“Honey is honey, it’s just that simple.” So states the National Honey Board, and on the surface, the statement is true. Pure honey is nothing more than the end result of what honey bees produce from plant nectar and secretions. Honey is truly wondrous in its simplicity, as we’ll see below.
Yet honey is also complex. First of all, there are more than 300 unique kinds of honey in the United States alone. So much for simplicity!
The reason there are so many kinds of honey is the wide diversity of flowers from which the bees collect the nectar, ranging from alfalfa to tupalo, clover to yucca, and buckwheat to blueberry.
To make a single pound of honey, about 60,000 bees may travel 55,000 miles collectively and alight on more than two million flowers to get enough nectar—far from a simple job! In most cases, the bees responsible for producing honey are the European honey bee Apis mellifera.
Raw vs Processed Honey
Among the end result of all those busy bees is not only a superior natural sweetener, but also a product that offers a number of health benefits. If you want to reap those benefits, however, you should buy raw rather than processed honey, and here’s why.
Eating raw honey is like sitting down with the bees themselves (well, not quite, but you get the idea). It’s practically straight from the hive: unprocessed, unfiltered, unheated, and unpasteurized. Raw honey products will typically list these features on their label. In addition, raw honey is cloudy (because it’s not filtered) and will flow very slowly when you turn the container upside down.
Processed honey, on the other hand, which is commonly found in supermarkets, flows more easily and has been heated to at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit, filtered (which removes potentially healthful pollen), and pasteurized. These activities, according to the National Honey Board, have a devastating impact: “Enzymatic activity, antimicrobial properties, microbial quality, color and chemical composition are all influenced by heat and storage.”
When in doubt, contact the honey maker. Unfortunately, there are no nationally regulated standards concerning the labeling of honey. Therefore, even the word “raw” is open to interpretation, although the National Honey Board defines it as honey as it appears in the hive and that is not heated. You can read more about standards for honey here.
Raw honey is available in the following forms:
- Comb honey: honey and beeswax comb combined (and the comb is edible)
- Cut comb: liquid honey mixed in with pieces of the comb
- Liquid honey: honey that is extracted using centrifugal force, straining, or gravity to remove the honey from the comb. This form of raw honey is easy to use for baking and general use and is the most popular form in the United States
- Whipped honey: honey that is crystallized, which makes it easy to use as a spread like butter or jam
For the best honey, purchase it from beekeepers, either in person or online. Know where your honey comes from so you can reap all of its natural sweetness and health benefits (see below). Whenever possible, look for organic raw honey.
Health Benefits of Honey
We’ve already noted that honey can be derived from a wide range of flowering plants, and this fact makes it a challenge to study honey’s health benefits since they can vary depending on the source. One kind of honey that has been studied extensively is Manuka honey, which is made by specific Leptospermum species native to Australia and New Zealand.
This doesn’t mean that other kinds of honey don’t have healing powers. In fact, a 2016 study that compared Manuka honey with 14 honey varieties from Poland found that several of the types had even greater antimicrobial potential than Manuka honey. However, scientists often study only one or several types of honey because it helps investigators reproduce results across many studies. Manuka honey is one of those often-studied honeys, but unless a study specifically mentions this type of honey, you can assume another kind was used.
Here are some ways honey can support and promote your health. Raw honey is the preferred form.
Wound healing/antibacterial. Honey has been valued for wound healing for millennia. Today we have scores of studies supporting its use for treatment of acute and chronic wounds in humans and animals for its antibacterial and antimicrobial benefits. In a recent meta-analysis in Contemporary Nurse, use of honey was compared with silver in the treatment of one of the more challenging types of wounds: burns. Six randomized controlled trials were reviewed, and honey was found to be more effective for healing wounds than was silver; that is, faster healing time and more antibacterial qualities without the toxic effects of silver.
Wounds in animals. Honey is frequently used in veterinary care for wounds in animals. Whether you have a dog, cat, rabbit, horse, or other four-legged companion, honey can help heal wounds, cuts, and abrasions. Cover the treated area with a bandage that the animal cannot get off or that can be removed by other animals with which it may make contact.
Coughs. Numerous studies have shown that honey is an effective treatment for cough in children and adults. In fact, the authors of a new review in Medwave concluded that “the use of honey probably decreases the severity and frequency of cough, improves the quality of parent’s and patient’s sleep, and does not have side effects.”
Diarrhea in children. Honey can be used in oral rehydration solution in children who have gastroenteritis. Research shows that giving these children honey can reduce the duration of bacterial diarrhea.
Radiation-induced dermatitis. Dermatitis induced by radiation is a side effect among women with breast cancer being treated in this manner. A study reported at the 2011 European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress (EMCC) showed that honey may help prevent this form of dermatitis and also reduce the duration of episodes.
Allergies. The effectiveness of honey for treating season allergies in humans is uncertain. Taking local honey may help you develop an immunity to pollen in your area, but studies of this treatment have been inconclusive. Some veterinarians have had some success using honey for dogs who suffer with allergies. Dr. Richard Palmquist, for example, explains that small amounts of honey can be effective in treating pollen allergies and the accompanying itching in dogs within several weeks. You should always talk to your vet before giving your pet honey.
Other possible uses—human and pet. Some research has been done on the usefulness of honey in treating periodontal disease as well as heartburn/acid reflux and other digestive disorders. In this latter category, some people use small amounts of honey to treat their dogs and cats. However, there is still insufficient scientific evidence to support any of these claims. That has not stopped many people from trying it and from anecdotal reports of honey being effective. Manuka honey also has been studied for its cancer preventive properties.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that children one year and younger should never be given honey because of the risk of botulism. You also should consult a healthcare professional before using honey to treat any medical condition. Last but not least: go raw and go local when buying honey.
Carter DA et al. Therapeutic Manuka honey: no longer so alternative. Frontiers in Microbiology 2016; 7:569
Cox L. Heartburn home remedies, can honey help? RefluxMD
Fick S et al. Honey—a potential agent against Porphyromonas gingivalis: an in vitro study. BMC Oral Health 2014 Mar 25; 14:24
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Huffington Post. Honey in integrative veterinary medicine.
Kus PM et al. Activity of Polish unifloral honeys against pathogenic bacteria and its correlation with colour, phenolic content, antioxidant capacity and other parameters. Letters in Applied Microbiology 2016 Mar; 62(3): 269-76
Lindberg T et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dressings used for wound healing: the efficiency of honey compared to silver on burns. Contemporary Nurse 2015 Oct-Dec; 51(2-3): 121-34
National Honey Board. Honey varietals
Nitsche MP, Carreno M. Is honey an effective treatment for acute cough in children? Medwave 2016 May 30; 16(Suppl2): e6454
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