Honey is one of the most ubiquitous products in Australian homes. Most households have a jar of honey on the shelf, whether it be for eating or medicinal use, but lately we are realising that not all honeys are the same.
There has been a focus in the news lately about where honey comes from and what it consists of. There have been concerns over honey being diluted with other syrups and these blended sweeteners masquerading as honey are now appearing on supermarket shelves.
What Is Honey Made Of?
The composition of honey is mainly sugars and water, but it also contains several vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins as well as amino acids, proteins, antioxidants and various compounds with antibacterial actions.
Dr Nural Cokcetin, a honey researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, says a common misconception is that honey is a standard product. ‘It is incredibly complex, with over 200 components such as different simple and complex sugars and amino acids, many of which vary depending on which flowers the bees visit to collect the nectar they turn into honey,’ says Dr Cokcetin. ‘So in the same way that different honeys look and taste very different, they can also have different medicinal properties.’
‘Many of the ancient peoples prescribed certain honeys collected from specific locations, seasons or flowers for specific conditions. They were selecting the activity of the honey based on the floral source, although it’s unlikely they would have framed it this way themselves.’
What The Bees Are Eating
Bees make honey by collecting nectar, bringing it back to the hive and then storing it and sealing it in the honeycomb. Therefore the flavour of honey is dictated by the flowers the nectar is collected from and its quality can be affected by whether or not the flowers have been sprayed with pesticide and herbicides and also pollution.
Even if you keep bees and use organic practices in your own garden, honey bees forage on average within a 5 km radius and could be in touch with a wide range of potentially sprayed flora from other people’s properties.
During winter and times of slow pollen/nectar flow when there are not many flowering plants, some beekeepers will supplement this and feed the bees sugar syrup. There are times when this can be the difference between life and death for the bees if there is no other sustenance. Some beekeepers take this to the extreme and feed their bees sugar so that they can continue to draw honey from the hives.
This happens when the focus is on producing large quantities of honey rather than on the health of the bees. Because the bees are feeding on sugar, not pollen, the amount of beneficial nutrients and bacteria are reduced. It’s best for the bees if beekeepers make sure they leave enough honey for the bees to feed on over winter so they don’t need to be fed sugar syrup.
Processing The Honey
The simplest method for extracting honey is to crush it and just filter out large solids (such as chunks of honeycomb and dead bees). This is done by either placing the honeycomb in a press which compresses the honey comb, extracting the honey and sieving off the larger particles, or just placing it in a sieve and allowing the honey to drip through. This way none of the goodness is destroyed and the honeycomb is kept aside for other purposes.
Another common practice is spinning the combs. This is done to extract the honey from the honeycomb without destroying the comb, meaning beekeepers can put it back in the hive, giving bees more time to focus on making honey rather than building more comb. The potential risk of doing this is that over time the comb takes up diseases and pesticides that have been collected by the bees, meaning it is more likely to affect the honey and the overall health of the bees.
Once it has been extracted, honey is often heated to keep it as a runny product that doesn’t crystalise. Unless labelled as ‘raw’, most honey has been heat-treated.
Clockwise from above: Capped honey cells in the hive; Honey in jar with honeycomb; Crushing honey.
Medicinal Effects Of Honey
‘One of the most exciting things about the antimicrobial activity of honey is that it works against a very wide range of microbes that cause infections, even antibiotic-resistant superbugs,’ explains Dr Cokcetin. ‘And there are no signs of microbes developing resistance to honey, like they so rapidly do to antibiotics.’
‘Apart from its ability to stop superbugs in their tracks, honey also encourages wound healing and stimulates our immune response and has additional therapeutic qualities, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and prebiotic properties.’
Honey is used in medical and surgical applications, but this is a specialty product created under strict guidelines to ensure purity, a certain level of antibacterial activity and sterility.
Honey For Gut Health
The most exciting part of Dr Cokcetin’s research is the contribution that honey can give to gut health. ‘Certain foods (called prebiotics) that come from complex sugars like those found in honey can help improve gut health by promoting the growth of our ‘good’ gut microbes,’ she says. ‘Recent studies show that Australian honey from various native species of flora can boost the number of good bacteria living in the gut with a daily dose of 20 g (about a tablespoon).’
Heating honey does little to affect its prebiotic qualities, so if you are using a spoon of honey in a hot cup of tea or cooking with it, you will still get the prebiotic effects. And best of all, raw honey taken directly from your home hive will have these prebiotic qualities too.
What is currently well-known as manuka honey is often praised for its medicinal qualities. What makes this honey different is that the bees have foraged on the flowers of the Leptospermum scoparium plant.
Australia is home to the largest diversity of Leptospermum (also known as tea tree or jelly bush) plants in the world with more than 80 species, including Leptospermum scoparium. A handful of these have similar levels of antibacterial activity to the New Zealand honey branded as manuka. Dr Cokcetin and a research team at the University of Technology Sydney are currently testing them to give credence to the fact that the antibacterial honey comes from the flora, not a particular country.
‘Some Leptospermum species produce honeys with high levels of a naturally occurring compound called methylglyoxal (MGO or MG), which is responsible for this added antimicrobial activity,’ she says. ‘This type of activity is usually referred to as “non-peroxide activity” or NPA.’
Most manuka honey is sold with ratings or symbols that have been introduced into the market to represent the antibacterial strength of ‘active’ honey. Some examples include NPA, MGO/MG, and UMF. (Unique Manuka Factor). Generally, the higher the number, the higher the level of antibacterial activity.
Which Honey To Choose
If you are using honey as a dressing for wounds, burns and cuts and topically to help skin conditions such as eczema and acne, then you may want to investigate one of the brands of certified NPA/UMF./MGO honey, registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). There are plenty of Australian manuka or jelly bush honey available.
If you are sourcing honey to eat, go for the most local and least processed honey you can find.
If you are buying honey, check the label. It may say ‘pure’, ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ 100% honey, but it pays to dig a little deeper. Talk to your honey producer at the farmers’ market or the wholefoods store. Ask a few questions about how the bees are kept (Are they fed sugar?) and how the honey is processed (Is it heated?).
By supporting small-scale local producers you will ensure there are plenty of bees living in your community to pollinate fruit trees, vegetables and other flowers so that your local area has a thriving food production economy.
To read about Dr Nural Cokcetin’s honey research, visit www.ozhoneyproject.wordpress.com