One of my life’s purest pleasures is a crockery mug of steaming tea sweetened with golden honey. With that comfort in hand, I can tackle just about anything — or gratefully do absolutely nothing. But what really sweetens the pot is knowing the honey in my tea is at work even if I’m not. In this liquid gold, I find a cache of antioxidants, a digestive aid, a detoxifier and even a soothing balm for wounds, all rolled into one delightful concoction.
Honey is the ultimate in products derived from herbs. Fashioned through an ingenious alliance between animal and plant kingdoms, honey delivers a diverse array of phytochemicals in one package. This bounty arrives courtesy of the industrious honeybee, who visits some 2 million flowers to manufacture just one pound of honey.
Honey of a History
Since ancient times, people have used honey as medicine. Hippocrates recommended it for optimal health. The Egyptians, and many people since, used it as a wound treatment. Old texts heralded honey as a salve for eye ailments and a restorative in complaints of the heart, kidneys, liver and lungs. Today, honey with lemon is still a favorite for colds and sore throats.
Nowadays, we are uncovering much about the nature of honey and its actions. For instance, it really does help heal wounds. A randomized clinical study published in the journal Burns found honey salve healed superficial burns more effectively and quickly, and with less inflammation, than a standard treatment of silver sulfadiazine. Honey helps wounds in several ways. Its high viscosity deters infection; its sugar draws lymph out of the wound; it stimulates formation of new blood capillaries and connective tissues; and it’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. A recent study found that antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which can infect wounds, succumb readily to honey.
Most common honeys derive their antibacterial activity from hydrogen peroxide, produced by an enzyme naturally present in honey. But others — notably the Leptospermum species from New Zealand and Australia — battle bacteria with rather mysterious non-peroxide components. Leptospermum honeys are now approved as therapeutic honeys by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States) and are marketed under such names as Medihoney and Active Manuka honey.
But honey is not antagonistic to all bacteria. Scientists at Michigan State University added it to fermented dairy products and found honey enhanced the growth, activity and viability of certain bifidobacteria, bacteria believed to help sustain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Fermented dairy products are used to deliver bifidobacteria to the GI tract, but the products’ microbial strength is often diminished during dairy processing and storage. The investigators suggest this could make honey the sweetener of choice in many foods. Honey’s fermentable carbohydrates, including oligosaccharides, may be the keys to this action.
Honey also hosts a horde of antioxidants. These consist of a symphony of phenolics (plant-based chemicals), peptides, organic acids, enzymes and other constituents performing in concert. For instance, the flavonoid pinocembrin is unique to honey and supercedes other antioxidants in concentration.
From a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, we now know the antioxidant activity of honey is comparable to that of many fruits and vegetables on a fresh-weight basis. And while you likely will not devour a cup of honey in lieu of broccoli, the golden liquid may be a respectable alternative to sugar and a pleasant way to supplement your diet with antioxidants. Researchers at the University of Illinois studied 25 healthy men who consumed various combinations of hot water, buckwheat honey, black tea and sugar. They found that serum antioxidant capacity increased by 7 percent within two hours of ingesting 2 cups of hot water containing about 4 tablespoons of honey. Those antioxidants also may help your arteries: Honey reduces oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (known as “bad” cholesterol), a benefit which likely thwarts development of atherosclerosis.
The color of honey hints at its antioxidant capacity. The rule is: Darker is better. For instance, buckwheat honey has 5.5 times more antioxidant strength than the very light acacia variety, and other honeys of intermediate color are arrayed in between. But rules can be broken. A University of Illinois researcher found that sweet-clover honey, though fairly light, was rich in antioxidants, whereas a dark golden mesquite honey was relatively poor. Other factors that can influence antioxidant content, particularly within a species, are climate, soil, processing, handling and storage. Color also indicates mineral content, which ranges from 0.04 percent in pale honeys to 0.2 percent in some dark ones.
But the story doesn’t end there. Pinostrobin, another flavonoid from honey, apparently is a potent inducer of certain enzymes that deactivate carcinogens. Known as mammalian phase 2 detoxification enzymes, they help to destroy the reaction centers of carcinogens or assist in their elimination from the body. Researchers reporting in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested 35 honeys and found they all elevated enzyme activity, with buckwheat honey at the top of the list. (But note that cruciferous vegetables were 10 times more potent inducers than buckwheat honey.)
These benefits make honey a queen among sweeteners and are enticements to sampling its myriad varieties — from more than 300 plant sources in the United States alone!
Getting the Best Honey
Honey can be damaged by too much heat, which can destroy its antibacterial properties. Pasteurization, in which honey is heat-treated to prevent fermentation by yeasts and to delay crystallization, is therefore a concern. Whipped honey also may be problematic, as a double-heating method usually is used to produce these spreadable products. However, the impact of heat treatment and filtration on antioxidant capacity of honey is not well understood. Some antioxidants may be destroyed, and others created. Storage temperature and the honey’s container also can have complex effects. A safe guideline is to store honey either below 52 degrees or at 70 to 80 degrees, in airtight containers.
Honey proclaimed as organic can be found, but it’s almost impossible to ensure against contamination, either by wind or by bee travel, of the bees’ forage by non-organic pollen. Newly proposed guidelines in Canada, for example, specify a 3.5-km buffer between apiaries and prohibited substances (including genetically modified organisms), which beekeepers consider unfeasible.
A recent concern has been the contamination of bulk honey imported from China with chloramphenicol, a potentially harmful human antibiotic that can cause aplastic anemia. Chinese honey or its blends have been recalled and are being detained at Canadian and U.S. Customs if they contain this antibiotic.
Use Honey Safely
Do not feed honey (even pasteurized honey) to children younger than 1 year old, as honey may contain the botulism agent Clostridium botulinum. The bacterium, while inactive in honey, can multiply in a baby’s undeveloped digestive system. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before using honey.
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. She is author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass — What Plants Teach Us About Life (Candlenut Books, 2002).
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