Once used by the ancient Egyptians to anoint their gods, honey has a long history of healing and medicinal properties that have been documented in cultures and holistic practices across the world. But is it really a healthier alternative to sugar? Here are some honeyed truths and myths…

It's rich golden hue and intense sweetness awakens the senses. As you spoon it into your beverages, bake it into your cakes or slide it over bread, you vaguely recall that there may be some healthful properties. A popular home remedy even recommends that you take a spoonful of honey in water, first thing in the morning to facilitate weight loss, but these are just one of the many honey myths that abound. You will not lose weight this way and if you've opted for honey as a sugar substitute, you may be disappointed, say experts.

Not ideal for weight watchers, diabetics

"Honey for weight watchers or diabetics is not as good as it is believed to be," says nutritionist Neelanjana Singh, Heinz Nutri Life Clinic in New Delhi. "It is a myth that it does not add fat to your body. Honey has just as much carbohydrates as sugar so it is best to restrict its use, especially if you're trying to lose weight or are diabetic. Since honey has some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, nutritionally, it is a better option when compared to sugar."

Essentially, honey is a mixture of glucose and fructose, both forms of simple sugar. And much like ordinary sugar, it is absorbed fairly quickly into your blood stream and has almost the same effect on your body. "Honey has a glycemic index value of 55 and sugar has a glycemic index of 68 which is much higher. Foods with a higher glycemic index lead to a higher rise in blood sugar levels which causes the body to keep releasing insulin from the pancreas to process all that sugar. High insulin levels in the blood have been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions. While honey is (slightly) better than sugar in this regard, moderate use is the key," says clinical dietician Ruhi Alware who practices at Niron and Guru Nanak hospitals, Mumbai.

Keep in mind that while it gives you instant energy, the calories in honey can quickly add up. In fact, a spoonful of honey will have slightly more calories (22 calories) than an equal amount of sugar (20 calories), simply because honey is denser. However, honey does have some intrinsic healing properties.

Sweet healing

History has it that before the discovery of antibiotics, honey was widely used in healing. "Honey has been in use since ancient times, both as a food and in medicine," says Ruhi Alware. "The Ph of honey is acidic which prevents the growth of many bacteria. It also contains powerful antioxidants with antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties. It has been known to boost the immune system, providing energy as well as aiding in digestion." However, raw honey (that which has been directly collected from the honey comb and has not been processed and packaged) is found to be a far more effective anti-bacterial agent than the processed kind. The quality of honey--which is determined largely by the bee itself and the kind of flowers from which it partakes of its nectar--matters too. "Different kinds of honey have differing levels of hydrogen peroxide and this is what provides honey with its antiseptic value," explains Neelanjana Singh. "There is a special kind of honey called Manuka honey. This has very potent antiseptic properties and can be compared to powerful antiseptics such as phenol and carbolic; this honey has been used to treat wounds in diabetic patients and has aided the healing of (severe) pressure sores and leg ulcers."

The presence of substances called phytonutrients also provides honey with its medicinal qualities, in particular, its ability to prevent colon and other cancers. Unfortunately, when raw honey is subjected to excessive heat and preservatives during the pasteurization process, the benefits of these phytonutrients are largely lost. If you're interested in reaping rich nutritional benefits from honey, purchase only organic, fresh honey that is 100% pure. Also, read food labels carefully to ensure that the honey you purchase does not contain any other food additives/ingredients. It should not have a strong odour either nor should it have fermented.

No honey for your honey!

Paediatricians around the world strictly advise against feeding honey to infants and children below one year. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics' Committee on Nutrition and the US Department of Health and Human Services, honey contains spores from a certain kind of bacteria called botulism, which find their way in from dust and soil. While these spores have no effect on adults, for children, they can be fatal or can cause paralysis, especially since the immune system of infants has not matured. So though your grandparents might ask you to feed your infant honey in order to prevent cough and cold, develop a sweet voice or give him/her glowing skin, realize that real dangers can often lurk behind propagating these myths.

So should one avoid honey completely during childhood? Not necessarily, says experts. If your child is above one year, honey is perfectly safe and can even offer lasting relief from chronic cough. In a study conducted by the Penn State College of Medicine in the US, it was established that a spoonful of buckwheat honey (a variety that is available in India) before bedtime helped ease cough in children over one year. The home remedy worked better than treatment with dextromethorphan (DM), an ingredient found in many cough syrups. When taken at the right time and in moderation, honey can offer the sweet relief of nature's bounty.