Photography courtesy of Dana Crown
Honey is a food made by honeybees (Apis mellifera) that have collected nectars from a variety of sources, usually many types of flowers. The nectar mixes with the bee’s digestive juices, which partially digests the mixture that forms honey, where it is then stored in the wax honeycombs of the bee hive. The honeybee is one of the world’s most amazing creatures in that it provides food for humans in more ways than just producing honey, but by also being a pollinator. (To learn more about honeybees, go to www.benefits-of-honey.com.) Once in the bee hive depositing the honey into the comb prior to sealing, the fluttering of bee wings causes enough air circulation to keep the moisture content of the honey low, preventing fermentation, prior to the comb being sealed. Honey has the ability to absorb moisture directly from the air (hygroscopy), and the amount depends on the relative humidity.
It is believed that honey has been used by humans for more than 10,000 years, as both medicine and food. Apiculture, the practice of beekeeping to produce honey, dates back to 700 B.C. In ancient times, it was used more as medicine since it was expensive as a food source and only the wealthy could afford it. Honey’s antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties have been known for centuries and used topically to treat many kinds of infections. With the introduction and rapid growth of pharmaceutical treatments for infection and disease, honey’s many medicinal properties were forgotten. However, in recent years, new research has shown honey can fight some infections better and with less microbial resistance than even the newest pharmaceutical creations. The department of biological sciences at the University of Waikato in New Zealand has a whole research unit centered on honey research as medicine, the Waikato Honey Research Unit, set up in 1995.
Honey has natural antibacterial properties due to low water activity (a measure of the energy of the water in the product), osmosis (pulling water into itself from whatever it is next to), developing hydrogen peroxide, having high acidity and containing methylglyoxal. Methylglyoxal is a natural by-product of glucose metabolism in the body and was discovered in 2006 to be lethal to many bad cells in the body, including bacteria and cancer. Manuka honey, made from bees collecting nectar from the manuka tree in New Zealand, is reported to have the highest level of this substance.
The production of hydrogen peroxide by honey is formed by the enzyme glucose oxidase, which becomes active only when honey is diluted by body fluids in combination with oxygen. The hydrogen peroxide is released slowly and acts as an antiseptic. For this reason, honey is being studied as a topical agent for burn victims to prevent infection.
A number of research papers were presented at the First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health held in Sacramento, CA, January 2008 in regards to honey’s beneficial effects on blood sugar control for people with diabetes and endurance for athletes, as a cough suppressant, immunity booster and infection fighter.
The taste, texture, color and nutritional content of honey varies depending on water content, type of flower nectar used, temperature and the proportion of specific sugars it contains.
Honey is mainly fructose and glucose, along with maltose and other complex carbohydrates. It contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals, most notably manganese, along with some compounds that act as antioxidants, which are found in higher quantities in the darker honeys. Honey is the only food to contain the antioxidant, pinocembrin, which is associated with improved brain function. One tablespoon has 64 calories compared to 45 calories in table or cane sugar, but because honey is sweeter than sugar, you use less. In addition, because of honey’s carbohydrate complexities, it has a relatively low glycemic index value, ranging from 31 – 78, depending on the variety of honey, so it is absorbed more slowly than granulated sugar.
Selection and Storage:
Honey purchased in grocery stores is usually pasteurized, but raw honey can be found in health food stores and farmers markets. Raw honey has not been pasteurized, clarified or filtered and is your healthiest choice as long as it states “100% pure”. Keep honey in a cool dry place in a sealed glass container as moisture and temperature affect its taste, nutrients and shelf life, which is almost indefinite if kept under the right conditions. Absorbed moisture can lead to fermentation and why it is important to keep honey in a sealed container. The low moisture content and high acid level (pH 3.2-4.5) of honey creates a hostile environment prohibiting microbe growth, so it does not spoil. Do not heat honey in the microwave as this will affect the taste.
Honey makes a good sugar replacement and is sweeter. When using honey in recipes, use ½ – ¾ cup of honey for each cup of sugar. For each cup of sugar replaced, reduce the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup, and reduce the cooking temperature by 25 degrees.
Do not feed honey to children less than one year of age due to the possibility of honey containing Clostridium botulinum spores that can affect children of that age range. Honey is safe over the age of one.