Food and diet

Honey sold as miracle cure-all

Four news sources have picked up a conference presentation reported in brief in a science magazine, and run stories under headlines suggesting that honey “counters the effect of ageing”, “cuts anxiety”, “can keep our memories sweeter” and is “the new secret to a long life”.

These stories are based on a short article in the New Scientist magazine, which was based on a 20-minute presentation on “Honey: its effects on anxiety and memory in adult rats” at a recent conference. It is too early to make any claims of this sort for honey. A fuller assessment of this research, a fuller evaluation of the proposed mechanisms of action, and studies in humans will be required.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by Lynne Chepulis and Dr Nicola Starkey from the University of Waikato, New Zealand. The results were presented at the 2007 annual conference of the Association of the Study of Animal Behaviour.

Although New Scientist magazine reported the design and methods of the study, the results hadn’t been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal at the time of writing.

New Scientist reported that the work was funded by Fonterra, a dairy company interested in sweetening yoghurt with honey. 

What kind of scientific study was this?

The study was a laboratory experimental controlled trial in which two-month-old rats were given diets containing 10% honey, 8% sucrose, or no sugar at all for 12 months. The rats were assessed every three months using tests designed to measure anxiety and spatial memory. This included a maze that the rats were tested in.

What were the results of the study?

The rats that were fed honey spent almost twice as much time in the open sections of the assessment maze than rats that were fed sucrose. The researchers suggested that this meant the honey-fed rats were less anxious.

The honey-fed rats were also were more likely to enter novel sections of a Y-shaped maze, suggesting they had better spatial memory.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

Dr Nicola Starkey said, “Diets sweetened with honey may be beneficial in decreasing anxiety and improving memory during ageing.”

The author also suggested that “the findings may be due to the antioxidant properties of honey, which have previously been demonstrated in humans”.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

Given that this was a study of rats between two months and a year old, and that it was not designed to examine the antioxidant mechanism of action that was proposed by the researchers, it seems premature to make claims of this sort. 

If this effect can be replicated in humans, there is also the question of whether all honeys will have the same effect, or just the type of honey used in this experiment.

The important facts here are that this was a presentation to a conference rather than a published article, and the work was funded by a company interested in a product involving honey. Until a study is published in a peer reviewed publication it is usually not worth considering as having any real scientific merit.

Consumers may be better advised to take small amounts of honey in their diet because they like the taste rather than because of the promise that it may help them live a less anxious, long life.

Sir Muir Gray adds...

I like honey and am not averse to rats, but this report of what someone is said to have said at a conference will not change my beliefs about, attitude towards or consumption of either.

NHS Attribution