Researchers from the University of Reading in the UK and the Instituto de Fermentaciones Industriales in Madrid studied the effect of honey oligosaccharides on the growth of faecal bacteria.
Writing in the 18 March online edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they report that honey oligosaccharides had a potential prebiotic activity of between 3.38 and 4.24 on a prebiotic scale, increasing the populations of probiotic bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.
However they did not reach the same levels as fructooligosaccharide (6.89), the most widely marketed prebiotic ingredient.
These ingredients, which boost the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut, are currently worth €87 million in the European marketplace but are forecast to reach €179.7 million by 2010, according to Frost & Sullivan.
The market has been largely created by three inulin producers, all based in Europe, but other ingredient manufacturers are increasingly looking to promote the prebiotic effect of their products as evidence suggests that prebiotics could be even more useful than the probiotic bacteria that they feed.
Prebiotics, which are derived from insoluble fibres and oligosaccharides, can be incorporated into a wider variety of end products than probiotic bacteria - currently limited to chilled products - and prebiotics are also set to benefit from the promotional efforts of probiotic suppliers, who have significantly raised public awareness of gut health in recent years.
The new study suggests that honey could be investigated further for its benefits to gut health, though to impact the health of the immune system.
Honey also contains numerous antioxidants that are thought to help prevent disease.