Folks have been consuming honey for thousands of years. In fact, for many of those thousands of years, it was the only significant source of relatively concentrated energy in the form of sugar. No wonder the stuff was once considered to be a gift from the gods and to convey supernatural properties.
We’ve used honey in medicine, as a foodstuff, as a trade good, and even in the fermentation of beverages. More recently, honey conjures images of golden sweet goodness dripping from oven-fresh corn bread, or hot tea and lemon with the tartness tempered, but there’s much more to honey than the sweet
Turns out that honey’s color ranges from clear to almost black, and the stuff contains so much more than sugar that you might consider adding it to your diet to enhance nutrition – and health. Honey keeps the beehive going, and the bees that make it pack it with antioxidants, fructose and glucose, along with some minerals, organic acids and other nutrients. Raw honey in particular may be useful for helping you fight the effects of local allergens, thanks to pollen and other particulates it can contain.
What it is
Honey is a highly variable mixture of plant sugars (including fructose, glucose, maltose sucrose and others), water, organic acids (which are largely responsible for the flavor), and small quantities of minerals like potassium.
Some protein in the form of enzymes from bee saliva is also present, including enzymes that convert one sugar into another and that modify the structure of a particular sugar. The amount of enzymatic protein in “pure” honey is negligible from the standpoint of nutrition, but it can affect the sugar composition, and, in some cases, it can be used to help establish how fresh or pure a suspect honey is – of course, it takes thousands of dollars worth of lab instrumentation to do the analyses.
Particulate protein in the form of pollen may also be present in the honey. Pollen can have some nutritional value and may contribute to other putative health benefits.
The honey’s water concentration directly affects its storage ability. Most honey produced in the United States contains around 17 percent water by weight (on average) as it comes from the hive. This is sufficiently low to keep most bacterial and fungal organisms from setting up shop on/in the honey, and it is part of the reason honey has such a long shelf life without pasteurization. When the water concentration is greater than 18 percent, fermentation and other forms of spoilage can be an issue. To ensure a long, stable shelf life, large honey processors use various means to remove excess water from honey that is more than 18 percent water.
Honey gets its color in part from the harvested plant nectar. Sunflower honey tends to be bright yellow, buckwheat is most often dark, and orange blossom honey can be almost clear. The colors and specific flavors result from the specific phytochemistry of the nectar and pollen – and the environmental conditions in the hive. Generally speaking, darker honey has more antioxidants and stronger flavor than lighter-colored honey. Honey color and flavor can be further affected by storage length and environmental conditions.
Stored honey will often crystallize even when the concentration of water in the honey is not particularly low. Essentially some of the sugar comes out of the solution to form a solid, leaving a more dilute sugar solution behind. Crystallization is more likely when water concentrations are low and when relatively large quantities of crystal-seeding particles such as pollen are present. Crystallization isn’t a problem generally, but if the remaining solution becomes sufficiently dilute, some fermentation might take place. There’s generally no reason to avoid eating crystallized honey.
A lot of bee spit
Bees make honey by working very hard to collect nectar from flowers and/or other sweet plant secretions or from insect excretions (such as honeydew from aphids). This nectar, which is roughly 80 percent water, is collected into a special organ called the honey stomach and carried back to the hive. There, hive workers remove the nectar, mix it with their saliva, process it for a few minutes (the process is called chewing), and deposit it into honeycomb cells where water can evaporate from it. Bees even will fan the open cells of evaporating nectar with their wings to speed up the evaporation process.
Once the honey is thick enough, the honeycomb cells are sealed off with wax – but before sealing, pollen and other bits and pieces may get into the honey. A pound of honey represents the lifetime work of more than 500 bees. A healthy beehive might consume from 100 to 200 pounds of honey in the course of a year, so it takes a lot of honey to make honey.
More than empty calories
Honey is valued as a sweetener, but honey packs much more than a sweet punch. Scientific studies have demonstrated that honey has some level of antimicrobial activity, thanks to the presence of compounds such as flavonoids, and some raw honeys have been shown to reduce fat oxidation in meats and browning in some fruits. Some honeys also exhibit more general antioxidant capabilities and can neutralize a class of reactive compounds known to damage DNA and other cellular constituents.
Even more interesting is that the amount of antioxidant activity is related to the type of flowers used to make the honey and where that honey was grown. In one particular study, scientists found that buckwheat honey from an Illinois location had about 30 percent more antioxidant activity than buckwheat honey produced at other locations. Buckwheat honey had consistently high antioxidant activity compared with other lighter honeys such as clover.
Honey has a number of other proven health benefits, and some that haven’t been scientifically proven but are imbedded in its lore and mythology. In the realm of the not scientifically proven, honey has been used in moisturizing creams and has been used to help heal wounds of many kinds. Raw honey seems to be more effective than pasteurized or otherwise processed honey for wound healing, and it is also prescribed for colds and to alleviate any number of gastrointestinal disorders. The golden amber elixir can also reduce blistering and scarring resulting from burns. And for allergy sufferers, some say that eating local honey can help get your system used to local allergens – such as pollen.
The truly scientific studies relating to health benefits of honey are relatively few and far between, but they do corroborate some of the cultural and anecdotal claims. Part of the difficulty with studying the effects of honey is that honey is not a static mixture containing a fixed number of components. It is instead a dynamic solution that also may contain numerous suspended particles depending on when and where it was produced. However, scientists have shown that honey does aid in the healing of certain kinds of wounds and does help keep things sterile.
Finally, in the realm of health, honey has been shown to have probiotic and prebiotic capabilities, both of which can help with digestion and the uptake of nutrients in the gut. The prebiotic activity in honey is likely related to the nondigestible long-chain sugars it contains – these compounds can help stimulate the growth of beneficial microbes (by suppressing the growth of nonbeneficial microbes) in the gut. The probiotic activity in honey stems from the actual feeding and otherwise nurturing of beneficial gut flora. The beneficials in turn help you digest and absorb nutrients.
Not for infants
Honey, like most raw natural products, is a potential source of Clostridium botulinum spores – this is the bacterium whose toxin causes the often lethal botulism. Botulism usually occurs upon ingesting food in which C. botulinum was allowed to grow in the absence of oxygen. In that anaerobic environment, the bacterium produces the botulism-causing toxin, which is quite potent. Although rare, it also is possible for the bacterial spores to germinate in the gut and for a significant C. botulinum population to develop in the lower intestine, which happens to be pretty anaerobic. The likelihood of this happening is highest among individuals with severely disrupted or undeveloped gut microflora. Infants are among the highest risk groups because their intestinal tracts are just developing the proper balance of beneficial bacteria. When the balance is good, the C. botulinum spores don’t stand a chance. So, it is generally recommended not to serve raw honey to children before their first birthday.
Honey is arguably a better dietary component than refined white sugar, but that’s not the real reason to enjoy it. Honey is a miracle of nature and biochemistry that celebrates the delicate interconnections among humans, insects and the environment. Whether you use it in a salve, feed it to your newborn pigs, or simply drizzle it on your corn bread, you will be unpacking a delightful dose of past summer sunshine and honeybee industriousness that is as remarkable as it is lovely. Enjoy!
Several hundred distinct honey types exist in the United States alone. Many are only available locally, while others are distributed on a regional or national scale. Here is a short list of honey types:
- Alfalfa: light color with mild floral flavor
- Clover: clear to amber with very mild flavor
- Buckwheat: very dark and very flavorful
- Tupelo: light greenish golden color with mild but famous flavor
- Goldenrod: yellow with medium-strong flavor
- Orange Blossom: light color with mild citrus-flower flavor
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Joanne, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor-at-large at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines.