Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
Honey is one of the earliest sweeteners used by humans and preceded the use of sugarcane by many centuries. Beekeeping to obtain honey probably goes back to the early Egyptians who used honey in embalming, in medicine, and for food. Honey has long been a staple of the kitchen.
In Bible times, wild honey was collected from tree hollows and the clefts of rocks. John the Baptist had wild honey as a mainstay of his diet. The numerous references to honey in scripture indicates that honey must have been fairly abundant and popular in Palestine. Wisdom literature likens pleasant words and wisdom to honey.
Honeybees collect nectar to make honey to use as a food. A good colony of about 50,000 worker bees can put away about 2 lbs of honey in a day. To produce a pound of honey, bees may travel as far as 40,000 miles and visit more than 2 million flowers. Over 200 million pounds of honey are produced in the US annually. Honey bees collect nectar from different floral sources. There are over 300 varieties of honey, with clover and alfalfa providing the major sources of nectar.
Composition of Honey
Nectar commonly contains about 20 to 40 percent sugar. The bees in the hive concentrate the honey in the honeycomb to about 83% solids. Bees add the enzyme invertase to convert sucrose to the simple sugars glucose and fructose. After collection, most honey is heat treated to prevent unwanted fermentation by osmophilic yeasts and to delay crystallization. Honey is also filtered to remove air bubbles, solids and pollen grains.
The 3 major components of honey are fructose (38%), glucose (31%) and water (17%). The remaining 14% consists of disaccharides, trisaccharides, oligosaccharides, enzymes, and small amounts of minerals (such as selenium, magnesium, chromium, and potassium). The level of minerals in honey, however, does not compare with the level found in molasses.
Health Benefits of Honey
Honey has some unique properties that provide health benefits beyond its delicious taste and sweetening capacity. The oligosaccharides in honey have been suggested to promote the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria in the colon. This colonization may be useful following diarrhea or an extended use of antibiotics. Honey is also rich in health-promoting antioxidants such as pinocembrin and pinobanksin. The antioxidant content does vary depending upon the floral source and correlates with color. Honey from buckwheat, the darkest honey, was found to have the highest antioxidant content.
Of interest to the person with type II diabetes, the use of honey produces a smaller blood glucose and insulin response than similar amounts of carbohydrate from sucrose. Since honey contains large amounts of fructose it tends to be sweeter (depending upon the temperature) than regular sugar, so that less may be used. However, a tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories from the 17 grams of carbohydrate, while a tablespoon of table sugar contains 45 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate.
Honey has been used in ancient and recent times as a remedy for burns, ulcers and wound dressings. Some have suggested that honey may help to prevent bacterial colonization of a wound and help in the healing process. Due to its osmotic properties, honey creates a moist wound-healing environment in the form of a solution that does not stick to wound tissues. Honey can reduce inflammation and reduce exudate formation more promptly than standard treatments.
Honey is not recommended for infants under one year of age since honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores which can germinate, grow and produce a toxin in the colon of infants who do not have a fully developed intestinal microflora, resulting in infant botulism.
The food guide pyramid reminds us that table sugar (sucrose) is a highly refined carbohydrate and should be used sparingly. Likewise, honey is a concentrated sweetening agent composed essentially of sugars. We should not view honey as a vastly superior sweetening agent to be used without restriction.