Honey: The Facts

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