In the past few years, honey has made its entrance into sport with claims of improving endurance performance and recovery from strength training. Honey has many practical uses including use as a medicine, anti-microbial agent, wound healer, antioxidant in food preparation. This article will focus on the use of honey in sport, although its other uses are interesting to note.
According to an Associated Marketing survey conducted for the National Honey Board in 1997, almost 77 percent of U.S. households use honey along with other sweeteners and syrups and 45 percent of them consider honey a good value because it is a “natural, good for you and better for you than sugar.”1
History of Honey
Honey dates back to 6000 BC or possibly earlier when stone-age paintings in several locations depicted honey hunting, which documents human use of honey for at least 8000 years. References to honey as a medicine are found in ancient scrolls some 5000 or more years ago2. Although honey has been prescribed for uses other than improving athletic performance, it has only been in the last few years that researchers have begun to study the properties of honey relative to athletes.
Honey in Sport
Composition of Honey
Honey is a supersaturated sugar solution that is made up primarily of the simple sugars fructose and glucose and water, 38, 31, and 17 percent, respectively. Disaccharides and oligosaccharides are present also but in much smaller quantities. Honey also contains a small amount of protein/amino acids (proline, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, glutamic and aspartic acids), vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, folate, vitamin C) and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper, manganese)3. In addition, honey is known to be rich in both enzymatic and non-enzymatic antioxidants, including catalase, ascorbic acid, flavonoids and alkaloids.4, 5
Honey and Athletic Performance
It is well known that carbohydrate ingestion prior to, during and after exercise affects an athlete’s performance and recovery. Research on the effects of fructose and glucose feedings demonstrated that neither was ideal when used alone. Fructose is poorly absorbed and can cause GI distress but has a low insulin response and spares muscle glycogen. Glucose, however, is well absorbed and quickly metabolized but has a high insulin response that stimulates glycogen storage instead of mobilization, which is important for endurance athletes who need a more constant supply of glucose. Studies have shown that a mixture of carbohydrates is better tolerated and better suited for fatigue prevention and enhanced performance.6
There has been a multi-phase research study conducted at the University of Memphis under the supervision of Dr. Richard Kreider, prior to his departure to Baylor University, that documents some of the benefits of honey in sport.
In the first phase7 of the study, honey was evaluated regarding its efficacy as a pre-workout energy source. Blood glucose, insulin concentration, glycemic index and the insulin response index were determined in seventy-one subjects. After an eight-hour fast, the subjects were given one of seven gel packets. The packets contained either dextrose, sucrose, fructose, maltodextrin, honey, Power Gel (a commercially available gel product), or similarly flavored placebo. At the conclusion of the study, the investigators found that dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin, honey and Power Gel significantly increased blood glucose levels following ingestion although honey had the lowest glycemic index response. When ranked in order from lowest to highest, the glycemic index of each gel was:
- Fructose 5
- Honey 35
- Power Gel 43
- Sucrose 71
- Dextrose 100
- Maltodextrin 121
Another finding from this first phase was that the insulin response (insulin response index or IRI) of honey was relatively low. Comparisons between the gel groups showed that maltodextrin has the highest, or fastest, IRI. When ranked from lowest to highest, the IRI for the gels were:
- Fructose 41
- Honey 59
- Dextrose 100
- Power Gel 113
- Sucrose 147
- Maltodextrin 158
Overall, the results from this first phase demonstrated that honey provides a low glycemic response or slow release of sugar into the blood accompanied by a low insulin response. The investigators concluded that because high glycemic food ingested immediately prior to exercise may actually hasten the use of muscle glycogen, therefore, honey can be a beneficial sugar prior to exercise.
In the second phase8, nine competitive cyclists received one of three supplements in gel form per week, over a three-week period: honey, glucose, or a flavored, calorie-free placebo. The endurance test conducted each week was a 40-mile time trial on each subject’s racing bicycle. The cyclists received 15 grams of carbohydrate in gel form along with 250 milliliters of water prior to and every 10 miles during the time trials.
Both the glucose and the honey produced a statistically significant reduction in the time to finish (over 3 minutes), and a significant increase in the athlete’s average power (6% increase), when compared to the placebo. The results from this second phase indicated that honey was an effective alternative carbohydrate source for endurance athletes and that honey was well tolerated by all of the subjects.
The third phase9 studied the post-exercise recovery from strength training with the addition of honey as the predominant sugar in a whey protein powder drink. Thirty-nine weight-trained male and female athletes underwent an intensive weight workout and then immediately consumed a protein supplement blended with either sucrose, maltodextrin, or honey powder.
The results from the third phase demonstrated that the honey group maintained optimal blood sugar levels throughout the two hours following the workout and that the subjects taking the honey supplement showed favorable changes in a hormone ratio that indicates a positive muscle recuperative state. The investigators concluded that the combination of honey powder and whey protein performed well by increasing blood glucose concentrations. Maltodextrin also performed well but did not yield as great an increase in blood glucose concentrations as the honey powder. The honey powder/whey protein supplement performed better than sucrose and was well tolerated as determined by self-reported symptoms of hypoglycemia, dizziness, headache, stomach upset and fatigue.
These studies are far from conclusive, but overall, this three phase preliminary study investigating the efficacy of honey use pre-, during and post-exercise is beneficial for future research studies to replicate. More importantly, it suggests that honey could be another option for endurance athletes, and possibly strength athletes, for improving athletic performance.
- Report on consumer uses and attitudes towards honey. 1997. Prepared for the National Honey Board. Associated Marketing, Chicago, IL.
- Jones, R. 2001. Honey and healing through the ages. In “Honey and Healing,” ed. P. Munn and R. Jones. International Bee Research Association, Cardiff, UK.
- USDA data obtained from Genesis R&D Nutrition Analysis Program Version 7.01 from ESHA Research, Salem, Oregon.
- Crane, E. 1976. “Honey: A Comprehensive Survey,” Corrected edition. International Bee Research Association/Heinemann, London.
- Berenbaum, M., Robinson, G. & Unnevehr, L. 1995-1996. Antioxidant properties of Illinois honeys. Grant Proposal for National Honey Board. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Brouns, F. et al. 1989. Metabolic changes induced by sustained exhaustive cycling and diet manipulation. Int. J. Sports Med. 10: S49-S62.
- Kreider, R.B. et al. (2000). Effects of ingesting carbohydrate gels on glucose, insulin and perception of hypoglycemia. FASEB J. 14: A490.
- Lancaster, S. et al. (2001). Effects of honey supplementation on glucose, insulin and endurance cycling performance. FASEB J. 15: LB315.
- Kreider, R.B. et al. (2000). Effects of ingesting protein with various forms of carbohydrate following resistance-exercise on substrate availability and markers of catabolism. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 14:366.