This Natural Sweetener May Lower Cholesterol and Blood Sugar, New Study Says

There's buzz around a new Canadian study that suggests a particular sweetener might actually benefit you in two key health markers.

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Is there any such thing as a “healthy” sweetener? Lately, a yes to that question doesn’t seem super-easy to argue. Maybe you’ve heard that artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, can wind up triggering your brain’s demand for real sugar, while one 2007 study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews pointed out that sugar itself is “a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.” This, of course, is in addition to the commonly understood realities of eating too much added sugar. As the blog for the Mayo Clinic points out, sugar can increase your risk of heart disease, contribute to weight gain, cause tooth decay, and much more.

However, there’s buzz around a new study that suggests one particular sweetener might actually benefit two key wellness markers: your blood sugar and cholesterol response.

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What does the study say?

For a November 2022 analysis published in Nutrition Reviews, scientists extracted data from 18 control trials to determine how honey intake affects particular cardiometabolic risk factors, including blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels. After evaluating the data, the researchers found honey may improve glycemic (blood sugar) control and lipid levels (cholesterol).

So why might some types of honey show advantage for some aspects of heart and metabolic health? Well, perhaps in contrast to sugar which arguably provides no health benefits, the researchers state: “Honey is a complex composition of sugars (common and rare), organic acids, enzymes, proteins, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and bioactive substances made by honeybees from the nectar of flowers.” Some of these components deliver their own benefits and may also help the body best metabolize the sugar content.

The scientists also suggest that the “floral source”—that is, the type of flower—may impact the health benefits honey delivers. In this analysis, the researchers specify that Robinia honey (also commonly referred to as “Manuka honey“), clover, and unprocessed raw honey appeared to be the best for heart and blood sugar wellness.

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How honey can help—and hurt—your health

This isn’t the first time honey has been linked with improved blood sugar. In an interview with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest, Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, a nutritionist in private practice, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, and the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, said: “Honey has a slightly lower glycemic index, so it doesn’t affect your blood sugar levels as much as sugar.” Plus, Young pointed out that honey can provide nutrients that are beneficial for your body’s overall health, such as flavonoids (a type of antioxidant), vitamin C, zinc, and potassium.

Still, nutritionally, honey is still considered an added sugar, even if it is a natural sugar source—and while this research seems promising, Young points out that many clinicians would still be wary of overtly calling honey a “healthy” sweetener, when honey is still primarily composed of sugar. “Because it’s ‘natural,’ people may perceive it as being healthier than it really is and tend to eat more of it,” Young says. “This is an example of a ‘health halo,’ where people eat more of a [type of] food they perceive as healthy. Portion control is still super important, especially since honey is a concentrated sugar and does not provide many health benefits.”

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How to portion honey

Young still makes the point that you should be mindful of portions just like you would with normal sugar. “It’s important to pay attention to how much honey you are using,” she says. “Aim for no more than a teaspoon of honey in tea. And do not pour it straight from a bottle, where you don’t pay attention.” The Healthy @Reader’s Digest’s Medical Review Board member Latoya Julce, RN, BSN agrees that just because honey is a healthy substance, doesn’t mean you can’t over consume it.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugar intake to just 25 grams a day (six teaspoons) for women, and 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men. To put this into perspective, one tablespoon of honey has 17 grams of sugar in it, which is between 47% to 68% of your recommended amount for the day based on the AHA guidelines.

So if you’re craving the taste of honey in your tea, baked goods, or even swirled on top of a piece of toast or a bowl of oatmeal, use a spoon for measure so that you can enjoy the tasty health benefits of honey without overdoing it.

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Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on February 18, 2023

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.