Honey – The nectar of the Gods
Honey has been used as a food and as a medicine for as long as can be traced back in time. The use of honey is seen throughout various cultures, traditions and civilizations. Records indicate that raw honey is the most ancient of sweeteners, was used all throughout the world and dates back millions of years.
Ajibola et al note that honey is produced by “honey-bees as blossom honey by secreting nectars of flowers and honeydew honey (forest honey) by secreting exudates of plant sucking insects (aphids).” (Nutrition and Metabolism 2012)
Honey is loved and revered not only as a natural sweetener, but as a medicine due to its antibacterial properties and also as a natural beauty agent.
Nutritional Value of Honey
- Honey is primarily composed of sugars and water, however it does contain some B vitamins, vitamin C and minerals such as calcium, copper, iron and magnesium. It also contains amino acids, proteins, antioxidants and inhibine, which is an antibacterial factor found in honey.
- The colour of honey is said to influence the antioxidant content and darker honeys are known to have higher amounts of antioxidants, when compared with honeys of a lighter colour.
- Calcium in honey is readily absorbable and research in animal models indicated that calcium absorption corresponded with increased honey intake.
Honey for digestion and gut health
- Honey (raw) contains enzymes that enhance the digestion of foods, particularly carbohydrates.
- Honey is a natural prebiotic and the consumption of honey may help gut health through increasing bifidobacteria populations.
- Anecdotal evidence suggests honey may be beneficial for the treatment of gastric ulcers and other gastrointestinal inflammatory conditions.
- The gastroprotective properties of honey are thought to be due to the antioxidant properties of honey that maintain or increase non-sulphydyl substances such as glutathione in the gastric tissue.
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Immune health and honey
- Honey has been used traditionally for treating colds and sore throats. The antibacterial, antimicrobial properties of honey make it well suited for this purpose. It is soothing and calming on the throat and oesophagus.
- The prebiotics and oligosaccharides in honey can enhance the immune system. Animal models shown higher lymphocyte count and increased neutrophil phagocytosis (cells that ‘eat’ bad bacteria or foreign particles).
Eye health and honey
- Many traditional cultures have used honey as eye treatment, particularly the Indian and Malian people.
- The antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties of honey have also been reported when using to treat various eye conditions.
Honey for skin
- Honey is most notably known for its wound healing properties due to its antiseptic, antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. It has been used traditionally and still in modern times for the treatment of burns, wounds and ulcers.
- These antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties also mean that honey applied topically for conditions such as acne may be very beneficial.
Raw honey may contain certain bacterial spores from Bacillus spp. or Clostridium botulinum which can cause wound botulism or gangrene. Medical-grade honey which is intended for clinical application (wound healing and topical application) is therefore sterilized to destroy these bacterial spores.
Medical-grade honey such as Manuka Honey has been tested for its antibacterial properties which are reported on the packaging with the industry standard unique manuka factor (UMF). It has been tested in a radial diffusion assay with Staphylococcus aureus to measure antibacterial activity of different batches of the honey.
According to the Manuka Honey website the levels are listed as:
The UMF quality trademark ranges from UMF5 upwards depending on the level of the non-peroxide antibacterial activity in the honey:
- UMF5 to UMF9 are low activity levels
- UMF10 to UMF15 are useful levels
- UMF16 and over are superior levels with very high activity
Honey as a Functional Food
So we know that honey is packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but is all honey created equal?
Raw vs Pasteurized honey
Pasteurized honey is the sort of honey you will generally find in your major supermarkets. This is the kind of honey that is nice and clear liquid and does not crystalize. It is usually heated to a very high temperature, which helps to prevent the honey crystalizing but this also kills off the good bacterial enzymes. It is also passed through a fine filter to remove any impurities or particles from the honey, leaving a clear golden liquid that does not crystalize. It may look good…but a lot of what is beneficial in the honey has been removed.
Raw honey health benefits
Raw and minimally processed honey is where it is at! This is where you find all the beneficial properties of honey. There are however still a few different ‘versions’ of raw honey. The simple way to look at it is: The clearer the honey is – the more processed it is and the less health benefits it has.
Completely Raw and Unprocessed Honey
- This is usually crystalized and will most likely contain some other ‘bits’ in it such as perhaps some wax, pollen and proplois. It is as raw as you get, but is usually obtained directly from the bee keeper.
Strained Raw Honey
- This type of honey has been passed through a strain to remove some of the larger portions of the wax, pollen or proplois. It is still not heat treated at all and will usually still be crystalized or will crystalize quickly.
Filtered Raw Honey
- This honey has been heated gently (less than the heat of pasteurization) and will be passed through a fine strain or filter to take out any impurities. It will be not crystalize much and will be a very clear liquid.
Honey and raw honey dangers
- The consumption of honey may produce a laxative effect, particularly in people with fructose malabsorption issues.
- Honey (raw or pasteurized) should not be given to children under 2 years due to the potential for it to contain spores that may cause botulism.
- Raw honey (unpasteurized) should not be consumed by pregnant women.
- Be cautious and do not consume honey if you are allergic to bee pollen or other bee products.
Honey has the potential to carry environmental toxins:
- Of 362 honey samples sourced from India – 23% showed the presences of lead.
- Of 32 samples tested from China, 96.7% tested positive for CAP (Chloramphenicol) which is a broad spectrum antibiotic. This antibiotic is widely used in food-producing animals for the prevention or treatment of diseases. In this same study, the 35 Australian sources of honey tested negative for CAP in all samples.
Where to get raw honey
Generally you will find raw honey in your local Health Food Store or at the Farmers Markets. Medical-grade honey can be found in your local pharmacy.
Different uses for raw honey
- In the Kitchen – Use it in cooking where you need a natural sweetener. You can add it to your tea instead of sugar or use it to add some sweetness to a smoothie or yoghurt. We love using a little honey in salad dressings and marinades. Or try making this honey caramel sauce.
- In the Bathroom – You can use honey as a face mask or even as a hair treatment or shampoo. Add a few tablespoons of honey and a a few drops of lavender essential oil for a luxurious bath.
- Apply to wounds, cuts, scrapes and burns.
- Combine with lemon juice and ginger for a soothing drinks to treat sore throats and coughs. Or try out ginger, honey & elderberry lozenges.
- You can infuse honey with other flavours such as cinnamon honey, truffle honey and lemon honey. Check out a few options here.
Ajilbola, A, Chamunorwa, J, Erlwanger, K, 2012, Nutraceutical values of natural honey and its contribution to human health and wealth, Nutrition and Metabolism, 9:61
Kwakman, P, Zaat, S, 2012, Antibacterial Components of Honey, Life 64(1), 48-55
Verzegnassi, L, Royer, D, Mottier, P, Stadler, R, 2003, Analysis of chloramphenicol in honeys of different geographical origin by liquid chromatography coupled to electrospray ionization tandem mass spectronomy, Food Additives and Contaminants, Vol 20 No 4, 335-342