Make a beeline for one of nature’s tastiest foods derived from herbs.
Honey is an effective wound healer with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Throughout human existence, honey has been one of nature’s culinary wonders. But the value of this elixir hasn’t been strictly for the taste buds: Honey also has been valued for its healing properties, used to treat ailments of the internal organs and the skin. Hippocrates recommended using honey for optimal health, the ancient Egyptians used it as a salve to treat wounds and Cleopatra considered it part of her daily beauty routine (honey naturally attracts and retains moisture).
Scientists are rediscovering just how diverse honey’s healing properties really are. A natural “nutraceutical,” honey is an effective wound healer with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (see “Honey’s Health Benefits” on Page 50). Honey also functions as an antioxidant (darker-colored honeys usually are more potent), including one unique to honey called pinocembrin that’s an extremely concentrated antioxidant.
This natural bee byproduct contains a swarm of nutrients and enzymes. Its antimicrobial activity is believed to be mostly the result of an enzyme (glucose oxidase) that produces hydrogen peroxide. Certain honeys have even been shown to treat gingivitis and stop the growth of dental plaque.
Honey results from the involvement of three important players: the honeybee, flower nectar and enzymes. When flowers are in bloom, the bees collect nectar and carry it back to the hive. (A single honeybee easily can collect nectar from several hundred flowers during one trip.) The bees ingest the nectar, which mixes with their digestive enzymes. Back in the hive, they regurgitate the nectar and store it in the honeycomb. The honeycomb is left unsealed and the bees inside the hive fan their wings, which creates a strong draft across the honeycomb. This evaporates much of the water from the nectar, which raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Once the beekeeper removes the honey from the hive, it has a long shelf life and will not ferment.
Honey is especially prized for use in baking and marinades, as well as for its distinctive flavors. With more than 300 types of honey available in the United States alone, there’s a cornucopia of culinary distinction to be discovered. Though honey is produced in every state, certain types of honey — for example, poison oak, meadowfoam or tupelo — are only produced in selective regions.
Honey can vary greatly in both color and flavor, depending on the floral nectar source gathered by the honeybees. Colors range from nearly clear to a midnight amber — most preferred types are a light to golden amber. Flavors vary from the delicately mild or fragrantly fruity to distinctively bold. Light-colored honeys are generally milder in taste, whereas dark-colored honeys are stronger and more intensely flavored.
Unlike most fresh foods, honey never should be stored in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures quickly can turn liquefied honey into a solid mass, a process known as crystallization. (Some honeys contain more dextrose than fructose and therefore crystallize more rapidly.) If your honey has crystallized, try placing the container in a pan of hot water and stirring until the crystals dissolve. Store honey in an airtight container in the pantry or other dry location. Never add water to honey in the container — this may cause it to spoil.
Honey is more than just a breakfast topping. It can be a healthful substitute for sugar in many recipes for baked goods. A few rules apply when substituting honey for sugar in baked goods: always reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees, and for every cup of honey used, reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. You can keep honey from sticking to your measuring cup or spoon by coating the utensil with nonstick cooking spray or oil beforehand.
Looking for other tasty ways to enjoy honey? Drizzle honey over fresh peaches or nectarines, then brown under the broiler for two minutes for a warm breakfast treat or snack. Mix honey with ground flaxseeds and low-fat cream cheese or ricotta cheese for a nutritious and tasty spread on bagels, corn bread, English muffins or toasted whole-grain bread. How about a honey glaze over baked squash or carrots? From breakfast to dinner, honey is a natural for flavoring foods. There’s no excuse for letting that honey bear sit in the cupboard unused.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Honey,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@Herbs ForHealth.com.
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