The future of honey: From a pantry staple to the medicine cabinet

07.06.21

Honey has long been used as a traditional medicine. From Ancient Egyptians, and Romans, to the Russian army in World War I, honey has been used to treat wounds and intestinal diseases. However, its place in modern medicine has been limited because of a lack of scientific evidence to support its use.

Research led by the University of Technology Sydney and funded by AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program aims to provide evidence required by modern medicine to reposition honey from a staple in the pantry to a health food. The work seeks to use honey as a prebiotic to promote good digestive health and to help combat the onset and progression of gut related disease.

There is significant interest from the human health and medical spheres in investigating how consuming prebiotic foods can help to change the gut microbiome to promote a ‘healthy’ gut. The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, archaea, viruses, protozoa and fungi[1]. Prebiotics are foods that we do not digest by ourselves, instead they reach our gut where they can be used as a food source by billions of beneficial bacteria, helping maintain a healthy microbiome.

Scientific evidence to support honey as a health food

Dr Nural Cokcetin, Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, in collaboration with gastroenterologists and clinical microbiome researchers at the Microbiome Research Centre, St George Hospital in Sydney, is exploring the role of honey as a prebiotic food that can promote digestive health.

“We know that honey has been used as a digestive remedy for centuries, but why is that? Our research seeks to understand the science behind how honey changes microbial populations, metabolite production, immune response and inflammation in the gut,” Dr Cokcetin said.

“Our diet affects the balance of our gut, and in turn our gut microbiome affects so much of our health, and an unhealthy gut (due to an imbalance of gut microbes) has been linked to gut diseases, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, allergies, asthma, heart conditions, and mental health issues.”

Dr Cokcetin said their research shows just a small amount of honey can affect not only the balance of the types of bacteria living in our gut, but can also be beneficial in preventing the onset and progression of gut-related diseases. It appears when the gut bacteria are ‘feeding’ on honey they are producing compounds responsible for this protective effect.

“What we’re finding is that by promoting a healthy gut, we can build a much stronger immune system and increase our resilience to disease. Just 20 grams of honey a day can boost the ‘good’ populations of bacteria in our gut that help protect against different diseases.”

Honey as a super drug

Dr Cokcetin said that the benefits of honey extend beyond maintaining the balance of gut microbes.

“Our research team have been using an artificial gut system that simulates gut-related diseases and infections to see how honey might work against common infection-causing bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli,” Dr Cokcetin said.

“One of the most exciting findings for us has been the reduction in numbers of a group of bacteria in the gut called clostridioides following treatment with honey. These bacteria can cause some really nasty infections, specifically Clostridium difficile, which triggers severe antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and can quickly progress to life-threatening inflammation of the bowel.”

“Currently, there are no effective treatments for C. difficile and recurrence is high. We are looking into whether honey could offer a cheap, safe and accessible preventative measure or treatment option for this major global health issue.”

Dr Cokcetin said the next step in the project is a human clinical study to look at the impact daily honey consumption has on the gut biome.

“We have started recruiting healthy volunteers to take part in the study and hope the results will show that honey can be used as an effective preventative measure.”

“Our preliminary research shows that it’s likely many honeys will have some kind of prebiotic activity, but they may be acting in different ways. Some might help to boost numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut, others could support the reduction in numbers of potentially harmful bacteria in the gut (such as C. difficile) and others may help promote the production of beneficial compounds by our gut microbes.”

A buzz for Australian Eucalypt honey

Dr Cokcetin said that while the highly publicised manuka honey is popular for its antibacterial activity and topical applications, preliminary studies are showing that honey derived from eucalyptus is more potent as a prebiotic.

“Our project has been specifically looking at Australian eucalypt yellow box and ironbark honey, and while there doesn’t seem to be a particular type of eucalypt honey that shows higher prebiotic activity than others, our initial studies showed that compared to manuka and canola honey, the eucalypts in general had better prebiotic activity.

“Although the composition of honey can change from batch to batch, and more significantly from honey type to honey type, unlike other therapeutic properties of honey, for instance antibacterial activity, the prebiotic effect doesn’t seem to be linked to a specific floral type. All the Australian eucalypt honeys we have tested show promise as prebiotics.”

Sweet opportunities for commercial Australian honey producers

AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Manager, Research Annelies McGaw said this research has the opportunity to create a premium product and market for Australian beekeepers.

“This new research provides robust, rigorous scientific evidence that supports honey as a health food. It has the potential to create new innovation and marketing opportunities for commercial Australian honey producers, in turn helping to increase the value of our non-premium honeys,” Ms McGaw said.

“An exciting development from this research is that existing eucalypt derived table honeys show prebiotic activity, further enhancing their profile and value, and generating a unique marketing opportunity for Australian honeys.”

Dr Cokcetin suggests the best way for consumers to take advantage of the prebiotic benefits of honey are to have a few different Australian honeys in the cupboard.

“Choose the honeys that you like the taste of, making sure they are 100% Australian of course, and enjoy a tablespoon a day on your toast, in your tea or on its own to see the effects.”

 

[1] Microbiome Research Centre 2021, About Microbiome, accessed 12 May 2021, https://microbiome.org.au/about-microbiome/#mrc