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.
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?
I’m hoping most of you know the answer to this question. Bees, of course, use nectar from flowers to make honey. The process is basically this:
- Collect nectar from 100-1500 flowers.
- 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
- Fan the enzymatic nectar to dehydrate it from about 80% water to less than 20% water – the thick, sticky honey we’re accustomed to.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Nutritional Profile of Honey
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
- Vitamin C, folate, and choline
- 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.
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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