There is such a wide expanse of nutritional supplements available for use to athletes around the world. Companies are now able to compact energy into tiny packets with varying amounts of processing involved. But could it be possible that one of the best forms of nutritional goodness for cyclists still comes in a very natural, very undisturbed form?
Honey is one of those strange and incredible products on the market that in a world of food development still maintains its core essence. Summer Glow Apiaries’ James Jeffery told us, “For honey to be labelled honey anywhere in the world it has to contain only honey, no additives, no preservatives, no flavourings, no colours.” When it comes to processing, unlike other forms beyond extracting the honey, cleaning the honey, and packaging the honey there is nothing else that happens to it. “In my opinion it is one of the most natural food products that is available anywhere,” James said.
But look beyond its naturalness, what is in honey that makes it so beneficial? There are many blends of honey available that range from clover honey, that one could by for $4 in a supermarket upwards. This all depends on the floral sources around the hives that the bees pollinate, ie: blackberry bushes, thistles, kanuka, manuka, rewarewa, all produce slightly different blends of honey with different nutritional properties. But regardless of what kind of honey you do get there are benefits that are universal to all of them. “The chemical make up of all honeys are very similar,” James said. “They all have very distinct similarities. They all consist largely of sugars which are naturally occurring plant sugars; and they can vary in different levels of proteins and things like that.”
Immediately then you have a contrast between honey and many energy gels which harness sugar differently. Large bodies of research in this field have combined to suggest that the sugars found in honey are more easily taken up into the body than the sugars found in many sports gels. “The fact that it’s not fructose based sugars, but natural plant sugars [in honey] that come straight from the nectar has a very low insulin response to the body. So the body doesn’t have to do anything to use that energy, it doesn’t have to convince the liver to do anything. The body can simply take those natural sugars to the muscles and make them available very quickly,” James told us.
Added to that there is a further advantage of honey. If you take products off the shelf in the supermarket that are high in sugar you often find that after consumption you experience a brief high followed by a severe low. Chocolate bars, chip packets and energy drinks are classic for providing this effect on the body. This is what is called having a high glycemic index. Honey is different though. “Honey doesn’t have a very high glycemic index,” James explained. “Which means you don’t have that large peak of energy and then a corresponding trough afterwards. So it’s certainly more effective and more efficient as an energy source than a commercially produced gel.”
So can honey improve your cycling? In a word, yes. In a sport like this where there is high strain placed on the body, it is to the body’s advantage not to have to work any more than necessary to take necessary nutrients into the body. While gels will be absorbed quickly during a ride, a lot quicker than solids, the naturalness of honey and the sugars inside them make honey much more agreeable to the body as well as quick to be digested. Combined with its low glycemic index, honey, this pure and natural product that New Zealand for one takes great pride in - with Manuka honey being native to New Zealand - remains possibly the most effective natural energy source at a cyclist’s disposal.