It is often hailed as a natural, healthy sweetener – but in most cases, honey bought from supermarkets today is simply sugar syrup with no nutritional value at all. To reap the true benefits of what was dubbed ‘the food of the gods’ by the Ancient Greeks, you have to look for the raw variety.
Perfectly clear honey has usually undergone a process of ultrafiltration and pasteurisation, which involves heating and passing it through a fine mesh, to ensure it remains runny at any temperature. This strips away many of the unique chemicals and compounds that make it a nutritious and healing health food.
There is no law that requires a beekeeper or factory to specify whether the honey is raw. Non-EU honeys are often treated with the antibiotic chloramphenicol, a substance that can be dangerous to pregnant mothers. Chinese honey was banned from being imported to EU member countries in 2002 for precisely this reason.
Even the word ‘organic’ on a label does not guarantee that a honey is raw. Unless the jar specifies that it is raw, look for a cloudy honey with a white residue of pollen sitting on the top of the jar. Raw honey might crystallise over time, but this is not a sign of rot – raw honey is a natural preservative. The jar just needs to be submerged in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes to liquefy the contents. You should be able to find raw honey at most supermarkets.
Raw honeys vary in colour because of the flowers from which the bees obtain their nectar, pollen and resin. The darker the colour, the higher the level of antioxidants.
Raw honey is particularly high in polyphenols, an antioxidant that has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, lowering blood cholesterol and combating heart disease. The darkest varieties of honey include heather and hedgerow honey, which have a polyphenol content of 201mg per gram. In contrast, rapeseed oil honey, known in supermarkets as ‘blossom honey’, trails behind at just 71mg per gram.
The white ring of pollen on the top contains B vitamins, Vitamins C, D and E as well as minerals and 31 other antioxidants, although to get close to your recommended daily amounts of each nutrient you need a pollen supplement.
Unfiltered honey also contains a powerful substance called propolis, nicknamed bee penicillin, which is made from the resin that oozes from trees. Bees mix this resin with their saliva to create an antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal ‘wallpaper’ to ensure disease cannot enter their hives. Traces of this brown substance break off into the raw honey to make it naturally antibacterial.
Bees also add the enzyme glucose oxidase to honey. When this comes into contact with moisture, it releases low levels of antiseptic hydrogen peroxide, which can kill bacteria but does not damage skin tissue.
The University of Waikato in New Zealand found that when raw honey was applied to MRSA infected antibiotic-resistant wounds, they became sterile and healed so quickly that patients could leave hospital weeks earlier. Scarring was minimised because peeling back a dressing glazed in honey – as opposed to a dry bandage – did not disturb the new tissue underneath. If you suffer a minor wound or burn, glaze a bandage with raw honey and cover. Change the glazed bandage every 24 hours and any cuts or signs of infection should disappear within a week (if not, see a doctor).
While manuka honey – a variety produced using only nectar and pollen from the manuka bush in New Zealand – gets the majority of press for being antibacterial, a good-quality raw UK honey will also be powerfully antibacterial and can kill E.coli and MRSA.
Unprocessed honey aids digestion as it is prebiotic (stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut) and contains probiotics (the ‘good’ bacteria that help maintain a healthy digestive system). The University of Lund in Sweden found that raw honey contains bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which prevent stomach upsets. Eating raw honey daily has also been shown to be effective in treating and preventing gastric ulcers because it fights the Helicobacter pylori bacteria that trigger the ulcer.
Honey is a better energy source than white sugar. While one teaspoon of honey contains 22 calories and sugar just 15, the sweetness of honey is greater so you need less. But what makes honey ideal as fuel for exercise is the combination of glucose (pure sugar) and fructose (pre-digested sugar from fruits), which provides instant and slower-burning energy, as opposed to the pure sucrose of sugar.
The Glycaemic Index (rate at which sugar enters the bloodstream) of sugar is high at 61, while raw honey is 35. A study at the University of Memphis found that cyclists who drank honey and glucose solution instead of sugar-laden energy drinks finished a 38-mile race on average three minutes faster. If you are going on a bike ride, drink two of teaspoons of raw honey and two teaspoons of sugar mixed into a bottle of warm water and allowed to cool.
Raw honey’s anti-inflammatory properties can help soothe chronic skin conditions. Cleopatra famously bathed in milk and honey because of their skin-softening qualities – honey is a natural emollient as it is humectant (it attracts water). Melting half a jar of raw honey into a warm bath will promote healing in patients suffering with skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, too. Mixed with olive oil, raw honey applied to the scalp is also a great tonic for those suffering with a seborrheic dermatitis (a flaky scalp condition).