By Hazel Grassie
How bees make honey
Natural honey (NH) is a sweet, flavourful liquid food of high nutritional value and extensive health benefits. NH can be of floral or plant origin, known as Blossom or honeydew respectively. To make blossom honey the honeybee visits flowers and collects the nectar, which is composed of roughly 80% water and 20% complex sugars. It stores this nectar in a special compartment within its body. The nectar is then given to a ‘house bee’ within the hive. This bee chews the nectar, using special enzymes to convert the complex sugars into simple sugars. The nectar is transferred onto the hive lining where the remaining water evaporates, becoming the syrupy liquid we know as honey.
The production of honeydew honey involves aphids and other insects that consume tree sap, excreting it virtually unchanged. This honeydew is collected by honeybees and converted to honey in their hives using the same method as for nectar. Honey that is almost exclusively made from honeydew is often labelled forest, bug or tree honey.
Honey production and consumption
Roughly 1.2 million tones of NH are produced annually. The major producers and exporters of this are China, Argentina, the USA, Mexico, Turkey and the Ukraine. In high consumer countries, 1.0-1.8kg is consumed per capita each year. Apiculture is a hugely important industry for global economies. The yearnings not only include honey, but by-products like wax, propolis and pollen. These natural by-products are yet to be taken full advantage of as hugely profitable resources.
Honey as food and medicine
The use of honey as a complete food in the diet has known no cultural or religious boundaries over centuries gone by. NH is most commonly used in baking, desserts and cooking as well as commercial sauces and drinks for its sweetness and distinctive flavour. It is also fermented to become mead (honey wine).
The nutritional composition of honey varies depending on the type (blossom or honeydew), the surrounding botanical environment and the climate. Honey contains simple and complex sugars, vitamins, minerals and a small amount of protein and water. Simple sugars, fructose and glucose make up about 60-70% of blossom honey and about 50-60% of honeydew honey. Blossom honey has a greater percentage of simple sugars, making it sweeter than honeydew. Vitamins present include vitamin C, B2, B3 and B5. Amongst the minerals present are calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. NH also contains non-nutrients such as phytochemicals, antioxidants and antibacterial moieties that elicit medicinal effects.
NH, particularly the darker coloured variety, is packed with antioxidants. The accumulation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species in the body contributes to the process of aging and development of cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Antioxidants scavenge these, rendering them harmless. Regular consumption of NH is thus, protective against these pathological changes.
Due to its antiseptic properties, doctors reported excellent results for the use of Manuka honey in the treatment of fungating wounds. Findings suggest that we should incorporate honey into wound dressings as a natural antiseptic. NH can be thought of as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It is believed that hydrogen peroxide formation in NH acts as an antibacterial, minimizing infections.
NH consumption has been shown to have a carrio-protective effect and reduce risk factors in CVD patients and at risk individuals. Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterized by abdominal obesity, raised blood glucose and insulin, high blood pressure and irregular fat metabolism. Unlike refined sugar, regular NH consumption cannot induce metabolic syndrome in animal studies. In fact, it can reduce blood glucose, insulin and cholesterol, helping to prevent CVD.
It has been well documented that NH plays a role in oral health. The accumulation of bacteria in the mouth causes dental caries. Manuka honey has proven to have a cardio-protective effect due to the presence of antibacterial compounds that prevent bacterial overgrowth. This effect could also be attributable to the calcium, fluoride and phosphorous content of NH.
NH has also been found to benefit gastric health. It is reported to have a protective effect on the stomach by inhibiting the growth of H.pylori, the bacteria involved in gastrointestinal disorders. The protective mechanisms may also involve the high levels of antioxidants that prevent inflammation. Furthermore, dandelion honey has been found to reduce gastric-juice acidity by 50% in gastrointestinal patients.
Finally, NH has been found to be more effective with regards to athletic performance compared to glucose gel capsules. It is believed that the fructose and glucose constituents of NH work synergistically to maintain a more constant blood sugar level. Whereby, glucose is released quickly for an instant energy boost and fructose is released more slowly enabling increased endurance.
Shopping for honey
Purchasable honey can be crystalized, pasteurized, raw, strained, filtered, creamed (set) and comb. The botanical origin of NH has a part to play in the levels of non-nutrients, thus the medicinal capacity. Some honey available has higher medicinal value due to greater antibacterial activity such as Manuka, Tualang and honeydew. They can be up to 20 times the price of standard commercial products. Although these have greater medicinal value, it is not to say that others have no purpose in your pantry. Irrespective of flower source or number, honey type, bee type or concentration- all honey has antioxidants and nutritional value above that of refined sugar. Honey has the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar, which along with its distinctive flavour, health benefits and attractive baking properties, lends honey to be a desirable substitute.
A top quality honey will have less than 18.6% water content and a flavor and aroma that indicate its floral source. It must also be crystal clear and free of contaminant aromas. The environment pollution levels, weather, landscape, beekeeper ethics and processing policies will influence these indicators. Honey is often adulterated with added sugar or corn syrup. When shopping for a good NH, look no further than your local honey farm for unadulterated, minimally processed raw honey. Moreover, local honey is produced by local bee species and is known to be an immune booster against seasonal allergies. Apiculture should be encouraged in countries with vast reserves of un-utilized forest. This would facilitate the use of NH as a cheap energy nutrient, sugar substitute and alternative medicine.