Oh, Honey!

A spoonful a day of this well-loved sweetener can keep the doctor away.

By Gina Roberts-Grey

July/August 2009

There’s one thing your parents probably failed to mention when they discussed the birds and the bees with you: Honey.

Long touted as having a multitude of healing powers, research is now backing up what generations of moms and grandmas have known for centuries: Honey is good for you. Sure a spoonful of honey sweetens up a cup of tea, but, there’s a growing body of science that says it can help you fight off infection and illness, and help treat symptoms such as sore throats and coughs associated with the common cold.

A recent study, published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine by researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine, found that a tablespoon of buckwheat honey, given just before bedtime, did a better job of reducing the severity and frequency of nighttime coughing from upper respiratory infection than dextromethorphan (DM), a cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cold medications. Good news, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently recommended that DM not be given to children under age 6 because of its ineffectiveness and potential for side effects.

Antioxidants help control free radicals, which can cause cell damage. And research from the University of California, Davis, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, reveals that honey consumption raises the body’s antioxidant levels. In the study, 25 people were told to eat between four and 10 tablespoons of buckwheat honey, depending on their weight, each day for a month. They could take the honey in almost any form, but it couldn’t be baked or dissolved in tea. (Most opted to eat it straight from the spoon.) All 25 saw their antioxidant levels rise, while enjoying another unexpected benefit —weight control. Unlike if they downed a sugary breakfast, none of the study’s participants experienced any weight gain, with many reporting that having honey for breakfast left them feeling full.


Nicole Kemp, RD, LDN isn’t at all surprised that researchers are singing honey’s praises. “It’s always been a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners,” she says. “And honey is an all-natural source of carbohydrates that provides the body with energy.” Unlike refined sugar, Kemp says that honey can keep blood sugars at more consistent levels.

Honey also contains powerful antioxidants that play an essential role in stimulating the digestive tract.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and promising, nuggets of research concerns honey’s intriguing potential for improving memory and reducing anxiety. A new study from Waikato University, Hamilton, New Zealand, published in the Journal of Physiology & Behavior, found that consumption of a few tablespoons a day of a honey with high antioxidant levels, such as bamboo or buckwheat, reduces anxiety levels and improves spatial memory in middle age.

What’s Your Flavor?

Bruce Wolk, director of marketing for the National Honey Board (www.honey.com), says that before incorporating honey into your daily diet you need to understand which variety is best for you.

“There are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the US, each originating from a different floral source,” he says.

Despite their differences, all honeys are produced the same way: Worker bees gather nectar from flowers and fill cells in the hive with a nectar/enzyme mixture the bees manufacture. Wolk says the different honey varieties differ from one another because of the types of blossoms the bees visit.

“Floral source, location and climate factors all affect the taste, color and texture of each variety of honey,” he says. “There is no processing or additives that give them their unique flavor.”

Wolk adds that the different flavor nuances are ideal for various cooking and baking applications, especially if you’re trying to replace refined sweeteners with natural options. He adds that most honeys only have 64 calories and 16 grams of sugar per tablespoon.

Honey Dos and Don’ts

Kemp says there’s really no trick to storing honey. “It just needs to be kept in a cool location away from direct sunlight,” she says. “It shouldn’t be refrigerated, since it’s harder to work with when it’s cold.” She recommends keeping the container sealed tightly between uses. And although honey can be frozen, there’s no need to do so; Kemp says it has “an indefinite shelf life.”


It’s OK if your honey becomes cloudy or milky—Kemp says it’s just crystallization. “It doesn’t mean the honey has spoiled or can’t be consumed,” she says, explaining that honey tends to crystallize over time because of its high natural sugar content or because it has been kept in a cool place. If your honey does crystallize, you can easily re-liquify it. Kemp recommends gently heating the jar in a pan of hot water while stirring; just make sure it doesn’t boil.

One tablespoon of honey contains nutrients such as vitamins B6 and C, magnesium and folate. Kemp says the darker the honey’s color, the higher the mineral and antioxidant content. Heat can reduce honey’s nutritional value so it shouldn’t be used in applications that require temperatures over 375 degrees. “Never boil or overcook honey, or foods containing honey, to avoid the loss of nutrients,” says Kemp, who adds that if honey is overheated the natural sugars might caramelize and alter the honey’s flavor, aroma and color.

Honey is safe for just about everyone, except kids under 18 months because it can contain botulinum spores, and very young children’s digestive tracts haven’t matured enough to prevent those spores from producing the toxin that turns into botulism. Kemp says that honey allergies are rare but do exist in some individuals because of the trace presence of bee pollen. However, most honey is filtered and pasteurized so the amount of bee pollen, if any, is minute. “Most who have an allergic reaction to honey experience symptoms when consuming raw honey (straight from the honeycomb),” she adds.

On the other hand, some people have reported that consuming small amounts of local honey has helped ease allergy symptoms. If you suffer from allergies, you should speak with your healthcare professional about using honey.

Most grocery stores usually only carry clover or goldenrod honey, but health food store shelves are loaded with several different types. Each one has distinct flavors and specific uses that are complimented by the varietal’s body and flavor.

There are many sources of the sweet stuff:

Bamboo
This actually comes from the Japanese knotweed plant instead of bamboo
Color: Dark amber
Flavor: Robust sweetness; a milder version of buckwheat honey
Uses: Adds a nice touch of flavor to coffee, in hot cereal or barbecue sauces, or on pancakes

Buckwheat
Buckwheat is a summer annual that blooms late into fall
Color: Dark amber
Flavor: Robust, similar to molasses
Uses: Ideal for baked goods and barbecue sauces;
also pairs well with strong cheeses or grapefruit, or as
a maple syrup replacement

Clover
One of the most common varieties; made from several different types of clover including white Dutch, red, sweet and white
Color: Light amber
Flavor: Sweet and pleasingly mild
Uses: Is excellent at the table or as a key ingredient in light sauces and dressings

Goldenrod
This plant is one of the most popular sources for amber honey, which is very rich and nutritious; eating this kind of honey may help curb allergy symptoms (speak with
your practitioner first)
Color: Amber
Flavor: Slightly strong, almost spicy; not overly sweet
Uses: Can be used for sauces and marinades and also pairs well with strong cheeses and salted nuts; not good for baking because it can cause baked goods to be grainy

Locust
A rare variety because the trees only flower a couple of weeks each year and because the weather is not always conducive to nectar-gathering by the bees; may be expensive as a result
Color: Water white
Flavor: Light and mild
Uses: The mildness makes it a good choice for cooking and baking, where a subtler sweetness is desired

Orange Blossom
A leading honey plant in southern Florida, Texas, Arizona and California that blooms in March and April
Color: Light amber
Flavor: Sweet, fruity flavor with a pronounced aroma of orange blossoms
Uses: Works well in fruit and vegetable salad dressings or in marinades for fish and poultry; also great in custards, in biscuit and muffin recipes or for flavoring tea and coffee

Wildflower
Most people visualize a meadow of bloom ing flowers when they see the label “wildflower”; that might be true, but often it is so named because the definitive source of pollen and nectar is unknown
Color: Amber to dark amber
Flavor: Mild floral overtones
Uses: Great addition to fruit and vegetable salad dressings, excellent in baked goods and makes a
delicious table honey

 

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