In the buildup to the November 2016 presidential election, a viral marketing campaign attempted to promote a substance dubbed Brazilian “sour honey” as a cure for cancer which Hillary Clinton and her “Crooked Cartel” were trying to hide from the public for their own personal financial gain.
Examples of this narrative can be found all over the internet in the form of sponsored articles targeting right wing web sites and text-only YouTube videos, both of which come with and offers of a free* ebook at the end. (*Free with a $74 membership fee).
Within that lengthy litany of anti-pharmaceutical talking points and wild Clinton conspiracies, the relevant portion in terms of “sour honey” are these brief statements :
In the heart of the Brazilian jungle, a tiny, remote area exists where special bees create one of the rarest substances on earth… It’s a type of “sour honey” that has remained untouched for thousands of years. Until it was recently tested in a lab and delivered these near-miraculous results.
Within 24 hours, Sour Honey was shown in vitro to demolish breast cancer cells on the spot – killing 13% of the cancer in just the first day alone! And in a separate study, looking at human-like tumors on mice, tumor growth was halted a full 50% with Sour Honey.And on two different aggressive types of prostate cancer cells, Sour Honey was shown in vitro to boost the speed in killing the cancer… destroying up to 75% of the cancer cells in the study! [...]
From early to late-stage cancer… there’s virtually nothing that’s too tough for Sour Honey. There are even over 299 lab studies on Sour Honey and cancer – with remarkable results! Yes, study after study confirms… FINALLY. We have a natural, safe way to beat cancer.
Such claims, however, must be interrogated on two fronts: 1) How valid are the scientific claims; and 2) How reputable is the person or entity making the claims?
Science and "Sour Honey"
Probably the first thing to clarify is the fact that sour honey is not, in fact, honey in any sense of the term. What the viral campaign markets as sour honey actually refers to a substance termed propolis, which is a substance created by bees and described in a 2016 study that sought to uncover its chemical variability:
Propolis is characterized as a complex and resinous mixture produced by bees (Apis melífera) through the collection of variable vegetable sources. Propolis is constituted by a variety of chemical compounds, including the derivatives of cinnamic acid, such as p-coumaric acid and Artepillin C, substituted benzoic acids, phenolic acids, flavonoids and amino acids.
Having cleared that up, we can turn to the medical claims. In general, they overstate the implications of legitimate (though limited) laboratory investigations and animal studies. More accurately, it would valid to say that some specific chemicals identified in Brazilian propolis may have potential as a cancer therapy if the results of animal or cell-line studies are shown to hold relevance to humans.
According to the ebook these viral posts link to, the main chemicals of interest for anti-cancer properties are artepillin-C, CAPE, vestitol and formononetin:
Brazilian green propolis contains a potent cancer inhibitor called artepillin-C that takes on a particularly vicious cancer promoting enzyme known as PAK1.
Brazilian brown contains very high levels of CAPE, or caffeic acid phenethyl ester, which thwarts many different kinds of cancer, as,well as a novel compound called diterpene 3.
Brazilian red propolis contains mainly newly discovered unique cancer-fighting compounds, including vestitol and formononetin.
And though their make up is very different, all three forms of Brazilian bee propolis have been shown to effectively defeat several cancers... both in the lab and animal studies (there haven't yet been any published human trials) and in practice.
From a basic fact checking standpoint, the above chemicals are present in the forms of propolis listed above. And indeed, animal studies of artepillin-C from Brazilian propolis have demonstrated potential in fighting breast or prostate cancer. CAPE sourced from propolis has been shown to be effective at inhibiting the growth of breast cancer in cell line studies. Brazilian red propolis, in general, has been shown to combat colon cancer in studies as well.
Whether or not these studies hold relevance to humans remains to be seen, but it is important to note that the above studies, for the most part, have tested isolated chemicals in regulated doses, and the chemical makeup of propolis varies considerably sample by sample. This is one of many issues that would need to be resolved before it could become a true therapy, as mentioned in a 2011 review:
Propolis is a heterogeneous product constituted by several groups of compounds. Moreover, the chemical composition depends strongly on the [vegetation around] the collection site, as honey bees can only use the plant species existing in their habitats.
The chemical variability can give rise to diverse types of biological activities, or diverse structures may present similar properties. Therefore, to make a standardization and quality control of this product is very difficult, particularly if we take into account the quantification of the active substances.
These preliminary results, as well, do not point to a massive coverup of the cure we have all been waiting for. There are myriad natural chemicals that have been discovered and researched that show promise as an anti-cancer agent that have yet to make it to market.
"Sour Honey" and the "Health Sciences Institute"
The claims presented about Hillary Clinton's role in stifling research about "sour honey" can be traced to an organization that goes by the name "Health Sciences Institute". They publish a variety of ebooks, including Insider's Book of Secrets: The Real Cures Buried by Clinton's Cartel, the product to which the viral stories and videos link with the offer of a "free" download if you join the institute.
A 2015 investigation by Mother Jones looked into this group, finding it to have a long history of using politically charged language to promote unverified or fringe ideas:
The Health Sciences Institute is part of a company called NewMarket Health, which is just one asset of a Baltimore-based publishing empire named Agora Inc. Agora's subsidiaries and affiliates publish more than 40 newsletters and sell more than 300 books on a range of topics, including biblical health tips, natural-healing supplements, and "insider" investment advice [...].
To find new readers for its ever-expanding catalog of publications, Agora's subsidiaries have tapped into a network of conservative heavyweights, including Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich, who sell access to their massive email lists to advertise Agora's products.
A notable example of this practice can be found in the 1996 book Who Murdered Vince Foster, published through an Agora company, which used the death of presidential aide Vince Foster (a popular topic among anti-Clinton conspiracy theorists) to sell investment tips. HSI's sour honey campaign relied heavily on the claim that Hillary Clinton (who HSI at that point appeared to assume would become president, and through illegal means) had, along with an ill-defined group of corporate fat cats dubbed the Clinton Cartel, devised a secret scheme nicknamed the "Executive Plan Five" to discredit the work of five key natural cures, one of which was sour honey.
In another instance, HSI promoted a cure for cancer allegedly found in the Bible to the mailing list of evangelical presidential candidate and former governor Mike Huckabee. The company has been fined by multiple regulatory agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, over an alleged cancer cure.
In a letter written in response to the Mother Jones investigation, the founder of Agora Inc., Bill Bonner, made it clear that accuracy is not the first priority of their work:
We are extremely reticent to censure our analysts and writers. Instead, we encourage them to speak boldly. And let readers decide for themselves. Of course, we will be wrong often. And embarrassed occasionally [...].
Fortunately, our customers don't pay us to be right. And we're certainly not paid to be timid. Instead, we're expected only to be diligent and honest, and to explore the unconventional, the often disreputable, and always edgy shades of the idea spectrum.
While specific components of bee propolis, like many compounds found in nature and studied by researchers, have had demonstrable anti-cancer effects in the laboratory, the research so far does not in any way merit claims that "the cure" for cancer has already been found, or that its lack of attention is caused by a large political conspiracy.
To the latter point, the entire concept of the "Clinton Cartel" and a "sour honey" subversion conspiracy is rooted in a company with a history of promoting extremely dubious claims using politically motivated narratives. As such, we rate this claim as mostly false, allowing only that there has been some legitimate research into bee propolis as a cancer therapy.