An amazing ingredient that’s made by bees entirely from flower nectar, honey can best be described as edible liquid gold. Once you realize just how special honey is, you’ll be buzzing about all its many varieties and benefits to everyone in your hive.
What is honey?
The best of all-natural sweeteners, honey is the end product of a complex process of nectar gathering from flowering plants. According to the National Honey Board, the bees that produce honey travel as far as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just one pound of honey.
Talk about honey production! Honeybees make honey and store it for food during the winter; we’re just lucky that there’s enough for us, too.
Sweetness level compared to sugar
Honey is predominately composed of the monosaccharides fructose (31-44%) and glucose (23-41%), whereas granulated sugar is made of the disaccharide sucrose. Liquid honey is about as sweet as sugar. However, some types of honey have higher amounts of fructose, making it taste slightly sweeter.
According to the National Honey Board, liquid honey contains 0.8 g carbohydrates per gram compared to 1 gram for sugar. Honey provides 3.04 Kcal per gram compared to 4 Kcal per gram of sugar.
The glycemic index of honey also can vary greatly depending on what type of flower the honey is made from and the amount of fructose. The glycemic index of honey can vary between 35 to upwards of 58 (more fructose increases GI), compared to sugar at 58 to 65.
How do bees make honey?
Have you ever heard the term “busy as a bee”? Well, bees are one of the most industrious members of our planet. Making honey starts with a flower, as many of us know, but it doesn’t end there. Honeybees collect the nectar out of flowers and store it in a type of extra stomach they have just for this purpose, called a crop.
When they get back to the hive, the bees regurgitate the nectar, which has been processed with the enzymes in their crop and store it in one of the chambers of honeycomb in their hive. But it’s not finished yet.
The processed nectar must be dehydrated to reduce the water content, so the bees use their wings to fan the moisture out of the nectar to make the final, concentrated product we know as honey. Once that’s complete, the bees cover each cell with beeswax and the honey is stored away, much like you store cans in a pantry for a long winter.
Types of honey and uses
You might say that honey is the first “local” food. Much of the honey that’s available to buy is polyfloral honey, meaning that the bees don’t discriminate when going from flower to flower and a bee may visit many different types of flowers along the way.
Single note or monofloral honey is made when, for example, the beehive is in a field of the same flower, crop, or flowering tree. That’s when the honey begins to take on the flavor of one particular flower. Because every plant’s flower has a different smell, the honey also has a different taste based on what flower’s nectar it’s made with.
Common types of monofloral honey
- Clover: a commonly found honey with a light flavor. Used in baking and cooking.
Sourwood: Made from sourwood trees in the Appalachian mountains, sourwood honey has a slightly buttery, spicy flavor.
- Manuka: This very special honey is made from the Manuka tree in New Zealand and is revered for its wound healing and antimicrobial properties. Slightly medicinal in flavor.
- Tupelo: A delicate honey from the southern white Ogeechee tupelo tree, this honey has a hoppy flavor and a cult following.
- Buckwheat: A dark honey that resembles molasses and has a stronger flavor than most.
- Orange blossom: A sweet honey prized for its citrusy flavor.
- Sage: A sweeter honey that is very light in color.
- Alfalfa: A good honey for everyday use, alfalfa is light in color and mild flavored.
- Avocado: This honey has a rich and buttery taste, thanks to the avocado plant.
- Blueberry: A light, sweet-flavored honey made from the flowers of the blueberry tree.
- Basswood: Perhaps the lightest of all honey, basswood honey has a biting taste.
- Rosemary: Rosemary honey is strongly flavored from the herb itself and light in color.
- Dandelion: Yellow in color and used to by some people to aid in digestion, dandelion honey is an acquired taste.
- Acacia: A better choice for diabetics, acacia honey is lower in sucrose and higher in fruits than other kinds of honey, which is better for blood sugar levels. Light in flavor and mildly sweet.
- Eucalyptus: Add a teaspoon of this eucalyptus flavored honey into your tea when you have a sore throat, and you’ll enjoy its herbal aroma as you sip.
Raw vs. pasteurized honey
Raw honey is pure honey, unfiltered and unpasteurized, and keeps all its different flavors and natural benefits, while pasteurized honey has been heated to kill bacteria like botulism. Therefore, pasteurized honey doesn’t have the natural benefits that raw honey has, and usually loses any characteristic floral qualities, as well.
Note: Children under one year of age should never eat raw honey, as their immune system isn’t yet strong enough to handle any potential bacteria in raw honey.
Common forms of honey
- Honeycomb: Comb honey is taken from the honeycomb, just the way it is stored in the hive. It is rich in very-long-chain fatty acids and alcohols that help lower the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Liquid: If you cut open the wax honeycomb and take out just the honey, you’re left with liquid honey.
- Granulated: This is a honey product that is dried into spoonable granules to use in recipes, cosmetics, and more.
- Creamy: A blend of creamed honey and granulated honey, this form makes for smooth spreading on muffins, toast, and more.
- Chunk: This is a piece of the honeycomb with liquid honey poured over it.
Selecting and Storing
Rather than buying big jars of a brand name or imported honey, try to source local honey or small batch honey from apiaries, farmer’s markets, or health food stores in your area. It may cost a bit more, but this supports your local bee economy, plus you know how where your honey comes from. Honey stores almost indefinitely, but keep the lip of the jar it is stored in clean, and only dip clean utensils in the container.
The best place to store any honey is a cool, dry cupboard or on a pantry shelf. Whatever you do, don’t keep honey in the refrigerator–it will only speed up the crystallization of the honey. If crystallization occurs, though, don’t fret. That thin white film and grainy, solid-looking jar of honey can be brought back to its liquid self, with a little patience and if you reheat it gently.
One way to do this is by placing the jar of honey in a pot of hot water (not over direct heat on the stove), then spoon the honey into a microwave-safe bowl and, on your microwave’s lowest setting, warm it only to the point where it is slightly melted around the edges; let the honey stand at room temperature to finish liquifying.
How to cook with honey
One of the messiest chores when measuring honey for recipes is, well, getting it off of the spoon and the measuring cups. A tip I like to pass on is applying a thin film of cooking spray to the spoon and the measuring cups, so the honey slides off of everything easily.
Baking with honey
While honey does work as a substitute for sugar in baking, it also adds moisture to the recipe, and using honey may alter the texture of the finished product. To use honey in place of 1 cup of sugar, use 2 tablespoons less than 1 cup of honey, add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, and reduce another liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons.
The flavor and texture may not be exactly the same, but experiment to see if you like the new version better! Also, many people recommend lowering the baking temperature by 25 degrees to prevent over-browning.
Is honey vegan?
No, the process of harvesting honey does not align with The Vegan Society‘s definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation of any animal.
- Salad dressings: Sweeten up a vinaigrette with a spoonful of honey and some Dijon mustard.
- Breakfast: Morning cereal or oatmeal drizzle some of your favorite honey over yogurt, oatmeal, or unsweetened cereal.
- Granola: Make your own granola with roasted oats, nuts, and honey.
- Marinades: Make sweet and spicy chicken wings on the grill or add a tablespoon of honey to a lime marinade for flank steak.
- Beverages: honey dissolves easily in liquid so add it to tea, cocktails, or make a sore throat remedy with lemon, mint, and warm water. Or combine milk and honey for a sweet treat any time of day.
Popular to use with certain diets
While honey is considered acceptable for use with a Paleo diet, those who are following a low carb diet and on the Whole30 plan are usually advised to avoid honey because it’s a sweetener that contains simple carbohydrates, something that Whole 30 and low carb enthusiasts limit.
Nutritional profile per serving
A tablespoon of raw honey contains 64 calories, 17 grams of carbohydrates (16 of which are sugar), and 1 mg sodium.
Health benefits of honey
Raw honey is also rich in amino acids, Vitamin B6, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid, although amounts vary depending on the floral source and quality of the honey. Additionally, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc are also abundant minerals in raw honey.
Honey contains high levels of antioxidants, including polyphenols, that fight stress, and inflammation, which could help prevent heart disease. Studies have shown that buckwheat honey outperforms some cough suppressants. When you’re homesick, try some buckwheat honey in your tea.
There’s some scientific evidence that eating honey may help boost endurance activities, as well as glucose, sugar, or water. Current research also suggests that raw honey is an effective immune system booster. Honey is considered to have antimicrobial properties and has been used for centuries for burn and wound healing, especially Manuka honey from New Zealand.