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How Honey Fits In: The Health and Nutrition Decade

Joe Traynor

Wine Grapes, Tomatoes, Almonds, Pistachios and Honey – Just Some Of The Foods Being Promoted In The Latest Nutritional Fad

The 1990s may become known as the “health and nutrition decade.” There has been a constant stream of reports – some backed by good data, some not – on the health benefits of specific foods. These benefits are aimed in general at increasing one’s life span; more specific targets include cancer and heart disease prevention. The term “free radicals” of the protest-plagued 1960s has taken on a whole new meaning in the health-conscious ’90s. Words like “beta carotene” and “antioxidant” are creeping into everyday conversation whether their meanings are fully understood or not.

The pig-in-a-python, baby-boomer generation of the 1960s eagerly laps up this health and nutrition information as it approaches the far end of the python. People who were considered “out-of-the-main-stream health nuts” in the 1970s now wear smug smiles as they discourse on the latest nutritional fad. Health food stores and organic produce are enjoying increased popularity even though half the goods sold in health food stores is of questionable benefit (and potentially harmful in some cases), and organic produce, besides being significantly more expensive, can be more harmful than “normal” produce (due to toxins produced by fungi that were not controlled by pesticides).

This new focus on health has had a significant impact on the food producing (farming) industry. A good argument can be made that the most significant event affecting agriculture in the 1990s was the 60 Minutes program on the French Paradox – the fact that the French have a surprisingly low incidence of heart disease and cancer in spite of a high-cholesterol diet. The conclusion, since supported by research data, is that relatively high wine consumption is the key factor.

This program, and related stories in the media, set off a wine grape planting boom in California that is still going on. Wine grape prices doubled for many varieties, and prices for relatively poor land in optimum climate areas (for wines) jumped from $1,000 to $5,000/acre. When reports came out that the health benefits of red wine exceeded those of white wine, growers grafted white variety vines over to red.

At the same time the wine grape renaissance was going on, the health benefits of fruits and vegetables in general and broccoli and carrots in particular were being widely touted. Publication of the cancer preventing properties of broccoli and the beneficial effects of beta carotene in carrots spiked sales of these two vegetables to levels that still hold today.

More recently, tomatoes have gotten in on the act. One of the key components of tomatoes, lycopene, has been shown to significantly reduce cancer, more so than broccoli. Interestingly, processed tomatoes are more effective than fresh tomatoes as a lycopene source – a Harvard researcher reported a 40 percent reduction in the incidence of prostate cancer among male subjects who had five or more servings per week of processed tomato products. That’s right, eat pizza to stay healthy! The California Tomato Growers Association jumped on this data and came out with a slick 20-page booklet summarizing the work of Harvard and U.C., Davis researchers (1). After giving my copy away, I called for a replacement, but the association was temporarily out due to overwhelming demand; the association is considering charging for the booklet when it is reprinted.

The almond industry has reams of solid data on the nutritional benefits of almonds and, like the tomato industry, will likely be publishing this data in booklet form. With a great-tasting product like almonds, there is some hesitancy within the industry to promote the nutritional aspects of almonds at the expense of taste aspects, but we’ll probably be seeing commercials for almonds that stress nutritional benefits and end with the tag line “and they taste great, too.”

On the lighter side, the Iranian pistachio industry is promoting their product to Russians by claiming that pistachios will improve potency in men. Undoubtedly this tactic will sell a few more pistachios to some gullible Russians but, with no solid data to back up their claims, any increase in sales will be very limited, just as the market based on unproven claims for honey is very limited.

Honey has been thought of as a health food for years and, as Jim Robertson has pointed out (August issue), Dr. Jarvis’ Folk Medicine has been a tremendous promotional tool for honey. Unfortunately, Dr. Jarvis’ book relies mainly on anecdotal tales rather than on hard data from hard research. Anecdotal tales on the health benefits of honey are lapped up by health faddists, but these health nuts represent a limited market and a market that is probably already saturated, or “mature,” as an economist would say; further attempts to expand this market would be preaching to the choir.

A much, much vaster market is the affluent, better-educated baby boom generation, and this market has a “show me the data” attitude. As Mark Winston has pointed out (August issue), anecdotes just don’t cut it in today’s world. In defense of anecdotal tales, it must be said that they are often the precursor of good, solid research and, when proven to be sound, give their tellers the supreme satisfaction of saying “I told you so.”

As to the nutritional benefits of honey, it has been accepted by most honey producers that their product is just another form of sugar. The infant botulism specter that was raised 20 years ago, and that still hangs over the industry in spite of the fact that a good argument can be made (proven?) that virtually any food is just as much of a botulism hazard as honey, has caused honey producers to be wary of over-promoting honey as a health food. It is not the nutritional benefits of honey that need to be promoted, but another well-documented benefit: its bactericidal effects, more specifically, its bactericidal effect within the stomach. It is likely that the bactericidal effect of honey in the stomach is the basis of much of the folk medicine lore on honey.

The bactericidal effects of honey have been known for years, but a relatively recent discovery has the potential of revolutionizing the honey industry just as much as 60 Minutes revolutionized the wine industry. This recent discovery is that ulcers are caused by a species of bacteria, not by stress. The Australian researcher who proved, through pains-taking work (aka. research) that a bacterium was indeed the cause of ulcers, is a true hero who challenged the overwhelming conventional wisdom and endured widespread ridicule from the medical community when he first put forth the idea. Ulcers are now routinely treated with antibiotics, a treatment that can have undesirable side effects. It is not too far-fetched to imagine a time in the future when honey consumption will be the treatment of choice for ulcers as well as for many other gastrointestinal disorders. Many U.S. hospitals are encountering drug-resistant gastrointestinal bacteria. Shouldn’t honey be on the menu at all hospitals?

In her encyclopedic book Honey (Bee Research Association, 1975), Eva Crane lists over 20 studies on the bactericidal effects of honey. In an excellent 1995 article, J. McCarthy cites 10 reputable studies on the bactericidal effects of honey, including its effect on harmful bacteria found in the stomach (2); there are, of course, many more such studies. My favorite study is, unfortunately, an anecdotal one, albeit one told by a respected professor: A man suffering from serious, possibly terminal, stomach ulcers embarks on a honey diet as a last resort and is miraculously cured (3). Such anecdotes will always be popular and can be looked at as the spoonful of honey that helps the medicine (dry research reports) go down. And, if you accumulate enough anecdotes, you have data.

Drug company representatives routinely visit doctors’ offices and leave samples of their products along with research data touting the benefits of their wares. Why can’t beekeepers in every community in the United States do the same – drop off a jar of honey at the offices of their local gastroenterologist(s) along with a two- to 20-page summary of a number of reputable research studies with a one- or two-sentence summary of each study? These summaries should be nicely laid out in an easy-to-read format and, for uniformity, they should be put together and distributed by the Honey Board. A footnote on each summary can indicate that copies of the cited studies (or extra copies of the summary) can be obtained by writing the Honey Board (assuming, of course, that permission has been granted by the authors or publishers of the studies to use their work in such a manner). Similar summaries (and honey samples) could be supplied to the local media. It might be best to wait until more information is available on the bactericidal effects of individual kinds of honey,* but a good case can be made for starting now.

I have a dream, a beekeeper’s dream: that every household in America will keep their cupboards stocked with honey and that whenever even the smallest in the household should say “Mommy, I have a stomach ache” that person, no matter what color, what nationality what religion, no matter, even, should that individual wear an earring in one ear or cut his hair in a manner offensive to his elders, that no matter what that individual’s status within the hierarchy of the Family of Man, he or she shall be ministered to with the universally accepted remedy, Honey. I have a dream that a day will be set aside each year as a time of prayer and contemplation on the part of all of God’s children of this great nation; a day of homage to the role played by the midwife of this medicinal bounty: the American beekeeper.

*As McCarthy pointed out, different types of honey can have different bactericidal effects due, probably, in part to the amount of hydrogen peroxide in a given honey (2). Eva Crane pointed out that some antibacterial factors in honey can be destroyed by heating at 8OºC (176ºF) for 30 minutes.

Joe Traynor is an agricultural consultant and pollination broker from Bakersfield, California.

References

  1. Tomatoes and Health (1997). California Tomato Growers Association., P.O. Box 7398, Stockton, CA 95267; (209) 478-1761.
  2. McCarthy, J. The Antibacterial Effects of Honey: Medical Fact or Fiction? American Bee Journal, May 1995, pp. 341, 342.
  3. Dobrovsky, T.M. The Disinfecting & Healing Properties of Honey. (Gleanings in) Bee Culture. December 1983, pp. 648, 656, 658.