What is honey?

Honey bees collect nectar and pollen from plants in their area, bring it back to the hive where it is processed to make honey and then store it in the honeycomb for food. The golden liquid is mostly made of simple carbohydrates (up to 82% fructose and glucose), water, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other organic compounds. Other products produced by bees are propolis and royal jelly. Each product is specific to a function in the hive and composed of different compounds [1].

Historically honey was first used as a food source by early hunter and gatherers and used as medicine by ancient civilisations. It has gained recent attention due to its potential medicinal properties and a renewed interest in natural therapies.

The emergence of superbugs (pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics) is of serious concern and the scientific community is scrambling for solutions. Certain types of honey such as Manuka, Jarrah, and Marri have a high antimicrobial activity and are an effective antiseptic alternative for dressing wounds, burns and topical ulcers. [2,3] Research by Dr Manning for the Australian Department of Agriculture and Food concluded that some forest honeys such as Jarrah and Marri honeys have high antimicrobial activity but he also found that some local honey gathered within the urban fringe of Perth, Western Australia had a higher antimicrobial activity than Manuka honey. This might be due to the diversity of domestic and indigenous flora. [2] Honey is also a potent antioxidant and some believe that the mix of various compounds in the honey may act synergistically and may explain some of the therapeutic effects. [2]

Honey as functional food?

Unprocessed honey contains nutrients such as carbohydrates, various minerals, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids. Simple carbohydrates particularly fructose has been given a bad rap by certain ‘sugar-free’ advocates. Fructose is not necessarily worse than any other sugar. [4] There is even some research to suggest that honey could be useful in the management of metabolic syndrome and diabetes due to its lower GI mechanism when compared to refined sugar. [5]

You don’t need to quit sugar completely to improve health but you need to have a healthy balance of nutrients in your diet

Honey is an excellent source of instant energy and has been shown to help people through convalescence and also has been shown to be an excellent energy food for sports people as part of a pre/post workout regime but also may provide energy for endurance athletes. [6]

Honey also has antioxidant activity due to its flavonoid content, however flavonoid content is subject to the species of plants that the bees have harvested from. [6] Buckwheat honey has been known to have one of the highest antioxidant activities. It is very dark in colour and has a stronger taste. [7]

Honey may have other effects on the GI tract and several animal studies have shown that honey is also a prebiotic and has increased the population of bifido and lactobacilli in the gut. [8] More research is required on honey and its effects on the digestive system.

Not all honey is equal

The quality of 100% pure honey varies and depends on what flowers the bees have been collecting from, environmental factors and how the honey was processed. Much of the commercial honey seen in stores is thermally processed to eliminate yeast, impurities and extend shelf life. Uncontrolled heating alters the hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) content and enzyme activity. The conventional processing of honey involves preheating to 40C, filtering and reheating to 60-65C for 25-30 min. The fine filtering also removes most traces of pollen and propolis. [9]

The unique antibacterial activity of Manuka honey from New Zealand is due to methylglyoxal (MGO), which unlike other medicinal honey, is not produced by enzymes. [10]. Manuka honey and medical honey is irradiated to eliminate pathogenic microbes. Gamma radiation does not significantly altar the macronutrients, minerals, acidity. However radiation has been shown to alter moisture content, vitamin E and C and HMF content. [11,12]

Unfortunately lab tests conducted on several brands stocked by major Australian supermarkets have recently shown that at least 50% of honey tested is adulterated. This means that the honey tested contains another substance other than bee honey. [13]

Honey as Medicine

Honey is an anti-oxidant and has antimicrobial effects and may be effective for topical wound healing and can often improve the outcome of topical ulcers, and burns. The healing action is due to various factors:

  • High sugar content slows down growth of some microbes; [6]
  • Ph is on the acidic side and may also slow down growth of some pathogenic microbes; [6]
  • Hydrogen peroxide is produced by an enzyme glucose oxidase, it is the main anti-bacterial agent in most unprocessed honey except for Manuka honey. [6]
  • Manuka honey contains unique methylglyoxal (MGO) [10]
  • Honey draws moisture from the environment [6]
  • Contains several phytochemicals [6]
  • High antioxidant ability due to a synergy of chemicals such as phenolic acids, flavonoids, carotenoids and ascorbic acid. [2]

Honey dressings seem to help heal wounds, burns or ulcers much faster than non-application of substance and in comparison to sulfadiazine dressing for light burns it had better results and topical use lowers incidence of infection and may help to eliminate staphylococcus Aureus. [14]

Honey also has a demulcent effect and can coat an irritated throat. Due to its demulcent properties it may ease the pain and discomfort and may help to ease painful sore throats and coughing. The anti-bacterial effect of certain types of raw honey may also help to reduce inflammation caused by bacteria in the mucus membranes of the upper digestive tract. Most OTC cough medicines are proven to be ineffective. A Cochrane review found that honey was better than no treatment. One study showed that a single dose of 2.4ml given to children with cough before bedtime eased pain, reduced cough and improved quality of sleep. Infants under 1 year of age should not consume honey due to the risk of infantile botulism. [15,16]

How to Buy Raw Honey

If honey is intended for wound dressing or skin infections it should be active (lab tested), sterile and appropriately packaged as a medicinal product. Look for a product registration number from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Unheated Raw honey can be used for sore throats and gargles. Western Australian Marri and Jarrah forest honeys have high anti-microbial and antioxidant activity. Local unprocessed honey may be just as good. [2] plus there is the added benefit of supporting local industry.

If you have a sweet tooth 100% pure raw honey is great as an occasional treat and is a better alternative than refined sugar, which has no nutrient benefit.



  1. Pasupuleti VR, Sammugam L, Ramesh N, and Gan SH. Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity [internet]. 2017 [cited 2018 June 30] 2017:1-21. Available from: http://dx.doi:10.1155/2017/1259510
  2. Manning RJ. Research into Western Australian Honeys. Perth: Department of Agriculture and Food, 2011. 11 pages. Report. Available from: https://researchlibrary.agric.wa.gov.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1039&context=pubns
  3. Irish J, Blair S, Carter DA. The Antibacterial Activity of Honey Derived from Australian Flora. PLoS One [Internet]. Public Library of Science; 2011 Mar 28 [cited 2018 Apr 23];6(3):e18229. Available from: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018229
  4. Evans RA, Frese M, Romero J, Cunningham JH, Mills KE. Fructose replacement of glucose or sucrose in food or beverages lowers postprandial glucose and insulin without raising triglycerides: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [internet], 2017 [cited 2018 July 6] 106(2):506–518. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.116.145151
  5. Ramli NZ, Chin K-Y, Zarkasi, KA & Ahmad F. A Review on the Protective Effects of Honey against Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients [internet]. 2018[cited 2018 Aug 20]10(8):1-1009. Available from: http://doi.org/10.3390/nu10081009
  6. Eteraf-Oskouei T, Najafi M. Traditional and modern uses of natural honey in human diseases: A review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. [internet] 2013 [cited 2018 Sep 20] 16(6):731–42. Available from: http://dx.doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004
  7. Deng J, Liu R, Lu Q, Hao P, Xu A, Zhang J, et al. Biochemical properties, antibacterial and cellular antioxidant activities of buckwheat honey in comparison to manuka honey. Food Chem [Internet]. Elsevier; 2018 [cited 2018 Aug 20];252(August 2017):243–249. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2018.01.115
  8. El-Arab AME, Girgis SM, Hegazy EM, El-Khalek ABA. Effect of dietary honey on intestinal microflora and toxicity of mycotoxins in mice. BMC Complement Altern Med. [internet] 2006 [cited 2018 Sept 20];6:1–13. Available from: http://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-6-6
  9. Subramanian R, Hebbar HU & Rastogi NK. Processing of Honey: A Review, International Journal of Food Properties [internet], 2007 [cited 2018 Sept 20]10:1:127-143, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/10942910600981708
  10. Cokcetin NN, Pappalardo M, Campbell LT, Brooks P, Carter DA, Blair SE, et al. The Antibacterial Activity of Australian LeptospermumHoney Correlates with Methylglyoxal Levels. PLoS ONE[internet] 2016 [cited 2018 Sep 20]11(12): e0167780. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0167780
  11. Molan P, Allen K. The Effect of Gamma-irradiation on the Antibacterial Activity of Honey. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology – Wiley Online Library[internet].1996 [cited 2018 Sep 20] 48:1206–9. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-7158.1996.tb03922.x
  12. Hussein SZ, Yusoff KM, Makpol S, Yusof YAM. Does gamma irradiation affect physicochemical properties of honey? Clin Ter.[internet] 2014 [cited 2018 Sept 20];165(2). Available from: http://doi.org/10.7471/CT.2014.1695
  13. Fergusen A and Gillett C. Capilano, Australia’s biggest honey producer, and supermarkets accused of selling ‘fake’ honey . ABC News [internet] 2018 [cited 2018 Sep 10] available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-03/capilano-and-supermarkets-accused-of-selling-fake-honey/10187628
  14. Vandamme L, Heyneman A, Hoeksema H, Verbelen J, Monstrey S. Honey in modern wound care: A systematic review. Burns [Internet]. Elsevier Ltd and International Society of Burns Injuries; 2013 [cited 2018 Sep 2];39(8):1514–25. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.burns.2013.06.014
  15. Oduwole O, Udoh EE, Oyo-Ita A, Meremikwu MM. Honey for acute cough in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. [internet]2018 [cited 2018 sep 10];2018(4). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD007094.pub5
  16. Goldman, RD. Honey for treatment of cough in children. Canadian Family Physician[internet], 2014 [cited 2018 Sept 12]60(12):1107–1110. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4264806/