It all depends on its source and how it is used. Raw honey can be a healthier and potentially beneficial replacement for refined sugar in your diet, but it’s essential to search for the right variety to cause minimal environmental damage and get maximum organic foods benefits.
If on the other hand, you can pass on this sweet substance, don’t forget that the beneficial compounds like bee pollen and propolis are available as nature-sourced health supplements as well.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like The Sugar Scare: How to Replace Sugar with Healthier Sugar Alternatives and 10 Ways to Sweeten Your Beauty Routine with Honey. Also, be sure to sign up for Swanson Health Emails to get expert advice and our best promotions delivered straight to your inbox.
1 Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/2/341/4607411
2 Processing of Honey: A Review. International Journal of Food Properties. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10942910600981708?scroll=top&needAccess=true
3 Phenolic Compounds in Honey and Their Associated Health Benefits: A Review. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6225430/
4 Biological Properties and Therapeutic Applications of Propolis. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26988443
5 Protective Effect of Polyphenol-Rich Extract from Bee Pollen in a High-Fat Diet https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29614743
6 Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5549483/
7 Benefits of Alkaline-Forming Nutrition. U.S. News & World Report. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/04/14/benefits-of-alkaline-forming-nutrition
8 USDA Food Composition Database. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/
9 Honey and Diabetes: The Importance of Natural Simple Sugars in Diet for Preventing and Treating Different Type of Diabetes. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5817209/
10 Isolation of Clostridium botulinum from Honey. California Department of Health Services. https://jcm.asm.org/content/jcm/9/2/282.full.pdf
11 Bee Diversity and Richness Decline as Anthropogenic Activity Increases, Scientists Confirm. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101133908.htm
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.