Honey is many things to many people. It’s a nutritious, natural sweetener, a concentrated energy source, and an ancient folk remedy for health and healing. Honey is also an active ingredient in beauty and skin-care products and the subject of medical research. What exactly is this sweet, syrupy superfood, and how can it help you?
Honeybees make honey from sweet flower nectar that they gather in their travels and bring back to their hive. The nectar is transferred from the collector bee to the worker bees back at the hive, who process the sweet liquid into a thick syrup and store it in honeycomb. (1)
The honeycomb itself is made of wax produced by younger bees and molded into hexagonal-shaped cells strong enough to hold the honey. As the worker bees unload the nectar into the cells, they fan it with their wings to help evaporate moisture so it becomes even thicker, stickier, and more resistant to spoilage. The bees then seal the honeycomb cells with more wax to protect the honey during storage. (1,2,3,4)
Beekeepers use various methods to squeeze or otherwise extract honey from the honeycomb. Some methods drain the honey while preserving the wax comb so it can be used again, while others melt or otherwise manipulate the wax to remove and separate out the raw honey. (1) Small-scale beekeepers usually stop here and sell honey in its raw state, but most mass producers of honey sold in supermarkets take the process a step further, buying up big batches of honey, and then diluting, heating, and filtering the raw product to remove pollen and other naturally occurring substances. (5)
How honey looks and tastes depends on the type of flower that provides the nectar and can also be affected by weather conditions in different regions. Lighter-colored honeys (such as clover, tupelo, and alfalfa) are generally milder in flavor, while amber-colored honeys (such as orange blossom, avocado, and eucalyptus) are more moderately flavored. The more deeply colored honeys, such as those from buckwheat and knotweed (sometimes known as bamboo or Japanese bamboo) have the most intense flavor of all. (6,7)
You can substitute your favorite honey for sugar in almost any dish or drink. Because honey is sweeter than sugar, you’ll probably want to use less. Honey is also considered a liquid, so you may need to make adjustments to some of your recipes.
Here are some general tips for baking with honey: (8)
Nutritionally speaking, raw honey contains very small amounts of a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and disease-fighting antioxidants that, theoretically, make it more healthful than granulated white sugar (table sugar). (9)
But honey is mostly a combination of glucose and fructose — some of the same sugary substances that make up white sugar (though in varying proportions) — as well as other liquid sweeteners from natural sources, such as agave and maple syrup. (10,11)  Compared with granulated sugar, honey is sweeter, higher in calories, and higher in carbs and total sugars.
One tablespoon (tbsp) honey, equal to 21 grams (g), provides about 60 calories and 17 g carbohydrates (16 to 17 g from sugar), while 1 tbsp granulated sugar provides 49 calories and 13 g carbohydrates (13 g from sugar). (12)
Honey’s natural antibacterial qualities are well known. In the hive, as the original nectar dehydrates and is converted into what we know as honey, small amounts of antiseptic hydrogen peroxide are produced. (13) Because hydrogen peroxide has antibacterial qualities, honey has traditionally been used as a topical medication and is currently used to promote healing and prevent infection in skin wounds, burns, and ulcerations, including surgical wounds, pressure sores, diabetic foot ulcers, and various types of leg ulcers.
When modern antibiotics were developed, medicinal use of honey fell out of favor. But with the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent decades, researchers are looking anew at honey’s antibacterial qualities. Because bacteria do not generally seem to develop resistance to honey, it has therapeutic potential for use as a broad-spectrum antibiotic (one that can treat different types of infections). Just be sure to follow your doctor’s orders. This potential benefit doesn’t trump the known benefits of modern medicine.
Honey is the subject of ongoing research as a potential ingredient in supplements and medications that could be used to treat a wide range of health issues, including asthma, gum disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, diarrhea, fungal infections, inflammation, internal and external ulcerations, viruses, and even certain types of cancer. (9)
Because most experiments to date have been performed on laboratory animals and in petri dishes, using specially prepared, medical-grade honey, it’s not yet clear if or exactly how honey can be used successfully by people for most of these conditions. If future research confirms honey’s effectiveness in humans, scientists will also need to determine which types of honey are potent enough to have a medicinal effect and, when taken orally, how much honey is effective for different conditions. (14)
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Therapeutic honeys — such as manuka (leptospermum) from New Zealand and Australia, and tualang from Malaysia — are used as topical antiseptics in skin gels, creams, wound dressings, and other medicinal skin treatment products, and are available in most markets that feature natural or alternative remedies. These honey varieties are of particular interest to researchers and the medical community because of their unique ability to stimulate healing and reduce the formation of scar tissue in spite of low levels of hydrogen peroxide. (15,16,17)
Traditional Indian Ayurveda medicine, sometimes incorporated into alternative and complementary medical practices in the United States and other Western countries, finds many uses for honey as a home remedy. These include mixing 2 parts lime juice with 1 part honey to use as a gargle for sore throats and mixing an equal amount of honey and ginger juice for use as a cough syrup. Ayurveda practitioners may have been among the first to use honey as a topical remedy for burns, cuts, and various forms of dermatitis and eczema.
And if you partied a little too hard last night, Ayurveda medicine also recommends stirring about 2 teaspoons honey and ½ cup plain yogurt into ½ cup orange juice as a hangover remedy. (1,18)
The healing components of honey are also used in many cosmetic skin and hair preparations, not only for their antiseptic and antioxidant potential but for their softening, soothing, and conditioning effects. Honey lubricates your skin and holds onto moisture, making it an ideal ingredient in the production of beauty products ranging from lip balms and lotions to shampoos and facial scrubs. (1,19) Proponents of natural skin care and cosmetics sometimes recommend practices like applying honey directly on pimples and dry lips, and diluting about a teaspoon of honey in 4 cups warm water to use as a hair rinse for added sheen. (1)
Though honey generally falls into the “can’t hurt, might help” category of functional foods and natural remedies, and may have advantages over table sugar, there are a few cautionary tales to tell.
If you are trying to lose weight, have high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) or diabetes, or are watching your carb intake for any reason, take your honey in small doses if at all. In fact, if you have any blood sugar issues, speak with your doctor or dietitian about incorporating honey into your diet. Although animal studies have shown that honey can lower both blood sugar and blood fats (triglycerides) and increase the amount of insulin released into the bloodstream, these benefits occurred while using honey in combination with diabetes medications and have yet to be confirmed in humans. (20)
Although rare, there have also been reports of allergic reactions ranging from rashes and hives to life-threatening anaphylactic shock from both topically applied and ingested honey. Take extra care if you know you are allergic to bees or pollen. Honey is a known allergen, and those with an allergy to it should take extra caution, according to a February 2016 case study published in Contact Dermatitis. (21, 22)
Q: Can honey go bad?
The same substances that give honey its medicinal qualities also make it shelf-stable and resistant to spoilage. In fact, as long as it’s tightly covered to keep out humidity, and no liquid is added, you can store honey indefinitely at room temperature. It may thicken and crystallize over time, but that’s not a sign of spoilage. (23, 24)
Q: Is there any benefit to buying honey from a beekeeper rather than from a supermarket?
A: If you buy from a beekeeper, the honey that comes to your table is likely to be harvested pretty much straight from a hive, with nothing added or removed. But honey products purchased from a supermarket or grocery chain, even those labeled “pure honey,” may be highly filtered, and some may even be diluted with less expensive sweeteners like corn syrup. (5) Filtering removes beneficial pollens and other natural ingredients that are thought to contribute to its healing power and also help identify its source, when necessary. While the brand name may be familiar, there’s no way for you to tell where ultrafiltered commercial honey actually came from. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued nonbinding recommendations for honey production, packaging, and labeling, but products are not strictly regulated, nor are the FDA's rules necessarily enforced; they are simply presented as guidelines for the industry. (25) To be sure you’re getting the real thing, it’s best to buy raw honey from a locally known and respected beekeeper. You’ll also have the pleasure of knowing that you’re supporting a local industry.
Q: Is it true that honey is actually bee vomit?
A: Technically, no, and it’s not a form of bee poop either (another common misconception). As bees buzz around, collecting nectar that ultimately becomes honey, they carry it in their crop, or “honey stomach,” an expandable, pouchlike organ separate from their regular stomach. From there, the nectar is transferred to worker bees back at the hive that have been busy building honey storage cells. These worker bees chew on the nectar to eliminate some of the liquid, and then deposit it into the cells of their hive. It is correct to say, however, that nectar is regurgitated from the collector bee’s crop or the worker bee’s mouth parts to transfer honey from bee to bee and make these deposits into the hive. (1)
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