Inside that innocuous yet ubiquitous bear bottle sits that golden nectar, aka honey, a product that holds real estate in most people’s and bees’ homes alike. It’s basically a pantry staple, utilized in baked goods, dressings and sauces, or marinades for your meats. Honey has been the “bees’ knees,” gaining popularity for its apparent nutritional benefits. My mother swears by Manuka honey, a type of honey produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the native Manuka bush, as a panacea, especially for coughs.
How is that delicious honey created in the first place? Bees collect nectar from plants, which breaks down into simple sugars that get stored inside the honeycomb. A honeycomb is a mass of wax cells built by bees inside their nests to contain their eggs, honey and pollen. The innate design of the honeycomb, as well as the incessant fanning of the bees’ wings spurs on evaporation, generating the sweet, gooey liquid we all know and love.
Bees produce honey as sustenance for themselves, as it provides the energy needed for their flight muscles. It also provides heating for the hive. Fortunately, bees don’t need all the honey they produce! A beehive will produce about 65 pounds of extra honey per year. Beekeepers extract that extra honey for consumers from the honeycomb, straining and filtering it to remove wax and other extraneous substances.
There are more than 300 varieties of honey; shades range from nearly colorless to dark brown. The color and flavor depend on the type of nectar that was collected by the bees. The flavor of a light-colored honey is milder, while a darker-colored honey is stronger. Different types of honey are better options for cooking/baking different food products. For example, wildflower honey may be better for baked goods and salad dressings. Orange blossom is ideal for dressings and marinades.
Honey contains 60 calories and 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon, 15 calories more per serving than granulated sugar due to its greater density. Broken down, honey is 38.5 percent fructose, 31 percent glucose, 17.1 percent water, 7.2 percent maltose, 4.2 percent trisaccharides, 1.5 percent sucrose and 0.5 percent minerals, vitamins and enzymes. There is virtually no difference in micronutrient composition between granulated sugar and honey. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, honey is considered an added sugar that behooves limiting in consumer diets.
Beyond the micronutrient content, there is a plethora of research studies trying to validate the health/medical benefits of honey. Marinotti et al. (2018) studied the exact mechanism behind honey’s potential healing properties. Honey may act as an antibacterial and antibiofilm agent with inflammatory properties, used to help heal burns and non-healing wounds. Cohen et al. (2012) conducted a study with 300 children, ages 1-5, with upper respiratory infections and nocturnal coughs. Children were broken up into groups, each group given a different kind of honey or placebo (date silan syrup). Those who were given honey reported significant greater improvement than those who received the placebo.
In a review written by Ayoub Meo et al. (2016), honey may contain antioxidants due to its phenolic compounds (polyphenols and phenolic acid). Antioxidants prevent excessive oxidation, a biochemical reaction in molecules that generates free radicals, molecules that can cause harm to cells, tissues and physiological functions in the body. Honey may also have an antimicrobial effect due to its low pH factor, high osmolarity and its housing of hydrogen peroxide (a popular antimicrobial substance).
Though it seems that honey can be touted for its potential health properties, it’s important to remember that it’s still an added sugar, something that should not be consumed in excess. More research needs to be conducted to confirm or produce any explicit recommendations. However, do enjoy it in moderation and thank the humble bee for the delicious sweetener they provide for us! Insects are responsible for pollinating (and a result, producing) about one-third of the U.S. diet—honey bees are responsible for about 80 percent of that process. Be sure to think of the bees before using that innocuous yet ubiquitous bear bottle!
By Melissa Papir Kolb, MS, RD