There is a lot of information about fructose that I find somewhat confusing and misleading. The reason fructose is so bad for us is because as a society we are just consuming too much of it in an isolated form. That is very unnatural for our bodies and it does create fatty liver and other serious health problems. But the liver problems are caused by refined sugars containing fructose--NOT from whole foods containing fructose.
Never before in human history have we seen such a negative effect from eating fructose. Our ancestors never experienced such problems, but then again, they only ate natural forms of sugar in small amounts. These small amounts of fructose, such as the amounts found in a few servings of fruit a day, or an occasional dessert, are not are a problem. It is the daily overconsumption that our bodies cannot handle.
It does make a difference whether the honey is raw or if it is refined. It also makes a difference if you eat a raw apple or drink pasteurized apple juice, and it makes a difference if you drink raw sugarcane juice or you eat a form of processed sugars. There are many co-factors in the raw forms of foods that work synergystically to promote health and reduce the effect of their sugars on the body.
It may be difficult to grasp the idea that co-factors can change how the natural sugars work in the body. This is an area of science that remains to be fully elucidated. We do know that fructose in apples has a role far beyond storing as fat in the liver. A 2004 human clinical study done at the Linus Pauling Institute found that the fructose in apples is metabolized in the liver into uric acid, which is then used to increase the antioxidant absorbance of the apple's flavonoids in the bloodstream. Without the fructose from the apples, the antioxidant absorption is very low. There are probably more roles for fructose in the body that have yet to be discovered.
Similarly, a 2002 study
compared the effects of honey and refined fructose feeding on rats. Using equal amounts of fructose – just different sources – the authors explored the effects on several health markers. Feeding fructose raised triglycerides more than feeding honey. Feeding fructose decreased blood levels of vitamin E, while honey did not, suggesting less oxidative stress. Feeding fructose also promoted more inflammation than honey. All in all, honey did not produce the same ill effects as fructose, and in fact showed health protective effects.
Another set of studies
compared the effects of honey, fake-honey (a mix of fructose and glucose), dextrose (which is just glucose), and sucrose on several health markers in various groups of people. Without going into all the details (you can read them for yourself here), those who ate the real honey had better results. Honey resulted in smaller blood glucose spikes (+14%) than dextrose (+53%). Fake honey increased triglycerides, while real honey lowered them (along with boosting HDL and lowering LDL). After fifteen days of honey feeding, C-reactive protein and LDL cholesterol dropped. Overall, honey improved blood lipids, lowered inflammatory markers, and had minimal effect on blood glucose levels.
In rats, honey produced lower triglycerides, less body fat, and greater satiety (as indicated by the spontaneous reduction in food intake) when compared to sucrose.
Another thing to consider is the type of honey. Other studies show that honey with lower levels of bioactive compounds acts more like regular sugar while honey with higher levels of compounds acts more like a whole food. In one study (PDF), buckwheat honey was found to be the richest in phenolics and flavonoids, while rapeseed (yes, canola) honey was found to have the lowest number of compounds. The researchers didn’t explore the metabolic effects of the two honeys, but another study did find that people who ate rapeseed honey, but not acacia honey, displayed highly elevated levels of serum fructose. The same thing happens when you eat high fructose corn syrup. That would indicate that the bioactive compounds are probably responsible for the “benefits” of honey.
Darker honeys are typically higher in bioactive compounds and show greater antioxidant activity. Wildflower honey outperforms clover honey in some studies. Buckwheat honey ranks quite highly in antioxidants, even showing some beneficial effects on serum antioxidant status in those who consume it. When in doubt, choose the darker honey.
Some experts recommend no more than 15 to 25 grams of fructose per day in the form that exists in whole fruits. For reference, a medium banana contains about 7.1 grams of fructose, a cup of blueberries contains 7.4 grams. And while raw honey has some great benefits, it is still recommeneded to limit consumption to 1 TEASPOON per day. A teaspoon of raw honey contains approximately 4 grams of fructose.
So can you eat honey safely? Occasionally, yes. Daily, no. Raw honey might be a nice choice for a treat. It’s clearly superior to refined sugar, and the extent of the damage we normally see from sugar intake doesn’t seem to occur with honey. A better sweetener for daily use would be stevia or lo han (monk fruit).