BOSTON, Aug. 19 — Don't like spinach? Try honey. It contains about the same level of plaque-fighting antioxidants as the leafy green stuff. And according to research presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, the range of antioxidants in honey is comparable to that in apples, bananas, oranges and strawberries. A five-week study of blood from 25 men between the ages of 18 - 68 indicates that drinking a mixture of water and honey, about four tablespoons per 16-ounce glass, improved the antioxidant levels in their blood. Nicki Engeseth, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who conducted the study, says this means the sweet stuff may have the potential to protect against heart disease.
"It looks like honey is having a mild protective effect," Engeseth said. She added, however, that this should not be taken as an excuse to avoid fruits and vegetables.
Although it's been known for some time that honey contains varying levels of antioxidants — with dark honey generally having the most — this is the first in vivo study to consider how honey may affect human blood.
An earlier in vitro study by Engeseth's lab, which prompted the current research, showed that the darker the honey, the better it was at lifting antioxidant levels in the blood. The honeys tested (from darkest to lightest) were Buckwheat, Hawaiian Christmas Berry, Tupelo, Soybean, Clover, Fireweed and Acacia.
Engeseth's research group is now in the middle of a 12-week study with rabbits to determine if honey has an inhibitory effect on atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease often referred to as hardening of the arteries, a leading cause of death in the United States. She expects that results from the rabbit testing could be "more dramatic" than those of the shorter human blood study.
To get the same amount of antioxidants from honey that you would from some fruits and vegetables, you would have to eat an equivalent per-weight amount of honey, Engeseth pointed out. As that might be excessive, she noted, "People could incorporate more honey in places where they might be using some sort of sweetening agent, like sugar, and this might contribute a significant amount of dietary phenolics."
Phenolics are chemical compounds that inhibit oxidation. Higher phenolic contents in foods tend to generate higher antioxidant levels.
Engeseth's research group at Urbana is currently collaborating with scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago to evaluate honey’s ability to inhibit oral pathogenic bacteria, like Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), which can cause tooth cavities.
"Some types of honey seem to be protective against these bacteria," Engeseth said. "Sage honey and Tupelo honey are two of the tested honeys to show the most inhibitory effects." Both fall in the middle of the dark to light range of honeys.
The research on inhibition of bacteria is still ongoing and the results are only preliminary, Engeseth cautioned.
Engeseth's group also looked at the antioxidant level in wine made with honey, which is called mead. "It's sort of comparable to white wine in terms of its antioxidant capability but it doesn't come anywhere close to red wine," Engeseth said. Mead is popular as a homemade wine.
The National Honey Board provided funding for Engeseth's research.
Nicki Engeseth, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of food chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, in Urbana, Ill.
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