Honey: The Facts

Find out more about the nutritional and health benefits of this running superfuel - and try tasty new recipes

Posted: 7 May 2010
by Alice Palmer

Honey may just have it all - it is an entirely natural vegetarian-friendly product that's a great source of fuel for sport and offers numerous health benefits.

The perfect running fuel, honey's natural unrefined sugars are easily absorbed by the body. These simple carbohydrates are a great source of energy - in fact, honey was even used by runners in the Olympic Games in ancient Greece in as an energy source.

A blend of natural sugars (80%), water (18%), and minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein (2%), honey is produced all over the world. The range of honeys produced worldwide is huge, affected by the flowers and plants supplying the pollen, the soil and even the weather of the place in which it is produced. And the bees often have it to spare - most hives can produce up to three times the amount of honey they need.

Nutritional Benefits

Studies at the University of Memphis Exercise and Sports Nutrition Laboratory confirm that honey is one of the most effective forms of carbohydrate to eat just before exercise. Further studies have discovered that as a sporting fuel, honey performs on a par with glucose (the sugar in most commercial energy gels).

Honey and commercial energy drinks and gels offer very similar amounts of carbohydrate. However, energy drinks and gels can contain artificial preservatives, colourings and sweeteners, and miss out on honey's vitamin and mineral content. In contrast, international regulations state that honey must be absolutely pure. Whichever brand or variety of honey you buy, there will be nothing added or taken away - not even water or flavourings.

Around 70% of honey's sugar content is made up of fructose and glucose, and it's the balance of these two sugars that determines whether a honey is clear or set. A higher fructose content results in runnier honey - high fructose honey can be similar in consistency to energy gels and easy to eat on the run.

Fructose and glucose are equally pure and there is no difference in taste, carbohydrate content or nutritional value. However, there is a difference in how quickly that carbohydrate is absorbed. David Bondi, Chairman of the Honey Association says, "Different types of honey, such as acacia or clover honey, are absorbed at different rates, depending on the balance of the different types of sugars". Fructose is absorbed more slowly and evenly than glucose - perfect for endurance sport. In contrast, honey with a higher glucose content will provide a swift energy boost. You should be able to find this nutritional information on the label of most honeys.

It's easy to use honey as a source of energy for long-distance events - in fact, you can treat it just the same as any other carbohydrate gel, as honey takes a similar time to get from mouth to muscle - around 15 minutes. To maintain the body's glycogen stores in endurance events, most runners require 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour. A tablespoon of honey contains 17g of carbohydrate - so two to three tablespoons every hour should keep your glycogen stores topped up.

Honey is undeniably messier than neatly packaged energy gels, but you can pour runny honey into plastic sandwich bags or wrap up slices of honeycomb (available from health food stores).

The Romans prescribed honey as a mild laxative and as a treatment for diarrhoea, but if you're lining up for a race with honey in hand don't worry - Bondi assures runners that small quantities of honey shouldn't have a dramatic event.

Health Benefits

Honey has wide and proven health benefits, from antiseptic properties to antioxidant-boosting power. For sore throats, try eating a couple of spoonfuls of honey. If that doesn't work, you could gargle a concoction made with two tablespoons of honey, four tablespoons of cider vinegar and a pinch of salt.

If hay fever has you running for the treadmill during summer, try eating a spoonful of local honey every day. The small amount of local pollen within the honey should act much like a kind of inoculation to ward off the symptoms.

One honey stands apart from the rest when it comes to health benefits - Manuka. This now-expensive New Zealand honey has long been used by the Maori as a medicine, and for good reason - it boasts higher levels of antioxidants than other known honeys. To bag the benefits, just use it as you would any other honey. However, its strong taste means it might be easier to eat in porridge than on its own during a race!

Cooking with honey

Honey is a healthy way of sweetening dishes - and because it is sweeter than sugar, you won't need to use as much. There's exact formula though - add honey to taste, using about half as much honey as the recipe suggests for sugar. Liven up virtuous grilled chicken or salmon by brushing it with a glaze of honey, soy sauce and fresh ginger.

For more culinary inspiration, celebrate National Honey Week (May 3-10) with these recipes from Harry Eastwood and the Honey Association:

Honey Breakfast Fruit Cake

Banana, Honey and Ginger Breakfast Smoothie

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Honey breakfast fruit cake
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Discuss this article

When I was young my Mum always used to give me mashed banana and honey when I was poorly. Now I use it as the perfect pre-run snack. 2 bananas,a forkful of honey then just mash. Ideally with a pint of water, 30-60 minutes before I set off. Sorted.
Posted: 08/05/2010 at 11:09

I always have Manuka honey in the house and during cold/flu season, I give my 3 yr old a spoonful every night - she rarely ends up with the snots/splutters that everyone else gets and if she does, her recovery time is quicker. 

Its also amazing for upset tummies!

I'm doing my first Half in two weeks time and haven't been able to get my fueling strategy right - sports drinks/gels just upset my tummy and leave me with cramps and a feeling that resembles a hangover!  I am going to try out honey tomorrow (doing a 10m forest run) and see how that works for me.

Great article, thanks!!

Posted: 08/05/2010 at 22:09

I use honey as a cheap alternative to energy gels on longer runs: I mix it 2:1 parts water (easier to drink!) and put it in my small gel bottle. I find it gives me a psychological boost as well as more physical energy. I'm too tight to buy energy gels...
Posted: 09/05/2010 at 22:22

I love the stuff so I am definitely going to test it out on my long runs!

Just need to work out a good way to take it with me but I am sure they are ways to do this without any hassle...

Thanks for the inspiration RW! 

Posted: 11/05/2010 at 12:56

I'm not a massive fan of honey in porridge (prefer a good glug of maple syrup which my brother brings over from Canada!) but I can thoroughly recommend it for a using as a glaze in cooking.  I think my favourite combo is equal measures of honey and teriyaki sauce with a small dollop of English mustard - absolutely lovely on a grilled pork chop.
Posted: 11/05/2010 at 13:09

I'm a big honey fan but does anyone know how to stop it crystallising into sugar before the jar/tube is finished?

Posted: 11/05/2010 at 15:15

I am addicted to Manuka honey!

My additive energy / hydration drink before I run is:

I make a drink of 600ml water, desertspoonful of chia seeds, one of honey, juice of a lime and a pinch of salt .

This keeps me going over 10k's

Posted: 11/05/2010 at 15:18

Hi Virgil_, according to the Honey Association you can make crystallised honey liquid again by sitting the jar in warm water for an hour or so. Hope that helps!
Posted: 11/05/2010 at 15:30

Alternative to reform crystallised honey, warm in the microwave.

On long runs I mash Half a Banana with 3-4 teaspoons of honey & spoon into a small sandwich bag. Tie the bag with a knot, pushing the mixture into a corner. When you are ready for the boost, just bite the corner to pierce, then squeeze out. Make enough "Bombs" for 1 every 45-60 mins.

I find it helps to keep you & your backback clean & unsticky, to tie a low & high knot in the bag.

It's a good idea to time the Bomb taking so that you have it just before a Drinks Station & wash down with a swig of water.

Posted: 12/05/2010 at 14:42

Thank you both. Truly 'tis the food of the gods. (Read your classics if need be).
Posted: 12/05/2010 at 15:46

As a diabetic I am interested in learning more about the properties of honey and the impact on blood sugar levels. I understand it has a medium GI level. Any diabetics who use honey?
Posted: 16/05/2010 at 21:41

Hi Virgil

 ...if your honey starts to crystallise - stand the jar/tube in hot/warm water for about 10-15 minutes - usually does the trick.

 Good Luck..!

Posted: 17/05/2010 at 10:43

This article is BAD SCIENCE!!!! Reminds me why I never buy these trash-mags.
Posted: 18/05/2010 at 10:28

Nice to see honey back on the menu. The best for sore throats is Pine Forest (or Sapin in France which seems to be the only place to get it). Metcalfa is a huge immune system booster but difficult to find. It is possible to re-use gel sachets with a screw top and refill them with light honey.
Posted: 19/05/2010 at 17:19

I always enjoy a homemade smoothie of milk, banana, honey & oats after a training run, it really helps me re-coup on lost energy, and taste's amazing!
Posted: 19/05/2010 at 17:32

Explain why please?  Always happy to learn more from others who know more.  cheers!
Posted: 20/05/2010 at 15:04

The why question was with regards the bad science comment - sorry didn't write it in my reply!!
Posted: 20/05/2010 at 15:06

The facts ... !

Well, the difference in absorption between glucose and fructose is marginal, sucrose is merely 1 glucose molecule attached to 1 fructose molecule, so all sugars are pretty close there.

What was _not_ mentioned is that like all things with a higher fructose level than glucose, it makes you fart, well a very high percenage of us anyway, as fructose intolerance is surprisingly common.

As for eating honey on the run, well that's just plain stupid. The amount of sales of energy gels etc indicate that people want something thats utterly easy-peasy to eat.

Interesting idea for an article but written for printing on chip-wrapping.

Posted: 20/05/2010 at 17:49

Thanks for that - interesting although I have to say I have so much confusion about fructose, glucose and sucrose  that I wouldn't be able to comment.  The one thing I know is that with all things especially sugars the closer to their natural state the better they are for you.  However difficult they might be to metabolise. So I guess honey is better than the gelpacks.  I heard some really bad stuff about fructose recently that has totally put me off anything with fructose in it! 

I tend to agree with you about eating honey on the run but it obviously works for some people - takes all sorts!!

Thanks for the reply though

Posted: 20/05/2010 at 19:19

Hi Virgil,

crystallizing honey is a problem if you don't eat it fast enough! I usually sit the jar in a small saucepan of hot water for a few minutes, that does the trick but it will crystallize again later.

Looks like a lot of people are getting interested in honey as a natural alternative to expensive , tummy upsetting gels. Hope the bees can cope with the demand! 

Posted: 21/05/2010 at 09:32

keep it warm
Posted: 21/05/2010 at 20:49

just microwave the honey for 20 seconds and it goes runny again
Posted: 22/05/2010 at 18:26

for honey on the run, buy 'honey stingers' they are sachets (like the gel sachets) filled with honey, different flavours and added ingredients like caffiene, guarana etc, they are easy to use, taste great!!
Posted: 24/05/2010 at 09:33

Good article!

Sounds like a good alternative to the gels! a much cheaper and natural option aswell!

Just got to find a way to take it with me on long runs!

Posted: 29/05/2010 at 15:09

I have taken Honey on runs in medical sample containers.....ideal !!

Posted: 17/06/2010 at 09:41

Good idea Pat Hanson !

does anyone else have any good suggestions for carrying honey on the run?

Posted: 19/06/2010 at 14:12

I've used honey on the run and its really good, simple and clean to use.  I pour it into a squeezy gel bottle and use that but you could always keep an old squeezy honey bottle and refil it for your long runs........... no mess then.  I actually prefer it to gels as I find gels can be stubburn to open and expensive.
Posted: 24/09/2010 at 13:38

The more you study what is actually in food the less you want to cook it.

Microwaving creates very high temps and does not always cook evenly, we also know this because often microwaved food needs to "sit a while" to even out in temp. Once you get a food over 130 degrees you start to destroy vitamin C and the hotter you go the more you destroy. So for something like honey which is loaded in good stuff do a gentle heating in water that is JUST warm enough to do the job, well below boiling.

Posted: 15/10/2010 at 16:39

cure it by warming gently in a saucepan bain marie.


Posted: 10/12/2010 at 22:18

Facts can be confusing.  Bad science is when you make assumptions that are unproven.  All sugars are not the same.  It is silly to say that they are.  Look at actual studies of people who use various forms.

The advantage of honey is due to it's other contents, besides the sugar.  Honey also contains a  type of yeast, which may acount for some of it's benefit for athletes.  The yeast and sugar combine to form carbon dioxide, but only after dilution (for example when you eat it).  The carbon dioxide then helps the cells of the body to be oxygenated.

Science still hasn't even figured out all that is in honey.  We know that there are minerals and some vitamins, as well as some pelyphenols.  It varies widely, but generally speaking the darker the honey the healthier it is for humans.

Here is more about the chemistry of honey for those intereseted.


Posted: 30/01/2011 at 04:43

This is a great article! I love using honey for long runs but it's so hard to transport. That's why I was so excited to discover "Honibe Honey Drops". They are 100% pure honey and come in 5g little packages! It's genius. They are convenient and not messy. So glad I found this product!
Posted: 03/06/2011 at 14:14

Don't microwave honey you are loosing all nutrition, you can keep your honey in the freezer it will only get darker with time

Posted: 08/11/2011 at 20:08

I tried honey the first time yesterday (77 degrees at 6:30 AM) during my long run, 14 miles.  Best I could do was McDonalds honey packets. Had 1 at 50 min in, the 2nd at 70 min. The 1st one went down like the GU's I used to eat, but the 2nd one almost made me vomit and slow down to a 7:45 pace.  What gives?
Posted: 08/05/2012 at 02:39

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