- What is Honey?
- How Do Bees Make Honey?
- Is Honey Good For You?
- Does Honey Go Bad?
- Manuka Honey Benefits
- Is Honey Vegan?
Summer is the peak season for harvesting from beehives, but the benefits of honey can be enjoyed year-round. In this blog, we’ll go over exactly how honey is produced by honey bees, how its chemical makeup leads to the incredible beneficial properties it possesses, the different ways we can take advantage of these properties, and more – including commonly asked questions, such as is honey vegan? Does it go bad, and why does honey crystallize? Read on to find out!
What is Honey?
Honey is the thick, sweet, golden liquid made by bees that humans have been using for thousands of years. The first evidence of humans gathering honey is a Neolithic cave painting in Valencia, Spain – it depicts a man on a ladder with one hand in a hive, the other hand holding a smoking branch to calm the bees flying around his head and chest. In his time, 15,000 years ago, beekeeping was an alien concept. He and his community would risk their health, and even their lives, to steal honey from the hives of wild bees.
Honey has been enjoyed and used in a myriad of ways throughout history. Ancient Egyptians used honey for sweetening foods and drinks, healing wounds, paying taxes, preserving meat and fruit, and even in embalming the dead. In ancient Greece, honey was a subject of scientific study, as well as a medicine and cure for many ailments.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Honey begins as nectar, the sugar liquid produced by flowers to attract pollinators. Nectar is nearly 70 to 80% water, mixed with three different sugars: sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Honey bees use their hollow proboscis (their tongue) like a straw to suck the nectar into their honey crop. The honey crop is a special stomach called the proventriculus.
An enzyme the bees produce in their salivary glands, invertase, breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose – the simpler sugar molecules. There are a number of other enzymes in the honey crop, including glucose oxidase, which breaks down the glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide.
Once they return to the hive, the forager passes the nectar on through her mouth to another worker bee. The nectar is passed, bee to bee, to reduce its water content. Once the water content is around 20%, the bees will store it in honeycomb cells; at this point, it’s almost honey. It’s still a little too wet, so the bees dry it out more by fanning it with their wings. When it’s ready, they seal the cell with a wax lid to keep it clean and fresh. This final substance is the honey we know and love!
Is Honey Good For You?
Benefits of Honey at a Glance:
- Rich in vitamins and nutrients
- Lower glycemic index than refined sugar
- High levels of antioxidants
- Antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory
- Promotes cellular growth and regeneration
- Natural antiseptic
- Humectant and emollient properties
Honey As Food
Before we discuss the beneficial characteristics of honey, we feel it is important to address the fact that focusing too much on whether a food is “good” or “bad” for you is a detriment to your health. Food does not have a moral value, and restricting your diet to cut out any so-called “bad” foods can negatively affect your relationship with food entirely.
That being said, raw honey is more rich in nutrients and vitamins than white sugar – it contains vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, vitamin B, and vitamin C, as well as electrolytes, enzymes, amino acids and flavonoids. These micronutrients provide us with a plethora of health benefits, from neurological functioning, to muscle repair, to healthy bone growth, and more.
Honey’s proportion of 40% fructose to 30% glucose means that it’s metabolized more slowly than refined sugar; it has a lower glycemic index. This helps avoid the blood sugar spike and subsequent crash that refined sugar provokes. Fructose is also sweeter than glucose, which means that honey is sweeter than sugar – you’re likely to use less honey for the same result as more sugar.
Raw honey is also rich in antioxidants, substances that prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals. The accumulation of free radicals in the body plays a part in the development of chronic and degenerative illnesses such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disorders. As there is some concern that consuming antioxidant supplements in large quantities may do more harm than good, it is much better to maintain a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Honey’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties mean that it can help fend off the spread of viral and bacterial infection in your body – maintaining your cardiovascular, metabolic, digestive, neurological, and dermatological health.
Honey as a Medicinal Treatment
Honey has been used as a medical treatment since Antiquity. Hippocrates, the classical Greek philosopher known as the ‘father of modern medicine’, noted the benefits of honey and used it in various different formulations for treating a range of illnesses, injuries, and other health issues. The ancient Indian Vedic civilization that developed Ayurvedic medicine considered “Madhu”, honey, as one of the most remarkable gifts of nature to mankind, and used it to treat a wide variety of ailments. Ancient Chinese, Roman, and Assyrian medicine employed honey for the treatment of flesh wounds and diseases of the gut, among other uses.
During the past few decades, laboratory and clinical investigations have tested the properties of honey and found significant results, lending it a place in modern medicine. Honey has been reported to have an inhibitory effect on around 60 species of bacteria, some species of fungi and viruses. The antioxidant capacity of honey is important in the treatment and prevention of various degenerative diseases.
Honey is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antimicrobial. It can help cure sore throats, as well as aid in fighting off infections caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. A 2017 study found that honey aided in the recovery process from gastroenteritis, and other studies have noted the same for ulcers and gastritis. It is also a natural antiseptic, and can help stave off infection in cuts, burns, and other wounds – it has even been reported to speed up the healing process.
The first written reference to honey, a Sumerian tablet dating back to 2100-2000 BC, mentions honey’s use as a drug and an ointment. One of the benefits of honey is that it’s a powerful wound treatment – it prohibits the growth of bacteria, promotes rapid healing by maintaining a moist wound environment, and has a high viscosity, which helps to provide a protective barrier to prevent infection. Clinical observations have noted that open wounds heal faster and are ready faster for closure by stitching when dressed with honey (in comparison with those that have been dressed conventionally).
But what exactly gives honey its beneficial properties?
The answer lies in the chemical makeup of honey itself. Honey is a supersaturated solution, made up of about 80% sugar and 20% water. The small amount of water makes it inhospitable to bacteria and mold. Honey is also very thick, which stops oxygen from penetrating it – and bacteria needs oxygen to thrive.
As mentioned before, the glucose oxidase enzyme in the bees’ honey crop raises the acidity of honey. The average pH of honey falls between 3 and 4.5, and those levels of acidity will kill off anything that wants to grow there – such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The other byproduct created by glucose oxidase is hydrogen peroxide, which is an additional line of defense against infection.
Additionally, honey, like all sugars, is hygroscopic, which means that it can draw excess moisture out of the environment and thereby dehydrate bacteria. The hypertonicity of honey – the imbalance of water within bacteria cells and their surroundings – results in bacterial cells losing all the water from the cytoplasm. This process is called plasmolysis, and it kills the bacteria in tandem with the hygroscopic nature of honey.
Honey Applied Topically
The benefits of honey continue! Beyond its beneficial health and medicinal properties, honey and other bee products are popular ingredients in skincare, haircare, and cosmetics. Honey is a natural humectant due to that hygroscopic (water-absorbing) quality we mentioned earlier. A humectant is a substance that promotes the retention of moisture. Honey is also an emollient, which means it softens and soothes skin.
When used in hair products, honey helps to pull water molecules out of the air and draw them into the hair follicles and the scalp, moisturizing and nourishing in the process. Thanks to honey’s anti-fungal properties, it can also treat seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, while addressing the redness and itching on the scalp with its anti-inflammatory properties.
Honey also facilitates rapid healing by promoting cellular growth – this quality can be utilized to create effective hair growth products, as well as skin products that minimize and heal acne scars.
As we talked about earlier, honey also contains nutrients like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants. These nutrients help to protect the hair and skin from damage and improve their overall health. The antioxidant-rich nature of honey makes it a natural anti-aging compound – it helps prevent wrinkles and maintain a youthful, even complexion.
Skin products utilize the benefits of honey by taking advantage of its emollient and humectant characteristics. In addition to moisturizing and softening the skin, its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties help reduce bacteria that can cause eczema and acne.
A Summary of the Benefits of Honey for Skin and Hair:
- Because honey is a humectant and emollient, it is moisturizing, nourishing, and soothing.
- A high antioxidant concentration makes honey a natural anti-aging compound, preventing wrinkles and promoting a youthful complexion.
- Honey promotes cellular growth, which facilitates hair growth and the healing of acne scars.
- Antimicrobial and antibacterial properties help reduce bacteria that can cause eczema and acne.
Does Honey Go Bad?
When honey is stored properly, it will never go bad. Scientists found honey in sealed pots in the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut, that was still edible – over 3,000 years later. This is because of many of the same reasons why honey is beneficial for our health – the antibacterial, antimicrobial, and acidic properties of honey prevent it from spoiling.
Honey can and will ferment if water is introduced. If left uncovered, honey will begin to collect moisture from the atmosphere because it’s a hygroscopic substance. If the water content gets high enough, yeast can ferment the honey and create alcohol. This is actually how mead was created! Mead was the very first alcoholic drink – remnants of the beverage were found in 9,000-year-old pottery jars in the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in Henan province, Northern China.
Why Does Honey Crystallize?
Sometimes, people mistake crystallization as their honey going bad. Honey is made up of about 80% sugar and 20% water. Over time, the excess sugars will solidify to bring that ratio of sugar and water into equilibrium. In other words, there’s not enough water in honey to keep all the sugars dissolved permanently; it will eventually thicken and solidify.
Now, not all honey crystallizes at the same rate or into the same texture. There are three conditions that will affect the crystallization process:
The Type of Sugars:
The two major sugars found in honey are glucose and fructose — glucose is less soluble than fructose, so honeys that are higher in glucose will crystallize more rapidly.
Honey will crystallize in the hive if the temperature goes below 50ºF (10ºC), and honey will crystallize in your containers if you have a cold cupboard cabinet. Keeping it too warm, however, may result in degradation of the flavors and the health benefits. The best storage for honey? Room temperature, out of direct sunlight.
Raw, natural honey will have microscopic bits of pollen, beeswax, and propolis in it — that’s where the unique benefits of raw honey come from! It’s also what acts as the starting point for sugar to crystallize around. Pasteurized honey doesn’t have any of that good stuff (it’s just basically sugar syrup), so it won’t crystallize.
If your honey crystallizes, it is absolutely still safe to eat! In fact, some people prefer crystallized honey because of its unique texture. If you want to reverse the crystallization, simply place the jar of honey in a pot of hot – but not boiling – water, and the gentle heat will make the sugars redissolve.
Manuka Honey Benefits
Honey derived from the Manuka bush, found in abundance in New Zealand, claims the highest potency of antimicrobial and antiviral properties. These antimicrobial properties were discovered to be directly correlated to the amount of a dietary chemical in Manuka called Methylglyoxal, or MG for short.
The increasing number of antibiotic-resistant microbial species has flagged the critical need for other, more effective antibacterial substances. Unlike most conventional antibiotics, it has been reported that honey doesn’t lead to development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even when used continuously.
Manuka honey has been reported to exhibit antimicrobial activity against pathogenic bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, the most common wound pathogen, Helicobacter pylori, the cause of gastritis, and Escherichia coli, the cause of urinary tract infections. One study found that manuka honey was an effective treatment for gingivitis, plaque, and halitosis (otherwise known as bad breath).
Manuka honey, in a nutshell, is a monofloral type of honey that has consistent high levels of antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory activity – which makes it great at helping treat wounds, infections, and diseases.
Is Honey Vegan?
According to the Vegan Society, veganism is a “way of living which seeks to avoid all exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.” Whether honey is or isn’t vegan has been a subject of debate over the years.
On one hand, honey is certainly an animal product, and the commercialization of migratory beekeeping does exploit the pollination services of honey bees. Ethical beekeeping means only taking honey from hives that have produced excess, and always leaving more than enough for the bees. The Best Bees Company abides by these practices, as do many beekeepers across the world. However, commercialized beekeeping tends to prioritize profit over the health of the bees, and will take the bees’ honey and replace it with sugar water or high fructose corn syrup – inferior food sources.
Other unethical practices include clipping a queen bee’s wings in order to prevent them from leaving the hive, which would decrease productivity and thereby lessen profit. Another is the purposeful breeding of commercial honey bees to increase their honey productivity. This can be seen as both exploitative and harmful, as a narrower gene pool increases the risk of diseases.
On the other hand, vegans who draw the line at honey because it is produced by bees being exploited by commercial beekeeping risk going down a very slippery slope. One-third of the crops in the US are produced by the work of bees; without migratory beekeeping, many vegan staple foods would not be available. If someone is avoiding honey because it is produced by exploited bees, then shouldn’t they avoid avocados, almonds, apples, and other fruits and vegetables whose production relies on migratory beekeeping?
PETA senior media liaison, Catie Cryar, had an answer for this dilemma, which she gave to The Washington Post. Cryar pointed out that, while it’s difficult to avoid fruits and vegetables that have been created through migratory beekeeping, “everyone can easily avoid honey, which is made by bees for bees, and instead enjoy vegan alternatives such as agave nectar.” Cryar went on to say that veganism “shouldn’t be about adhering to rigid dogma for dogma’s sake but rather about making kind choices that bring about positive change.”
In our opinion, the best course of action is not to avoid honey, but rather use your power as a consumer to support ethical beekeeping practices. Buy honey from your local beekeepers, or get your own bees and produce your own honey!
Q: What is manuka honey?
A: Manuka honey is a monofloral type of honey, made from the Manuka bush primarily found in New Zealand, that has consistent high levels of antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory activity
Q: Is honey good for you?
A: Yes – honey has many beneficial qualities that can be taken advantage of both by consuming it as a food and by using it topically on hair and skin.
Q: Is honey vegan?
A: It is an animal product, so in theory, yes. However, if ethical beekeeping practices are used to harvest the honey, that honey does not exploit or harm the bees, so it would technically be vegan.
Q: Does honey help a sore throat?
A: Yes – honey’s anti-inflammatory properties soothe the irritation, and its antimicrobial properties fight against bacteria and viruses that cause sore throats.
Q: Can dogs have honey?
A: Yes – in small quantities. For more information, click here.