Honey has been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antimicrobial, antiatherogenic, and antithrombotic effects, as well as wound healing properties. Honey is composed primarily of the sugars levulose, dextrose, and maltose, with a small fraction of sucrose, whereas table sugar consists of sucrose. Honey also contains chrysin, galangin, pinobanksin, pinostrobin, pinocembrin, acacetin, caffeic acid, caffeic acid phenyl esters, as well as small amounts of quercetin, kaempferol, and apigenin, all of which have known or suspected anticancer activities.
In addition to its beneficial flavonol content, honey consumption has been shown to have slower uptake into the bloodstream (making it less likely to cause an overstimulation of insulin production) than sugar, and to result in lower blood glucose and triglyceride levels than sugar consumption, all of which may mean that using honey as a sweetener instead of table sugar could be beneficial to overall health.
Cancer-related effects of consuming honey
Chrysin, found in high concentrations in honey, has been found to inhibit tumor angiogenesis in nude mice. Chrysin has also been shown to be an inhibitor of aromatase activity (the synthesis of estrogen from androgens within the body) and to suppress the growth of metastatic triple negative breast cancer cells. Caffeic acid phenethyl ester has been shown to induce apoptosis of human leukemic lymphoblasts and colon cancer cells, protect against tamoxifen-induced liver damage in rats, and to suppress osteoclastogenesis (suggesting that it may be useful as a therapeutic agent for treatment of bone destructive diseases). Galangin has been found to have an antiproliferative effect in human breast cancer and leukemia cells.
Honey extracts have been shown to have anti-proliferative effects in colon cancer cells; honey samples with higher phenolic content were found to have more significant anti-proliferative effect. Honey has also been shown to inhibit the growth of bladder cancer cell lines in vitro and in vivo. One study of Greek honey extracts found that they possessed anti-estrogenic activity at low concentrations and estrogenic activity at high concentrations in estrogen receptor positive (ER+) human breast cancer cells. Since honey typically is a small component of most diets, very few population studies have been performed that attempt to isolate the impact of honey consumption on breast cancer risk. One Italian study found that consumption of sweet desserts and sugars (including honey) was positively associated with the risk of breast cancer, even after adjusting for body mass index.
The antitumor activity of certain chemotherapeutic drugs such as 5-fluorouracil and cyclophosphamide have been shown to be facilitated by honey. However, it also has been shown that the flavonoids quercetin, apigenin, galangin and chrysin, all found in honey, decrease Adriamycin (doxorubicin) cytotoxicity against murine leukemia cells. Quercetin has been found to induce cytotoxicity and DNA strand breaks and other damage in normal cells at concentrations that could result from a dietary supplement of one to two grams of quercetin per day. Our conclusion is that supplements that contain concentrated extracts of honey components should be avoided.
Honey has been found to be useful during breast cancer treatment for hand and foot skin reactions resulting from chemotherapy, as well as radiation-induced mucositis and skin reactions.
The phenolic contents of different types of honey can vary greatly. The best honeys have high phytonutrient content from the pollens collected by the bees who produced the honey. These compounds contribute significantly to the antioxidant and chemopreventive properties of honey, but are not solely responsible. The darkest honeys, such as buckwheat honey, are a better source of phenolic compounds than lighter-colored honeys. Filtering honey can reduce this content, however raw honey is not necessarily safe, especially if imported from South America or Asia. In fact, not all honey sold in the U.S. is actually 100% honey.
Good choices are organic buckwheat or wildflower honeys from well-established producers. Health food store brands can be acceptable, depending on from where the honey is sourced. The honey should not only be organic, but also produced in a rural area (without substantial air pollution in the area that could be drifting down into the soil or flowers). It is best if the honey is produced by a farm that has been dedicated to honey production for decades. The honey can be filtered to remove debris but should not be processed with heat.
Propolis and royal jelly are not recommended
Propolis (also known as bee glue or hive dross) is a waxy resinous substance used by honeybees in hive construction and maintenance. It is made by bees from plant resins, essential oils and pollen. The chemical composition of propolis can vary greatly from region to region. Propolis has been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ills and it continues to be used today. Propolis contains several compounds with suspected or demonstrated anti-cancer effects, including chrysin, caffeic acid phenethyl ester, and galangin. Brazilian propolis has been shown to suppress tumor-induced angiogenesis, apparently through action of its component artepillin C (i.e., 3,5-diprenyl-4-hydroxycinnamic acid, typically not found in propolis of European origin).
However, Brazilian propolis has also been found to cause acute kidney failure. Propolis has been shown to produce estrogenic effects in human breast cancer cells through activation of estrogen receptors. One 2016 study reported that Turkish propolis in low doses protected ER+/PR+ breast cancer cells by inhibiting cellular apoptosis (programmed cell death). We do not recommend taking propolis as a dietary supplement.
Royal jelly is a bee secretion that is used to feed the larvae in a honey bee colony. It has traditionally been thought to improve menopausal symptoms. Royal jelly has been found to have estrogenic effects in human breast cancer cells, enhancing their proliferation. It should also be avoided by breast cancer patients, survivors and those at high risk.
Honey intoxication is rare but possible
Cases of honey food poisoning ("honey intoxication" or "mad honey poisoning") have been reported as a result of consuming grayanotoxin-contaminated honey. Grayanotoxin and similar neurotoxins can cause serious heart disturbances, among other symptoms. Grayanotoxin is found in the pollen and nectar (and other parts) of rhododendrons and other plants of the Ericaceae family, including the western azalea, California rosebay, mountain laurel, and sheep laurel. Honey from Japan, Brazil, United States, Nepal, British Columbia, and Turkey on occasion have been found to contain grayanotoxin. Consumers should assure themselves of the quality and safety of any specialty honeys they consume.
Below are links to recent studies concerning this food. For a more complete list, including less recent studies, please click on honey.