Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

A Sweet, Sweet Summer: Does Raw Honey Have Nutritional Health Benefits?

June 28th, 2011 · 33 Comments · Food for Thought

Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners humans have been consuming, takes the least processing in my opinion, since the bees do almost all the work, and was also responsible for the first alcoholic mead (your fun, unrelated fact for the day). Honey, especially raw honey, also has some genuine nutritional health benefits.

health benefits of raw honey

(photo source)

In our household, we buy honey by the half gallon, and I use it nearly daily in my homemade yogurt. When we were regularly having homemade sourdough bread, it was raw honey and lots of butter that made for an excellent and simple breakfast. I also use it regularly in homemade granola (the soaked version is our current standby, but that recipe is exclusive to the Healthy Snacks to Go eBook) and grain-free granola, also exclusively in HSTG. All these recipes are vital to our family’s nutrition!

Yum. Local, raw honey is definitely worth the investment.

I took a little flack when I introduced the Sweet, Sweet Summer series yesterday because I said I wasn’t sure all the unrefined and “natural” sweeteners were worth the double, triple and more price premium, especially since I wasn’t convinced the health benefits were all that much more than plain old white sugar.

I should have clarified by saying the granulated sweeteners. I’m a huge fan of honey and maple syrup, clearly natural, clearly with some nutritional health benefits, and oh so delicious. Gallons of both pass through our home each year. But sucanat, Rapadura, unrefined cane sugar…I’m just not sure yet. We’ll get into those over the next few months!

Where Does Honey Come From?

raw honey processing

(photo source)

I’m hoping most of you know the answer to this question. Winking smile Bees, of course, use nectar from flowers to make honey. The process is basically this:

  1. Collect nectar from 100-1500 flowers.
  2. Transfer nectar to worker bee, who pre-digests it with enzymes, breaking complex sugars (sucrose) into simple sugars (glucose and fructose). This makes the honey:
    • more easily digestible
    • somewhat resistant to bacteria
    • have a longer shelf life (honey lasts halfway to forever…a scientific phrase, you know) – honey is the only food that never spoils
  3. Fan the enzymatic nectar to dehydrate it from about 80% water to less than 20% water – the thick, sticky honey we’re accustomed to.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Health Benefits of Raw Honey

If you buy your honey in the supermarket, I challenge you to find a source of raw honey, since all these marvelous health benefits only apply to raw honey. Raw means the honey has not been heated over 116F, but talking to the producer is really the only way to ensure that the product you find is truly raw, since the term “raw” is not really regulated by the government.filtering raw honey

If your honey is really raw, it may start to solidify after a few months. Don’t worry if it does; the honey is still good to eat (and my kids both think the solid, creamy honey is actually better on toast than the liquid). Because the honey is so thick, straining is slow and difficult, and you’ll likely have some pollen in truly raw honey (most producers heat it to 160F or so to speed up the filtering process, since the honey becomes more liquid at that point). source UPDATE: a few in the comments corrected me – not all raw honey solidifies.

(photo source)

List of health benefits of truly raw honey:

  • Anti-Bacterial, Anti-Viral, Anti-Fungal (can even be used topically to treat infection)
  • Treats coughs/upper respiratory infections
  • May promote better blood sugar control source
  • Experimental evidence indicates that consumption of honey may improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity compared to other sweeteners.
  • Antioxidants
  • Improved HDL cholesterol
  • Boosts immunity
  • Pre-digests starches for you – if you leave your raw honey on bread for 15 minutes, the amylase enzyme begins to break down the complex sugars/starches in the bread, making it ultimately easier to digest for you.
  • Some research shows that taking a Tbs of raw honey made within 100 miles of your home fights off seasonal allergies. The reason is something about the bees processing the same pollen that is making you sneeze, and you consuming the processed pollen, inoculating your system against the allergens…Sounds like a fun remedy to me! “Here, honey, take your spoonful of honey to fight allergies!” Better than a prescription med if it works for you.

Sources: 1, 2, Nourishing Traditions

Nutritional Profile of Honey

health benefits of raw honey

(photo source)

Unlike refined white sugar, there are a few redeeming nutritional values of honey that make it a bit less of an “empty calorie” – but it’s still not exactly “half full.” Honey is made up of:

  • almost entirely carbs/sugars
  • TRACE amounts of
    • protein
    • calcium
    • iron
    • Vitamin C, folate, and choline
    • potassium
  • You’d need to have a whole cup of honey in one day just to get to 2% DV of calcium and 8% of iron…so you’re not going to get nutritionally satisfied from this stuff, no matter how excellently it’s processed.
Possible Disadvantages of Honey as a Natural Sweetener

As with all sweeteners, honey is still a carb, still a sugar, and still adds calories to your diet. Reasons you might shy away from using honey include:

  • Nearly as high on the glycemic index as white sugar – important for anyone to note, but especially diabetics. A sweet is a sweet, although both honey and white sugar are termed medium-low in their impact on blood sugar. Some forms of honey actually have a much lower glycemic index (in the 30s compared to 55 for standard clover honey), so it’s worth looking into those if this area is important to you. (White sugar is about 68 on the glycemic index.)
  • Note: some advocate that honey is actually much higher on the glycemic index than sugar, and downright dangerous for diabetics. source And, lo and behold, you can find the opposite as well. Some cite raw honey as being much lower on the glycemic index than pasteurized honey. source
  • Expense – honey is certainly much more expensive than white sugar, but not terrible compared to other natural sweeteners since you need less honey to pack in the same sweetness.
  • Harder to bake with – if you want to use honey in place of granulated table sugar in a baking recipe (more on baking with honey), you’ll find that you have to make changes to the recipe and baking time, since honey is sweeter, liquid, and browns faster in the oven. Then again, if you’re baking with honey, you lose all the raw qualities above.
  • Distinct flavor – sometimes the honey flavor is precisely what you want, but to simply sweeten something without adding a unique flavor, honey likely won’t be your target.
  • Don’t forget - honey is NOT for children under the age of one year.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Later this week I’ll share some favorite honey recipes, including the tea that is turning me into a tea drinker for the first time in my life! Here are the honey recipes and instructions for baking with honey.

How about you? Do you use honey? Is it raw? What’s your favorite honey dish?

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33 Comments so far ↓

  • Peggy

    The distinct flavor is something we enjoy here. We eat raw local honey year-round to help with our allergies. We buy a mild wildflower honey for most cooking, but buy small amounts of a special “sourwood” honey for some special things because of its unique flavor. But, like olive oil, I only use it for uncoooked items and choose other sweeteners for cooking.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • My-Home-Remedies.com

    We love raw honey! I do think honey has a lot of health benefits, and while it IS still as sugar, IMO it is one of the best sugars out there. This page has some info. on the benefits of honey.
    http://www.my-home-remedies.com/apple-cider-vinegar-and-honey.html

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kadee

    We have lived in our current home for 6 years. For the 1st 5 springs, I had horrible allergies. I heard about using local raw honey, so beginning last summer, I began using 1TBS honey in my oatmeal every day. This spring I did not have one single allergy symptom. I’m a believer! I also use honey in my breads, but I use the less expensive grocery store kind since all the health benefits are lost with baking.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Mandi @ Life...Your Way

    I’m so glad you started with honey. We *just* started buying raw honey (I didn’t even know there was a difference until recently), and I am so intrigued by the allergy connection. I’ve been dealing with nasty allergies this year, and I’m not sure the honey I have was manufactured within the 100 miles, but I’m going to pick some local stuff up at the farmer’s market tomorrow and give this a try! I was THIS close to giving in and buying some Zyrtec because I’ve been so miserable, so I hope it works!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    I hope it does too! There are some homeopathic and herbal allergy remedies out there, too, if the pollen you’re allergic too isn’t the pollen the bees are using…

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  • Jo-Lynne {Musings of a Housewife}

    Can I just say, I really love your posts. Such a wealth of information! We use local, raw honey and this post confirms why we do. good stuff.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Thanks, Jo-Lynne! I miss seeing your happy face in my comments! Been a while since I did a standard research post like this – just like riding a bike. ;) Katie

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  • Anne

    I love raw honey! But I only use raw honey for raw stuff (like yogurt and spreading on bread); I use regular old honey for baking and cooking.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Stacy Myers

    We’ve just started using honey. My “honey” loves it but I’m working into it. I never cared for the flavor, but it’s starting to grow on me.
    I look forward to the recipes!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Mary P

    I love raw honey. I am pretty spoiled because my brother is has many hives in his backyard, so I get everything from him. He cold filters it and it is SOO good. Sometimes he gives me the comb and I’ve heard the wax is good for your digestion. I don’t know if that’s true but I like it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Ola

    My grandfather and my father keep bees, so I am used to use a lot of honey at home. My family (of 3 people) uses about 3 galons of honey a year.

    I would like to say that there are various “tastes” of honey, which are made from nectars of different flowers. They also have different benefits for your health – but it is a topic for a whole blog, not for a short comment.

    But there are also other bee products that you can consume, and they are beneficial for your health. I mean: pollen, beebread in honey and propolis. They are less tasty than honey, but very healthy.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • AmandaZ

    My favorite use of honey is on plain, whole-fat yogurt with berries and almond slivers. Yum yum yum! I also put it in chamomile tea to unwind in the evenings, or with lemon juice and hot water to soothe a sore throat.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Diana

    A note on using honey for allergies: from what I understand, this only works if the bees take pollen from the plant you’re allergic to. My hubby is allergic to grass, and bees don’t use grass pollen to create honey. So eating honey–although yummy!–doesn’t help his particular allergy. We love to put honey on peanut butter toast. Only you have it eat it quick or it will drip all over your hands! :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Brenda

    Katie,
    I’m expecting also, one thing I’ve yet to research was if honey passes through breastmilk. We use lots of honey in our house also, and honey isn’t safe for infants. Do you have any insight?
    Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Brenda,
    Great question! I’m just about positive I asked that with one of my other kids, and it’s totally not a problem. Congrats on your pregnancy! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Shirley @ gfe

    Hi Katie, I love that you are sharing the benefits of local, raw honey. As a member of a beekeeping family, I couldn’t agree more. However, I disagree that all honey eventually becomes solid or crystallizes though. Ours does not. It’s raw, but it never solidifies or crystallizes. Granted we don’t keep it for 10 years, but we’ve never had it solidify. That may be true of some, but not ours. I’ve read that the solidification/crystallization depends on the moisture content when the honey is extracted. I’m assuming it also depends on the local area’s general conditions, etc. Anyway, wanted to add that and note that honey is the only food that does not spoil. I’ve heard that honey was found in the pyramids and was still good. Not sure about the latter, but it sounds reasonable to beekeepers! In regard to one commenter’s note on different flavors, we extract and spin (hand-cranked centrifuge) all of our honey together so it’s a mixture of honey from different flowers. We simply call it wildflower honey. Also, I may have missed it in your post, but I think it’s important that whenever one writes about honey that the warning about not feeding to children under one-year old be added. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey) And in case you didn’t guess, we use a lot of honey in lots of ways.

    Thanks!
    Shirley

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Shirley,
    All excellent points, thank you so much. I’m actually really glad to hear that not all raw honey solidifies, because the half gallons I buy from the health food store don’t seem to…and I always wondered if it was really raw!

    Updating the post now…

    Thank you! Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Michelle

    I tried to get my husband to try the raw-honey cure for his allergies this year, but he didn’t use it often enough or raw enough to work and he’s far more skeptical than I about these sorts of things. It’s going to take some work to convince him, but after reading this, I think it’s worth it!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kori Ireland

    There is only one thing I disagree with.:-)
    “If your honey is really raw, it will start to solidify after a few months.” Honey is made from all kinds of plants. Some types of honey crystallize faster and some slower. We have lots of crepe myrtles and they make a dark, strong flavored honey that begins crystallizing within about 6 months. We have had hives in other locations with lighter honeys with milder flavors and none of them have crystallized as fast. We have had honey (my husband and I extract it manually from the comb and it’s not been heated other than by the sun in the hive) that has gone two years before beginning to crystallize. Yes, eventually all honey will crystallize and it is still perfectly good. But just because it doesn’t happen quickly within a few months does not mean it is not raw.
    Moisture content also effects the crystallization rate. Honey straight from the bee hive actually varies in moisture content. At some point the FDA (or someone) declared that to sell honey it must have certain moisture content. So grocery store honey may have water added to make it within range, definitely saves the company some money. Or if there is a drop of water in the jar when you pour in honey it can effect the crystallization. OR if you pour fresh honey into a container that had crystallized honey – if there is crystallized honey at all it works as a seed to granulate the entire jar very quickly.

    And not all honey at the natural foods store is local or raw. Some people assume that’s the case, but at least at my local store that is NOT the case – I could not find one jar of true raw honey. Farmer’s market -if you’re buying it from the beekeeper then I would trust it (after talking to them about extraction methods). But if you have farmer who gets the honey from elsewhere it may not be raw. Definitely ask!
    Great post! I love my honey!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama

    Anyone who says they don’t like honey, or that it has “too distinctive” a flavor, is unaware of the many varieties that are out there! My husband hates clover honey. But he loves some of the local, raw varieties I buy. The farm I usually buy from had some that tasted like butterscotch, and also basswood (my favorite) which is extremely light and minty — great in tea! There are supposed to be rare, lighter flavors too that are mostly just sweet and not so distinctive. These will be harder to find, but you can look at the farmer’s markets, or online, to find the ‘right’ variety for you. I have also never had any trouble baking with honey, personally.

    Oh, another neat fact: “manuka” honey, the variety that is prized for its strong antibacterial properties and only produced in New Zealand, is from the melaleuca tree — that is, tea tree! Yup, the best antibacterial honey is from the same source as the antibacterial tea tree oil. :)

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  • Jennifer

    I love using raw honey! Thankfully, I have a wonderful local grocery store that carries many different brands of local honey. I had thought that it would help with my seasonal allergies, but I haven’t seen a change – too bad, but honey does have many other redeeming qualities!

    How interesting that it predigests starches – I’d never heard of that!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • jill

    I love honey, but unfortunately I can’t eat it anymore. I’m allergic to bees and apparently that means I can’t have honey anymore. It’s so sad since I had an entire gallon of it, and now it just sits here, totally crystalized.
    I never knew before that if you were allergic to bees you can’t have honey. Just will have to stick with the maple syrup and sucanat for now.
    By the way, don’t know why I read this article, ha ha, it was like torture since I love honey so much.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Oh, that is a sad allergy! I’m so sorry! :(

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    Ron Glass Reply:

    Have you tried eating small amounts to see what happens? I’ve heard of people with peanut allergies being cured through some type of therapies that basically desensitize the bodys reactions. I’m certain were there is a will there is a way.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Danielle C. Reply:

    Please don’t suggest this it could have deadly consequences. This is done in a doctors office where the can perform life saving techniques if it goes badly. The introduce tiny, tiny amounts of the allergen for a period of time. I have a child who has a severe allergy to nuts and have researched this extensively and do not personally feel it is worth the risk.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Stephanie

    Like you, we buy big jugs of pure honey for our home. We primarily use it for baking, tea, pancakes, and as a topping on cold cereal.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • lexee

    can anyone give a general price of what local, raw honey costs? i know it depends on the area and availability… i am just looking for a ballpark estimate since i will be buying it for the first time.

    thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Lexee,
    Our best price around here is 7 lbs (about a half gallon) for maybe $17 now? It’s been going up…

    Fairly normal to get a quart for $10-12 though.
    Enjoy! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Kristy Reply:

    Katie,

    Where do you typically get it from? I’m in Grand Rapids as well and am very interested in trying it out.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Kristy,
    I get mine from Harvest Health on Eastern and Burton. I’m just hoping it really is raw, as there aren’t laws about that word on labels… :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Shaz

    Honey is also mentioned as having healing powers in the Quran which Muslims believe is from God!

    How could this have been known 1400 years ago!!

    ‘And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees and in (men’s) habitations….. there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for mankind. Verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought’ (Quran 16:68-9)

    [Reply to this comment]

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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