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What is honey? Is it good for you?

For thousands of years, across cultures around the world, honey has been used as a medicine for illness and for injury. Despite this long history of associating honey with health, there’s no conclusive scientific evidence either way regarding claims about the medical applications of honey. So, is honey good for you?

What is honey?

Honey is a sweet syrupy substance produced by honey bees. The reason bees produce and store honey is to keep a food supply on hand for the winter months or other times when it’s difficult to find food. Bees consume nectar from flowers and use an enzyme to convert it into the concentrated honey syrup. The bees then store the honey inside combs they build from beeswax.

As bees remove much of the water content of the nectar when converting it into honey, and bacteria and fungi cannot grow in high sugar concentrations, honey can keep indefinitely. Honey can, however, degrade if for example it’s stored at too high a temperature.

What types of honey are there?

There are two ways honey gets from hive to human hand. Raw honey is packaged directly as-is without processing, which means that it contains remnants of yeast, wax, and pollen. Pasteurized honey is heated and processed to remove impurities before packaging.

While the first image that usually comes to mind when thinking of honey is the clear golden syrup, honey can also be bought and consumed in other forms. ‘Comb honey’ is exactly what it sounds like – honey left in the wax comb, exactly as the bees made it. These days it’s less common to find comb honey for sale. It’s more efficient for beekeepers to extract the honey and reuse the comb to save the bees all of the time and effort of making new comb to store their honey. ‘Cut comb’ is a sort of in-between – it’s liquid honey with bits of honeycomb still floating around in it.

You may open your jar of honey to find some cloudiness or bits of crystals – there’s nothing wrong with the honey. Crystallized honey is perfectly fine for consumption, but if you’re not keen on the texture it can be easily melted. Try to avoid frequently heating your honey supply, as repeated heat exposure can deteriorate the taste.

What makes manuka honey special?

Manuka honey is produced almost exclusively in New Zealand by bees using nectar collected from the manuka plant. It’s a premium product with a strict definition. The Ministry for Primary Industries has established criteria and a testing service to authenticate manuka honey and prevent sub-par goods from being sold under the manuka honey name.

The reason manuka is so popular is that it has much greater antibacterial properties than most regular honeys. Methylglyoxal, while found in most honey types in small quantities, is found at high concentrations in honey produced by bees from manuka flower nectar. It’s said that this property is what gives manuka honey its antibacterial power.

Labelling standards also include the potency (by methylglyoxal content) of manuka honey using a metric called Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). Rating 10 UMF or higher is considered a therapeutic product and is often marketed as ‘UMF Manuka Honey’.

What is the nutritional value of honey?

Honey is a popular substitute for regular cane sugar in tea and coffee, baking, and other sweetening needs. However, it’s important to remember that honey is very high in sugar. In every 100g of honey, there’s about 80g of sugar. We all know that sugar is bad for you – high sugar intake can cause tooth decay, weight gain, and other long-term health problems. According to the World Health Organisation, a healthy diet should contain no more than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars, but ideally less than 5%.

However, when it comes down to choosing between regular cane sugar and honey, the latter is usually a better choice. Honey causes a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels compared to cane sugar, which means it’s better for your metabolism. It’s also sweeter than cane sugar, so you can consume less of it to get your sweet tooth fix.

Apart from sugar, there isn’t much else of nutritional value in honey. Any vitamin and mineral content is too low to be significant in normal honey consumption quantities.

Can honey treat any illnesses?

A common home remedy for colds and sore throats is hot water mixed with a spoonful of honey and some lemon. Honey can be soothing when you’re sick, but can it actually act like a medicine to help you get better?

There is some evidence that honey can help protect against some ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and bacterial illnesses, due partly to its antioxidant and antibacterial properties and partly to other physiological effects. However, honey certainly should never replace treatment from a qualified medical professional. It doesn’t hurt as a supplementary remedy, even if it’s only a placebo.

Can honey help heal wounds and burns?

Unless you’ve managed to get your hands on special medical-grade honey, your jar in the pantry is not sterile and should not be slathered onto your wounds.

In a medical setting, honey has shown some promise as an aid to wound and burn healing due to its antimicrobial properties. Honey can be used as a dressing to keep the wound moist and act as a barrier against infection.

Is honey safe?

It’s recommended not to give honey to children aged under twelve months old due to the risk of botulism bacteria in spore residue. While the botulism bacterium has yet to be found in any Australian honey according to Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Infants lack the immune system strength to fight infection, so they are at greater risk. If the honey is cooked, such as in cereals containing honey, it should be fine.

Is honey good for you?

As most of the claims made about the health benefits of honey are yet to be conclusively proven, it’s difficult to say whether or not honey is good for you. Honey certainly isn’t bad for you, unless you dollop spoonfuls of it on or in everything you eat and drink. It’s pretty much liquid sugar, but as it has a slightly lower sugar content than cane sugar and is sweeter per gram it can be an easy substitute to reduce your sugar intake. For medical purposes, honey should not be used to dress injuries or burns without medical supervision and certainly should not be consumed as a medicine. It can help you feel better in a hot drink while you rest and wait for the real medicine to do its job.

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