Honey has been around for millenniums. Cave paintings in Spain that are 8000 years old show humans gathering honey. It is thought to be both food and cure. As such it has a very special place in many cultures throughout history.
From prehistoric times through ancient Egypt, India, China, to the Roman Empire and Mayan culture, honey was used as a food, an offering to gods, a cure and even for embalming the dead. In Hinduism it is one of the five elixirs of immortality. In Jewish tradition it is a symbol for the new year. In Buddhism it is an important part in the festival of Madhu Purnima. In Islam an entire chapter of the Qur’an is titled the Bee. It has always been considered a healthy food and used for medicinal purposes.
Where honey comes from
There are many varieties of honey depending on the bees producing it, but the most common is the one produced by the honey bees (the genus Apis). Honeys can be produced by bumblebees, stingless bees, honey wasps, and other similar insects, however these honeys have different properties and are produced in lower quantities. They are harder to harvest and are less commercial. It is very rare to find honey produced for human nutrition that is made by bees other than honey bees.
How to recognize quality honey?
The flower’s nectar is converted by bees into honey. Honey has some specific characteristics you can look out for, to be sure to get the best honey quality.
Honey contains two sugars: fructose and glucose. That makes it somewhat sweeter than regular sugar.
Water content is another important property of honey: it has less than 20% of water, that is why microorganisms cannot grow in honey. This gives it a long shelf life. When it comes to water content it is one of the main characteristics that signifies the quality of honey. Premium quality honeys have water content of 18% or less. Some purists even say that everything above 14% should not be considered premium quality. If you want to compare water content in two different jars of honey (both containers should be at the same temperature) you should turn them upside down. The one where bubbles rise to the top faster has greater water content.
Premium quality honey has 18% water content or less.
However, honey is very hygroscopic, meaning that it pulls moisture out of air, which can start the fermentation process. To prevent this you need to store it in an airtight container. If properly stored honey can be preserved for decades, even centuries.
Aside from water content, processing is the thing that should be taken into account when honey quality is in question. The best honey is minimally processed, which means it should only be slightly heated up and strained. This lets the honey keep all of its minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Water content and minimal processing are not the only things to keep in mind when buying honey. There are a lot of honey flavored products out there that are basically corn syrup, as well as adulterated honey. These products may also contain flour, starch, dextrose, preservatives, etc., so be sure to read the label.
Best quality honey contains pollen, which is why it does not look clear when you look at the jar. The filtration process leaves pollen inside while removing debris like bee parts, wax, and similar objects. When looking at a jar, the clearer the honey is the more processed it is. For the best quality look for the least processed ones, i.e. those that do not look clear.
High quality raw honey contains pollen. That makes the honey in the jar look turbid with particles of debris.
Honey comes in different colors, from dark brown to light yellow. The color depends on the floral source the bees were using to make the honey. Color is not a sign of bad or good quality. With time honey can change its color, become darker, which can affect the flavor.
The spoon test
Another way of evaluating the quality of honey is by taking some of it (at room temperature) with a spoon and letting it drip on to a flat surface. If it dribbles instead of running in one continuous stream then the water content is above 20% or it has been adulterated. Once it reaches the surface it should form a blob, with layers that should quickly disappear.
Honey should not crystallize during the first three months from when you first open the container. However, this varies for different types of honey. There are certain types that can take years to crystallize while other types might crystallize in a matter of weeks and be of good quality. Crystallization is also affected by water content which can indicate that the honey is of lower quality.
It is very hard, even for experts, to distinguish natural, unadulterated honey from its adulterated counterparts. Numerous ways of testing honey quality can be found online, but the variety of types and sources makes it very difficult to form a system of rules for differentiation. The only definitive way to assess the quality of honey is in the laboratory. As a consumer you can either believe in food labels or buy it from a trusted source like your local beekeeper.
Storing honey the right way
Storing honey is simple: a tightly sealed glass jar is the best way to go. Bacteria should keep away from carefully sealed honey but honey can spoil if not stored properly. Metal containers are not a good solution because acids in honey may cause them to oxidize. On the other hand scooping honey with a metal spoon is safe. It takes time for the oxidation process to start while it only takes several seconds to scoop the honey out of the jar. If you have doubts about this, you can use a wooden, ceramic, or even a plastic spoon.
You should not store honey near a heat source, like an oven or a stove, but you do not need to keep in the refrigerator either. Honey will remain fresh in temperatures between 50 and 70°F (10 to 21°C) and should be kept away from sunlight. A kitchen cabinet that is not opened frequently is a good storage choice. If you want to store it for a prolonged period of time you should keep it below 41°F (5°C). Below this temperature it won’t crystallize and its original texture and flavor can be preserved for a long time.
Honey is best stored in a glass jar, away from sunlight between 50-70°F (10 to 21°C).
Honey as a sweetener
If you intend to use honey as a sweetener, you should know that it has 64 calories per tablespoon, and sugar has 46 calories per tablespoon. However, sugar is sucrose, a combination of fructose and glucose (two bonded molecules). Our body needs to use its’ own enzymes to dissolve and use it. Sugar does not contain anything else, it is just empty calories.
The main components of honey are also fructose and glucose, but they are not combined into sucrose. Honey bees add an enzyme that keeps them apart, so our bodies can absorb them directly. Fructose does not transfer to energy as efficiently as glucose, so it is stored for later. Besides these two main components, unlike sugar, honey contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Honey is also sweeter than sugar, so you will need less of it for the same level of sweetness.
Depending on the floral source honey can be of different flavors. By adding honey to your tea, aside from the sweetness you’re also adding certain flavor. Artificial sweeteners have no calories, and if your goal is to lose weight, they might be a better choice. However, they are not as healthy as honey, some might even be harmful to your health. It is better to go for good, premium quality honey instead.
You may use honey in your cooking and it can give excellent flavor to the food you are preparing. Just be aware that heating destroys all components of honey beneficial to your health. Adding it to a warm tea, or coffee is one thing, but baking a cake, or a ham at 360 to 400°F (180 to 200°C) is quite another.
Honey health benefits
When it comes to health benefits one should keep in mind that honey is not a medicine. It is a healthy food that might improve your health but not cure you of disease.
Natural source of energy
As mentioned before two main components of honey are two sugars: fructose and glucose. Glucose can rapidly transfer into energy while fructose takes more time to be absorbed. That makes honey a good natural source of energy for athletes. Honey gives a boost of energy from glucose almost immediately after being consumed and releases stored energy from fructose at a slower rate.
Since ancient times honey was used for medicinal purposes and considered a cure for many ailments. Researchers today investigate claims of honey’s health benefits that existed for millenniums, and still exist today. Most of the claims are unproven, except for wound care and cough suppression.
Honey used to treat wounds is manuka honey from New Zealand. This honey is the basis for Medihoney – a honey treated with ultraviolet light instead of heat in order to preserve its antibacterial properties. Manuka honey’s PH content, that falls in the range of more acidic, is the main reason for the wound healing.
Allergies and bacteria
Honey is often thought to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. However pollen that induces seasonal allergies is almost never found in honey, especially not in significant amounts. That’s why honey can’t help in building up your immune system against allergies.
In laboratory conditions honey was proven successful in fighting certain bacteria common in hospitals as well as certain food-borne pathogens. Whether it will have the same effect in humans is yet to be proven.
As a cough medicine honey can be beneficial in easing cough at night, as it soothes the throat and upper airways.
Honey naturally contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals so it is a healthy choice, if consumed in limited amounts. The amount of these healthy components in honey fluctuate from variety to variety. As a rule of thumb darker colored honeys have more vitamins and antioxidants than the lighter colored ones. Presence of these elements make honey a good choice for overall immunity build up and lowering the risk of getting diseases like cancer, heart and cardiovascular diseases. I am talking about prevention, not a cure. Honey is food, healthy if eaten moderately, and not more than that.
As I mentioned above honey has more calories than sugar, which means you need to take precaution when incorporating it to your diet. It may help weight loss if you consume it in moderation as a get substitute for sugar, but in smaller quantities. Drink a mixture of warm water, one tea spoon of honey and a squeeze of lemon juice on an empty stomach in the morning. This drink gets your fat metabolism working and is good for your liver.
However if you are overweight, consult with your physician, and/or nutritionist before taking this step. Same goes for diabetics and people with high blood sugar. Honey raises blood sugar level less than glucose and sucrose, but it does raise it, so caution is advised.
A word of caution – Botulism
There is a certain aspect of honey that can be harmful. It is considered harmless to adults, but it can contain botulism bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) that may harm children under the age of one. Honey can cause botulism in infants which causes varying degrees of paralysis. Adults and children over one year old have mature enough digestive systems and are safe from getting botulism.
What do you say? Do you prefer to eat honey by itself, use it is as a sweetener for your tea, coffee or smoothie, drizzle it over your desserts or mix it into your salad dressing? What is your favorite variety of honey?