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You might wonder if honey is a fast-digesting carb, particularly if you engage in sports and competitions.
As a dietitian, I’m here to explain how quickly honey digests and how to use it to your advantage.
Most commercial honey is fast digesting because it is made up of naturally occurring sugars (glucose and fructose) and refined sugars (sucrose).
However, raw honey has a higher proportion of fructose, which might lead to slightly slower digestion, since fructose-rich honey is linked to lower glycemic index (GI) values.
- While honey is often referred to as a natural sweetener, it still causes rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and can lead to health issues if consumed in excess.
- Honey digests around 30+ minutes after ingestion when eaten alone, so it’s ideal for providing you with energy right before or during your workout.
- Raw honey contains natural compounds like enzymes and bee pollen, so its nutritional value is higher than regular, commercial honey which is stripped of these compounds.
Understanding the Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) is a tool used to measure how quickly carbohydrates in food and drinks raise blood sugar levels.
Foods with a high GI are those that digest faster and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. Foods with a low GI are those that digest more slowly and result in a slow and steady rise in blood sugar.
The GI scale ranges from 1-100, as detailed below:
- low (1-55)
- medium (56-69)
- high (70-100)
High-GI foods are typically composed of simple sugars and refined starch, which are quickly absorbed and broken down.
Conversely, low GI foods contain more unrefined starch and fiber, which take longer to break down and digest.
While the GI is a useful resource for how quickly foods are digested, it’s worth noting that other factors like portion size and food pairings can also impact how quickly foods will digest.
- Related article: What Are Fast Digesting Foods? 10 Examples & When to Eat
How Long Does It Take Honey To Digest?
Generally, it takes around 30 minutes to digest honey; however, this can vary depending on the type consumed, the portion consumed, and other foods that are consumed along with it.
If you eat it on its own, it will digest quicker than if you eat it with other foods because the portion of food to digest will be smaller and there won’t be other nutrients impacting the speed of digestion.
If you eat honey with foods containing protein and fat, then the meal will digest slower because fat and protein take longer to break down.
Raw honey and regular honey might also have minor differences in digestion time.
Regular, commercial honey digests the fastest since it contains added sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose) to make it more appealing to consumers.
These extra ingredients are added through processing (such as pasteurization and filtration, and ultrafiltration), decreasing the nutritional value of honey.
Conversely, raw/minimally processed honey digests slower than regular honey because it contains no added sugar, and it might be higher in fructose (which is linked to lower GI values).
“A higher fructose to glucose ratio is associated with a lower GI value”– Peter Deibert, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Since raw honey is also not stripped from its natural compounds (like enzymes and bee pollen), its nutritional value is much higher than that of highly processed honey.
Is Honey A Complex or Simple Carb?
Honey is a simple carb because it is composed of simple sugar molecules, known as monosaccharides (one sugar molecule) and disaccharides (two sugar molecules).
Its natural sugars are glucose and fructose (monosaccharides), but when it undergoes processing, refined/artificial sugars like sucrose (disaccharide) are added to make it more appealing to consumers.
- Related article: Fast Digesting Carbs List: 20+ Examples
Honey also contains small amounts of complex carbs in the form of oligosaccharides (three or more sugar molecules linked together), which are slower to break down.
However, complex carbs only make up a very small proportion of honey’s composition and do not significantly impact its digestibility.
The following table shows how honey compares to other types of carb-rich foods using their GI scores provided by the International Tables of glycemic index values.
*Low GI foods are 1-55, medium GI foods are 56-69, and high GI foods are 70+.
|Raw honey (from a beekeeper)||53|
|Regular honey (commercial)||74|
|Baked sweet potato||91|
|Basmati white rice||67|
|Oat bran bread||45|
|Apple (with skin on)||40|
To put this in context, honey is slower digesting than a baked sweet potato and soda, but faster digesting than oat bran bread and apple.
As I suggested earlier, there is a large difference in GI scores for raw and regular honey (53 and 74, respectively) because both types of honey are made and processed differently, likely changing the fructose-to-glucose concentration.
Types of Honey: Ranking From Fastest To Slowest Digesting
While the International tables of glycemic index values show large differences in the GI of different types of honey (from low to high), they also outline their origin
So, a few popular honey varieties will be ranked in the table below according to their GI score.
*Low GI foods are 1-55, medium GI foods are 56-69, and high GI foods are 70+.
|Capilano Honey, a blend of eucalypt & floral honey (Australia)||51|
|Acacia honey, from the beekeeper (Germany)||53|
|Manuka honey (New Zealand)||57|
|Clover honey (USA)||69|
|Buckwheat honey (USA)||73|
|Tupelo honey (USA)||74|
Based on these differences in GI, raw/minimally processed honey has the lowest GI scores, whereas commercial / processed honey (clover, buckwheat, and tupelo) has the highest GI.
To put it simply, highly processed honey varieties have more added sugars and will likely cause larger blood sugar spikes and digest faster.
Benefits of Eating A Fast Digesting Carb Like Honey
The benefits of eating honey include:
1. Fast-Acting Energy
The simple sugars in honey (fructose and glucose) are quickly absorbed and used by the body for energy, which means that they are readily available for immediate use.
This makes honey an ideal source of fast-acting energy, which is especially useful when you’re low on energy before or during exercise.
2. Source Of Micronutrients
The raw types of honey are rich in pollen, enzymes, and antioxidants, all of which contribute to your daily vitamin and mineral intake.
However, most of the evidence looking at the benefits of eating honey is based on higher intakes (50-80 g), but the recommended serving size of honey is only 20-25g or 1 tablespoon.
So there are health benefits associated with eating honey, but the extent of these benefits with a normal intake of honey (1 serving) is likely less than the research suggests.
3. Facilitate Faster Recovery (when paired with other nutrients)
After intense workouts, consuming fast-digesting carbs, like honey, alongside protein and other ‘more filling’ fast-digesting carbs like white bread can aid in replenishing energy stores quicker, which in turn will support recovery and muscle repair.
- Related: Adding Honey To Your Protein Shake: Should You Do It?
Drawbacks of Eating A Fast Digesting Carb Like Honey
The potential drawbacks of eating honey are:
1. Difficult To Distinguish Healthier Versions
Choosing a minimally processed version of honey might be difficult as the only way to know the degree of processing in minimally processed honey requires conducting tests beforehand.
The best way to ensure you’re getting a healthier version of honey that hasn’t been stripped of key nutrients is to buy it directly from the source from a beekeeper’s farm or at your local farmers market.
2. It Can Contain Bacteria
The bacteria Clostridium botulinum can be found in regular and raw honey, which can be harmful to young children by causing botulism poisoning.
The CDC explains that botulism poisoning is:
“a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.”
It’s important to note that this is extremely uncommon in healthy adults and older children, but it is something to be aware of.
3. It Can Lead To Health Issues If Over Consumed
As it is a high-sugar food, it should be consumed in moderation. Excess consumption can lead to uncontrolled blood sugar and insulin resistance over time.
For this reason, it is recommended not to consume more than 10% of total calories from added sugar.
Overconsumption of sugar is also not the best option if you are trying to lose weight, as its energy is short-lived and it will not keep you full.
When Should You Eat Honey?
There are some times in the day when consuming honey is more advantageous than others, such as around your workouts and as an addition to meals/snacks.
- Immediately before (30 minutes) a workout, honey can provide you with a quick energy boost, particularly if you feel low on energy or tired before a workout.
- During prolonged and intense workouts lasting 1 hour or more, honey can help to keep you energized and maintain performance (the advice is to consume 30-60 grams per hour of simple carbs during exercise of >60–90 min in duration).
- After a workout, honey paired with a balanced meal or snack can help replenish energy stores and support muscle recovery.
Snack time or breakfast time:
- Honey can be a great natural sweetener addition to some foods that can provide an energy boost and keep your sweet tooth satisfied until your next meal. You can try drizzling it over yogurt or oatmeal or spreading it on whole-grain toast.
How To Make Honey Digest Faster or Slower
1. Pair It With Other Nutrients
Eating honey coupled with fiber (i.e. berries), fat (i.e. nuts), and protein sources (i.e. greek yogurt) slows down the digestion of honey, which helps to stabilize blood sugar levels.
The increased volume of food and the digestion time of these complex nutrients will provide you with longer-lasting energy.
2. Choose It According To Its Processing
If you want a faster digesting honey, opt for commercial/processed honey which has more added sugars and likely less fructose.
Learn More About Honey
Deibert P, König D, Kloock B, Groenefeld M, Berg A. Glycaemic and insulinaemic properties of some German honey varieties. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;64(7):762-4. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2009.103. Epub 2009 Sep 16. PMID: 19756024.
Bogdanov, Stefan & Jurendic, Tomislav & Sieber, Robert & Gallmann, Peter. (2009). Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 27. 677-89. 10.1080/07315724.2008.10719745.
Hills, S. P., Mitchell, P., Wells, C., & Russell, M. (2019). Honey Supplementation and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 11(7), 1586. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071586
Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
Deibert, P., Konig, D., Vitolins, M. Z., Landmann, U., Frey, I., Zahradnik, H. P., & Berg, A. (1998). Glycaemic index of foods with special reference to the influence of food preparation. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 52(7), 467-471. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1600589
Foster-Powell, K., Holt, S. H., & Brand-Miller, J. C. (2002). International table of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2002. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(1), 5-56. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/76.1.5
International Tables of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values: 2008 by David Mendosa | Diabetes Care (diabetesjournals.org). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/31/12/2281
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019). Added sugars: Don’t get sabotaged by sweeteners – Mayo Clinic . Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/added-sugar/art-20045328
National Honey Board | Honey, Recipes, Research, Information . (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.honey.com/
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) . (n.d.). Botulism | CDC . Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/botulism/index.html
World Health Organization . (2015). Sugars intake for adults and children . Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028
About The Author
Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist. She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta). Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals. She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).
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