For centuries, honey has been one of nature’s culinary wonders. But the value of this golden treat isn’t strictly in its sweet taste. Honey also has a long history as a natural medicine, used to treat ailments of the internal organs and the skin. Hippocrates recommended consuming honey for optimal health, the ancient Egyptians used it as a salve to treat wounds, and Cleopatra is said to have considered it a vital part of her daily beauty routine. Today, honey with lemon is still a favorite remedy for colds and sore throats.
Honey’s wound-healing properties are among its most impressive medicinal qualities. A study published in the journal Burns found honey salve healed superficial burns more quickly and effectively than a standard treatment of silver sulfadiazine. Another study examined the therapeutic effects of honey applied to surgical incisions following Caesarean sections and abdominal hysterectomies. Compared with patients treated with a standard solution of iodine and alcohol, those treated with honey were infection-free in fewer days, had a reduced hospital stay and experienced accelerated wound healing with minimal scar formation.
Honey helps heal wounds in several ways. Its thickness provides a protective barrier against germs, and honey naturally absorbs fluids in wounds, helping to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Raw honey also contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase. When the enzyme mixes with body fluids, it produces hydrogen peroxide and acts as a mild antiseptic. (Please note: Serious topical infections and wounds should be treated by a medical professional. Do not attempt to heal wounds with honey from a jar; it might not be sterile.)
While most honeys derive their antibacterial effects from hydrogen peroxide, manuka honey (the Leptospermum species, primarily from New Zealand), may actually inhibit bacteria from attaching to tissues. Manuka honey may also keep bacteria from forming biofilms, which can protect them from antibiotics. A recent study from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, found that manuka honey fought antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including a strain of staph known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
But honey is not antagonistic to all bacteria. Scientists at Michigan State University added it to fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese and found honey enhanced the growth, activity and viability of certain bifidobacteria, which are believed to help sustain healthy digestion. The investigators suggest this benefit could make honey the sweetener of choice in many foods.
Antioxidants in Honey
Honey also hosts a horde of antioxidants, including the flavonoid pinocembrin, which is unique to honey. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that 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 makes an antioxidant-rich alternative to sugar.
Generally, the darker the honey, the higher its antioxidant content. Buckwheat honey, for example, has 5 1/2 times more antioxidant strength than light acacia honey. But rules occasionally are broken: A University of Illinois researcher found that sweet-clover honey, though fairly light, is rich in antioxidants, whereas dark golden mesquite honey is relatively poor. Other factors that can influence antioxidant content, particularly within a species, include climate, soil, processing, handling and storage.
The health benefits of honey are largely determined by its quality. According to a recent Food Safety News report, a third or more of all the honey consumed in the United States is likely to have been smuggled in from China or India and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. To ensure your honey isn’t tainted, buy from local sources. Visit Local Harvest, where you can search for honey by state, city or ZIP code. When possible, choose raw honey. Pasteurization, a process in which honey is heat-treated to prevent fermentation by yeasts and to delay crystallization (when liquid honey turns into a solid mass), may diminish its antibacterial properties and nutrients. Whipped honey, produced through a double-heating process, also may be less nutritious than raw honey.
Unlike most fresh foods, honey should never be stored in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures quickly crystallize honey. 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.
For a delicious way to incorporate honey into your life, try this recipe for Honey-Lemon Scones.
Adapted with permission from The Herb Companion.
Substituting Honey for Sugar
Bear Foot Honey Farm, a third-generation family honey farm in Santa Rosa, California, offers these instructions for substituting honey for sugar in recipes on its website.
Because of its high fructose content, honey has higher sweetening power than sugar, which means you can use less to achieve the desired sweetness. When using honey as an alternative to granulated sugar in recipes, begin by substituting honey for up to half of the sugar called for in the recipe.
For baked goods, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning. For each cup of honey used, reduce the liquid called for by 1/4 cup and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda.
For more on using honey and other natural sweeteners as an alternative to sugar, read the article “Smarter Sweets.”
10 Terrific Varieties of Honey
Acacia: Water-white to nearly clear in color, with a delicately light floral flavor. Exceptional for sweetening drinks without altering their taste.
Alfalfa: White to light amber in color, with good body and a multifunctional flavor. This honey is a fine choice as a table honey or for use in baking or cooking.
Blackberry: Usually light to golden amber in color. Fruity, rich and full-flavored honey is slightly reminiscent of blackberries. It’s an excellent all-around honey, especially great for baking.
Buckwheat: Color is dark brown. A very full-bodied honey with a strong, distinct flavor. Typically contains more antioxidant compounds than most light honeys.
Clover: Varies in color from water-white to very light amber with a mild, delicate flavor. Although light in color, research shows clover honey is rich in antioxidants.
Eucalyptus: Ranges in color from dark amber to gray, with an intensely bold flavor and undertones of a slight medicinal aftertaste. Makes a tasty sweetener for herbal tea or a nice accompaniment to cheeses and breads.
Fireweed: Pleasantly light in color and flavor, fireweed is an ideal all-purpose honey for cooking, baking and table use.
Mint: Despite its name, this honey doesn’t taste like mint. A dark, rich, full-flavored honey often referred to as “the stout beer of honeys,” its flavor holds up well in baking and sauces.
Orange blossom: Color is extra-light amber with a delightful citrusy aroma and flavor. (This honey is derived from a combination of citrus floral sources.) Excellent multipurpose honey.
Sage: Light and mellow in color and taste. Its taste is heightened by the subtle flavor of sage.
Do not feed honey (even pasteurized honey) or baked goods containing honey to children younger than 1 year. Honey may contain the botulism agent Clostridium botulinum, which, 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.