Honey is such a sweet item, we often reserve it as a term of endearment for those closest to us. But when it comes to choosing the best food product to add to hot tea, drizzle on desserts, or use as a salve for a sore throat, there are some bottles that have been getting all the buzz.
Yes, there are bees involved. And flowers. But there’s a lot more that goes into making every bottle of honey, and it’s a process that in and of itself is an incredible feat of nature.
First it’s good to understand a bit more about honeybees. These hardworking insects live in a complex, self-sustaining structure called a hive. Every hive is home to three types of bees:
In particular, honey is facilitated by a type of worker bee called a forager bee. During the warmer spring and summer months, these forager bees actively pollinate nearby flowering plants and, in the process, collect their nectar. The substance starts to mix with enzymes in the insects’ bodies; when they return to the hive, it’s regurgitated and reingested multiple times as it gets passed from bee to bee while transported to a storage compartment in the walls of the hive, or the honeycomb. (These hexagonal wax structures are built by the bees themselves with their eight wax-producing glands.)
At this point, the nectar is runny, so bees will use their wings to fan the liquid, which helps it form into a thicker consistency. The honey is then sealed off with a beeswax cap to keep it fresh for their own food supply and before being harvested by a beekeeper. When it comes time to harvest, beekeepers remove the frame from the hive to gather and extract the honey.
After a beekeeper collects the honey, it’s not always the end of its journey. Like many modern foods, it can go through a round of processing that adds in ingredients to help with appearance, taste, or preservation. In fact, nearly 70 percent of mass marketed honey found on stores shelves today is heavily processed, pasteurized, and mixed with high-fructose corn syrup and additives.
There are a few different reasons retailers like to sell these types of products. First and foremost, raw, unstrained honey has a typically cloudy or milky appearance, and oftentimes there are tiny particles and flecks of bee pollen floating around in it. While these compounds are actually extremely nutritious, appearance sells—and those traditional bottles at the store tout a smooth consistency that comes from a heating and pasteurization process. This also makes the honey pour easier and keeps its liquidity since heat slows down crystallization, which hardens it and turns it into a solid mass. Because of this, many consumers assume it’s cleaner and more convenient to use.
Honey can vary from brand to brand, and even harvest to harvest. In fact, there are more than 300 varieties of honey sold in the United States alone. The assortment of flowers plays a large part in the final product and how it tastes—just 500 grams of honey alone is made of nectar from more than 2 million flowers.
On the other hand, raw honey is the purest form of the liquid that honeybees produce—it comes straight from the hive to the jar. It’s usually picked direct from the source and processed minimally—really just to make sure dirt and other debris doesn’t make its way into the final product. There’s no heating, filtering, or pasteurization of any kind, ensuring that the concentrate retains pure flavor and all of its natural goodness, even including bee pollen, beeswax caps, and propolis, a glue-like substance that’s used as resin for the hive, which can be chewed like gum:
Other beneficial substances in raw honey include:
The fact that raw honey keeps all the essential nutrients intact leads it to providing a number of health benefits, whether it’s consumed or used topically. In fact, there are theories that humans started keeping bees upwards of 8,000 years ago (long before the dawn of food manufacturing and processing) as part of ancient medicinal rituals. Here are just some of the ways raw honey can help certain ailments:
The World Health Organization reports that honey can work just as well as traditional cough suppressants found in over-the-counter cold medications. You can create your own homemade, all-natural cough syrup with a cup of honey, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and two teaspoons of sage. Mix them up, heat, let cool, and strain—and then drink a couple ounces multiple times throughout the day to soothe coughs. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month, particularly helpful in the winter when illness hits a fever pitch.
Way before the days of penicillin, honey was used thousands of years ago to treat infected wounds. That also includes minor burns—in some cases, it’s even more effective than antibiotic ointments. The best option is to apply manuka honey (imported from New Zealand). While honey naturally contains hydrogen peroxide, providing antibiotic properties, manuka honey actually possesses a significantly higher amount of the compound.
Ingestion of raw honey may clear up diarrhea and prevent gastroenteritis and ulcers, two painful and potentially dangerous conditions, thanks to the amounts of potassium and water that can help rehydrate the mucosal walls in the digestive tract. Add to that the fact that honey is a natural prebiotic that helps to stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gut and you have a proven line of defense.
Your best night of sleep may be just a tablespoon of honey away. Although further studies need to be conducted, anecdotal evidence links honey to improved z’s, likely because if provides glycogen to the liver while the body rests. This puts the brain at ease and prevents it from activating a stress response.
With its healing properties, honey can also be used in a variety of ways to benefit your skin and hair:
It’s for more than your cup of tea! Below are some creative ways to try cooking with honey. Just make sure to opt for raw honey to get all the great benefits and enjoy in moderation (it is a sugar after all). Most importantly never give honey to an infant under 12 months of age, according to the National Honey Board, as it can lead to allergies or even botulism as their immune system develops.
A morning run to Starbucks can seem like a great way to start the day, but you might be shocked to learn how much sugar is in their most popular drinks (some with over 60 grams!) Instead, make your own healthified version of a caramel Frappuccino at home using sweet Medjool dates and honey that offer that burnt sugar flavor, without the impending crash.
Whether it’s for breakfast, a midday snack, or a mouthwatering dessert, this recipe is always irresistible. Strawberries are soaked in honey along with flavorful spices like mint, ginger, and cardamom that makes the fruit softer and draws out their natural juices resulting in a delicious natural sauce. Serve over yogurt for a healthy alternative to topped fro-yo.
Good-for-you bread is easy to make at home with this painless recipe. Just use honey, milk, white wheat flour, active yeast, olive oil, and sea salt, and with a few kitchen tools you’ll have a loaf in no time. Just wait until you smell it!
A standout chili isn’t just about using ground meat and red sauce; instead, it has endless notes of flavor just waiting to be discovered. This recipe calls for a number of different spices, including cumin, paprika, and oregano, as well as some unexpected secret ingredients like honey for a slightly sweet finish. Pair with some of the honey wheat bread for a complete meal.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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