Honey is one of the most popular food sweeteners around the world. It is a thick, sweet substance produced by bees from sugary secretions of flowers (nectar) and sometimes, some insects (like aphids). Often, honey is touted because it is a natural product which requires no processing. Not all bees produce honey. It is produced by a certain type of bee (honey bee) not as waste or for human consumption but to feed the young and old bees when food is scarce. Honey has been part of human diet for centuries with the first reference of it use as food and medicine dating as far back as 2100 – 2000 BC. Nutritionally, honey is just sugars delivering between 21.3 calories and 25.6 calories per teaspoon (5 – 6 ml) and insignificant amounts of other nutrients. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of this sweetener which are not so often spoken about. These are well-explored in this article.
What is honey made of?
Honey is basically a mixture of fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, water, minerals, proteins and amino acids, other sugars (such as erlose and melezitose), vitamins, aroma compounds, other organic acids and polyphenols. The fructose and glucose are the main components forming between 50% and 76% of the total volume depending on the variety of honey. These two sugars also contribute chiefly to the sweetness and the caloric content of honey. Due to its high sugar content, honey has the tendency to attract moisture from the air. It is therefore, necessary to store honey in a sealed container to prevent it from fermenting since honey contains yeast too.
The mineral content of honey ranges between 0.1% and 0.3% with potassium making up about a third of the total mineral content. Potassium plays a critical role in heart health. Potassium helps to control blood pressure by lowering it to the normal level. However, in honey, the amount of potassium is not enough to have a significant effect on blood pressure. Other minerals present in honey include aluminium, calcium, copper, iron, iodine, fluoride and chloride. Studies have shown that the mineral composition of honey is dependent on the plant whose flowers the honey bees obtain nectar. The darker the honey, the higher the mineral content.
Proteins and amino acids present in honey are too small in quantity to meet the protein needs of a human, therefore, honey cannot be considered a suitable source of protein.
The organic acids and aroma compounds greatly contribute to the flavour of honey.
Considering the quantities of the minerals, vitamins and proteins in honey, you would have to eat excess amounts of it to meet your body’s needs of these nutrients from honey alone. This would not be a healthy thing to do due to the high sugar content. So honey is only a good source of sugars and no other nutrient.
Varieties of honey
It sounds quite strange to say there are varieties of honey. But yes, there are. There are, literally, hundreds of varieties of honey. The varieties differ based on their colour, taste, flavour (flavour is not taste, it is the totality of taste and aroma) and thickness. Broadly, the varieties may be grouped into light blossom honeys and dark honeys. Examples of the light blossom honeys include clover honey, orange blossom honey, lemon blossom honey, acacia honey, dandelion honey, leatherwood honey, etc. Dark honeys include avocado honey, buckwheat honey (the darkest honey variety), chestnut honey, beechwood honey, pine honey and several others.
The varieties have significant effects on the quality characteristics of the foods in which these honeys are used. Some are sweeter than others while some may have a slight bitter taste. Some may also have the flavour of the fruits from which the honey bees obtained the nectar. That’s how come there is chestnut honey, lemon blossom honey, orange blossom honey and other varieties with fruity names.
Though honey is just sugars, it is touted for some health benefits. For instance, it is quite well-known that honey is good at curing coughs. Research conducted in this area shows that a single dose of honey before bedtime helped suppress cough in children. Hence, administering some doses of honey daily might help. Another study in 2013 suggested that a mixture of honey and coffee may be more effective than some drugs (corticosteroids) used as treatment for persistent cough. Also, the World Health Organization endorses the use of honey for the treatment of cough and sore throats. In spite of these, some scientists suggest that there is the need for more studies to be conducted to confirm the effectiveness of honey as treatment for cough.
The polyphenols in honey confer antioxidant properties on honey. About 27 major polyphenols with different health benefits have been identified in honey. These polyphenols reduce reactions in the body that could result in chronic diseases. They also reduce reactions in foods like enzymatic browning in foods (for instance, the browning of the cut surface of an apple when left in open air). Also, it has been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Honey has been found to promote wound healing, reduce skin inflammation, stimulate tissue regeneration. Hence, it helps to reduce the size of scars.
Other studies have shown honey’s potential to slow dementia (loss of memory). The research findings indicate that honey improves brain function. Therefore, it may enhance memory and thinking skills reducing cognitive decline and dementia progression.
Adulteration and quality indicators
Because of the value of honey, some dubious vendors add other substances to honey to make them some extra money. By all standards, it is wrong to do that. Adulteration of honey covers everything from the addition of sugar to the addition of water and other substances to change the flavour, colour, taste and/or thickness (viscosity).
To help you evade adulterated honey, here are some practical ways to check for the purity of honey.
- When fresh pure honey is poured, it forms layers temporarily and disappears almost immediately. This is due to its viscosity. If this doesn’t happen, it means the honey has water content above 20% and this may lead to fermentation of the honey.
- Pure honey is a consistent and does not set in layers for a long time. Fresh honey drips in a straight stream without breaking (into separate beads). When it drips and falls to a smooth surface, it should form a bead.
- On standing for some weeks to months, honey may recrystallize. This does not mean the honey is spoilt. The recrystallization is because the concentration is very high, which is very normal for good quality honey.
Shelf life and safety
It has been found that unlike many other foods, microorganisms do not grow in honey. This means a jar of honey can stay for thousands of years without going bad.
Honey may contain some substances (like pollen grains from flowers) which may trigger allergic reactions in some people. Also, there may be traces of heavy metals (like cadmium and lead). However, the amounts of these heavy metals are not high enough to cause any injury to one’s health. It is advised that honey should not be fed to children below the age of one. Giving them honey may expose them to the risk of botulism (a serious illness caused by the toxic material released by a microorganism: Clostridium botulinum).
Honey is a good source of sugars and there are several varieties of honey. It has some health benefits including healing of wounds, reduction of scar size, possible cough suppression and improvement of brain function.
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