I’ve always been somewhat conflicted when it comes to honey. On the one hand, honey has many reputed health benefits, especially manuka honey, which has shown promise as a topical anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent. Then there’s the fact that I have some moderate AOC1 SNPs with the associated seasonal allergies and there are some who swear that eating local honey will cure the allergic reactions many experience when they move to a state like Texas for example (Texas is a notorious hotbed for allergy that some simply cannot stomach). So, yes, there are some very real health benefits of bee products, that much we know for sure. So much so that archeologists have discovered ancient beeswax dental fillings dating back 6,500 years.1
However, honey is very high in sugar, and especially in fructose, so as someone who watches their blood sugar levels closely and who also just did a ton of research on strategies for lowering uric acid (a metric some doctors believe is a proxy for fructose “bio-toxicity”) I see eating an excess of honey as a potential problem as well.
Having said that, I have been eating very little sugar lately, and my dormant sweet tooth ended up getting the best of me on a recent trip to the Union Square Farmer’s Market. I have always been curios to try fresh honeycomb, but for one reason or another have never pulled the trigger. So I picked up a slice from a local vendor and took it home for what I considered to be a relatively healthy dessert. While I told myself I would eat it in a few portions, I basically ended up crushing the whole thing in one sitting.
Would doing this on a regular, if not more moderate, basis benefit my health?
Does eating raw honeycomb carry with it any unique health benefits?
I dug into the research to find out.
Is honeycomb healthy for the liver?
The first study of note I came across was one in which researchers gave “a substance purified from beeswax” called D-002 to patients with non alcoholic fatty liver disease (“NAFLD”) in doses of about 100mg per day.2 Now, it should be noted right off the bat that this is a very different proposition than eating honeycomb. Presumably, the beeswax derived alcohols were in a purified state and had zero honey or fructose associated with them. This would makes sense as fructose, which can only be metabolized by the liver, is one of the biggest, if not the biggest culprit behind NAFLD.3 While D-002 improved markers of insulin resistance in NAFLD patients, you can’t really apply those results to eating honeycomb. Just as you have only trace amounts of resveratrol in red wine, and would need to chug a few cases to get a meaningful dose, you probably aren’t getting a ton of the D-002 like compounds from having a piece or two of honeycomb for dessert. Not to say it isn’t beneficial in some way, but it’s not therapeutic. Further, in my experience, it’s tough, and probably unwise to go swallowing a ton of the wax from the honeycomb. When you’ve chewed the stuff long enough and swallowed all the honey, the last thing you want to do is eat the wax. Eating the whole piece of honeycomb in one sitting didn’t have my stomach feeling fantastic.
Honeycomb as a children’s cough aid?
This one appears to apply to honey, not honeycomb per se, but there is a study which shows that a small serving of honey actually worked better than cough medicine in alleviating coughing in children.4 In a recent episode of his podcast, Chris Kresser discusses the health benefits of bee products with guest Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals, a company devoted to creating organic products from beeswax. One of the first things they get into in the interview is the children’s cough study, which offers evidence that raw, unpasteurized buckwheat honey may be more effective than over the counter cough medicine. Since the pasteurization process robs honey of much of its natural enzymes and bacteria, eating honeycomb is one way to make sure you are getting raw honey. I don’t think anyone credible would claim that the pasteurized honey in the honey bears we grew up with has any health benefits. The only benefit to pasteurizing is it prevents the formation of crystals forming in the honey as it sits, but crystallization doesn’t ruin honey, it’s only an obstacle from an aesthetic standpoint.
Does honeycomb protect against bad bacteria and fungi?
There is some evidence to suggest that the beeswax and enzymes (such as glucose oxidase) found in honeycomb act as anti-fungal and anti-microbial agents against opportunistic pathogens like E. Coli and Candida albicans. The studies that took the time to look at this were in vitro, meaning they applied the beeswax to the various pathogens in a test tube environment.567
While the compounds in beeswax do show some promise in inhibiting these “bad guys” of the gut, there is a long long way to go before they become first line treatments.
In sum, we don’t put a ton of weight behind the few studies that are out there, even if they are interesting to mention. For eliminating pathogens like Candida, there is far more evidence supporting the use of certain probiotic strains of bacteria.
Having said that, we don’t want to poo poo (yes, I just used that phrase) the anti-microbial properties of raw honey, especially manuka honey, which is an established antimicrobial.8 It may be worth noting that the promise of honey as an antimicrobial is in its use as a topical agent, or even for use as a kind of mouthwash.9 Ingesting large amounts of honey is more likely to feed bad guys in the gut than it is to wipe them out.
Honeycomb and heart health
Similar to the liver study I mentioned above, one of the best studies out there looking at the impact of beeswax on heart health used alcohols derived from beeswax, but not beeswax in its natural form. So again, you have a concentrated product utilizing beeswax compounds rather than the direct administration of beeswax to patients. This is a key distinction when looking at the health benefits, if any, of someone like me eating beeswax from the local farmer’s market.
However, the study did find that the administration of beeswax derived alcohols had a positive impact on levels of LDL-C, with reductions of up to 29% in the “bad cholesterol” alongside a significant rise in HDL as well.10
Are there any dangers to eating raw honeycomb?
Yes, but they are minimal.
The most likely problem is an upset stomach. As I mentioned above, the beeswax residue in honeycomb is difficult to swallow and will give some people issues with digestion if they eat enough. My stomach was definitely off for a few hours after eating the large portion I bought from the farmer’s market.
Raw honey also carries the risk of C. botulinum spore contamination.11 So, while honey does confer health benefits, there is also the potential downside of contamination. The lesson here is buy honey from a trusted source and don’t eat too much at first pass (like I did).
I like beeswax in skin products more than I do in food. I will continue to eat raw honey, but think for at least, it will usually be out of a jar rather than a honeycomb.
The alcohols in beeswax seem to have significant health benefits when isolated and concentrated to doses much higher than you’d be able to get out of a piece of honeycomb, but products like Royal Jelly and Propolis may be a good option for getting concentrated doses of bee products in supplement form.