Sweet as Honey

I have just discovered a delicious bitter-sweet honey called Arbutus, which is harvested in Portugal and sold by “Wild about Honey.”
This is a raw, unfiltered and cold extracted honey made by hand in the western Algarve, where beekeepers “follow age-old traditions and make the honey, in the main, by hand.”


According to their blog – wildabouthoney.co.uk – beehives are moved around so that the bees forage for all type of blossom, from eucalyptus to thyme, orange blossom, arbutus and carob.
The last two  are the ones which really tick the box for me!
And because I would really like to know that honey is indeed a healthy food I should be eating, I decided to do some research on it.
What I discovered is that there is a lot of disagreement out there when it comes to honey…

Some honey facts:

Honey has been used since ancient times to treat multiple conditions. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that researchers discovered honey has natural antibacterial qualities.

Honey has anti-inflammatory actions which can help reduce pain and inflammation when applied, say, to a burn or wound on the skin, or when gargled for a sore throat.

However….not all honey is created equal:
There is pure honey: 100% real and unadulterated honey – ie. no sugar or corn syrup or starch is added.
There is commercial honey, which is heated to at least 70 degrees centigrade – to ensure the removal of any unwanted bees’ wings, pollen dust & yeasts (which could cause fermentation due to honey’s moisture content).  Some websites claim all the beneficial health properties are still there in ‘commercial’ honey, however logic tells me that they won’t be there to the same high, almost medicinal degree of raw honey.  Cooking nearly always decreases nutrients (although, yes, there are a few exceptions).
Then there is raw honey: pure, unadulterated, unpasteurized and unheated, ie. any beneficial nutrients in it will still be there, in the main, [Oh yes, and there’s also wild honey which is to do with the harvesting method, ie. It’s not farmed or a beekeeper’s honey].

The colour and flavour of honey is largely determined by the floral source of the nectar.  However exposure to heat and the storage time can also affect honey’s quality and colour.

According to benfits-of-honey.com website, honey contains B vitamins, some amino acids (protein) and minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, zinc and a few others.  Manuka honey apparently has 4x the amount of these minerals compared to ‘normal’ flower honeys, however Manuka is in a field all of its own (bad pun, sorry).
This is a New Zealand honey which comes from bees pollinating the Manuka trees that grow almost exclusively in the East Cape region.

Manuka contains an extra, naturally occurring active ingredient – methylglyoxal (MG) – which is stable and doesn’t lose its potency when exposed to heat, light or dilution.  The amount of MG is linked to that number which is on the Manuka honey jar, its UMF rating, namely its Unique Manuka Factor . This is apparently the only worldwide standard in identifying and measuring the antibacterial strength or quality of some strains of Manuka and it’s a guarantee that the honey has antibacterial property.
Manuka honey is apparently the most effective in killing antibiotic-resistant infections, such as MRSA; however, again, I found some information saying that raw honey can do the same, and that they, too, contain MG.

Sugar-fed bees (flower nectar is vital to the quality of the honey), and those which have also been contaminated by pesticides will NOT be giving the same health benefits to you.

All honey contains hydrogen peroxide.  Apparently it’s the enzymes – invertase, diastase and glucose oxidase – in honey which is responsible for creating hydrogen peroxide which gives honey its mildly antiseptic and antibacterial properties (used on burns, for gargling sore throats, for skin wounds a.o.).  However, as mentioned before, honey like manuka, and some raw honey, will also have methylglyoxal, which has that extra health antioxidant.

According to Benefits of Honey website, honey is hygroscopic; ie. It absorbs moisture form the air and therefore makes it ideal for hydrating; thus it’s found in skin and hair treatment products.

Some sites claim honey has a healthy glycaemic index (which is when sugars are gradually absorbed into the bloodstream without causing a huge spike).  However, when I checked a reputable site regarding the GL of honey, it looked high to me.  And considering honey is both fructose and glucose, I am pretty certain it will be spiking your blood sugar levels  – certainly if you eat it on a spoon.
Like all sugars, it has less impact on your blood sugar levels when eaten with fibre and/or protein.  And when eaten in moderation!
But yes, I’ll grant you that honey does use lower levels of insulin compared to white sugar and doesn’t raise blood sugar as rapidly as table sugar.  But then white sugar is rubbish, with no health benefits and only calories…

Talking of glycaemic index, I would like to think that this newly discovered bitter-sweet Arbutus honey may have less of an impact on blood sugar (however, this is bound to be wishful thinking).  Logic tells me that the health aspect of this particular honey is to do with its great phenolic compounds, aka antioxidants, which….

….according to Benefits of Honey website, the darker the honey is, the more phytonutrients or antioxidants, it contains.
Saying that, some online honey “experts” (usually manufacturers who have lots to gain) claim that the colour can be due to how it’s processed and/or stored.

A health claim I’ve not heard about before, regarding honey, is that eating a spoonful of raw honey last thing at night will help your liver.  As your liver does a lot of its metabolic repair work at night it will need glucose – sugar – to carry out all this work.
According to “Wild about Honey’s” health info page, at some point in the night, your liver may be left depleted of this stored sugar and your body will start producing stress hormones instead, such as cortisol.
Blood sugar drops in the night should always be one thing to consider if you wake up tired, or keep waking up in the wee hours, unable to get back to sleep.  I wouldn’t begin addressing these problems by eating a dollop of honey; I’d look at lots of other factors first, for a start, your daily diet and lifestyle, and I’d consider other possibilities for you waking up tired.
However, if you have a healthy balanced diet and your stress levels are low, it would be an easy thing to try.  For a short while (I am not giving you the go-ahead to eat a honey toast last thing of every night).  How about a tsp of raw honey – if you tolerate it –  in some warm milk of your choice for a week, then if it doesn’t make any difference, give it a miss…

Note that in rare cases, in raw honey, endospores of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that can cause botulism) have been found. This is more of a problem for infants whose digestive systems are still not fully formed.

Another new-to-me health plus I read on benefits-of-honey.com, is that honey enhances cognition, ie brain health.  Hmmmm….. I can only imagine that the author is focusing on the anti oxidant/high phenolic content regarding this.
Interesting to read there have been studies on this at a medical college in Iraq, but I still think I would recommend high antioxidants from other foods which are less sweet, and will have less impact on your blood sugar levels.  And then, when you feel like some delicious pure or raw honey, you can console yourself with the possible fact that it may be helping your brain!

Raw honey contains bee pollen and propolis.  Bee pollen has all those vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein.  Propolis is the resinous substance gathered to line the hive, to make it healthy – with loads of antibiotic and antiseptic benefits.  Note, however, that residual protein from the pollen (from the plants the bees visit) may cause allergies since proteins are often connected to food allergies.
Some people may react to ‘raw’ more than to commercial honey but here, too, there is disagreement.  Some people are so allergic to all honey that even touching it, whether raw, pure or adulterated with sugars, can cause a range of reactions from rashes and cramps and headaches to anaphylaxis.

Is honey good for hay fever?  We always hear that eating local honey may improve your immune health when the sneeze season starts.  However, an interesting point raised by the ‘Wild about honey’ author is that only if people are allergic to flower pollens will it have any benefit.  Most people who get the sneezes and runny eyes are allergic to grass and tree pollen – these are wind pollinated and have little to do with bees.
Quote, unquote: “The idea that microscopic amounts of pollen in local honey effectively vaccinates you is a misconception.”   [Wildabouthoney]
However, given the antioxidant properties of a good honey, it may still be stimulating your immune system, and therefore you may find that it helps you regarding your allergies.

Another take on allergies is that honey can be a way of de-sensitising you.  Raw honey will be exposing you to traces of the pollen that would otherwise cause allergy flare-ups.  The North Dallas Honey Company says “a daily tablespoon of honey can actually act like an allergy shot. Pasteurized honey removes the pollen, so only raw honey is an effective means of keeping seasonal allergies at bay”.
And still another opinion warns that this may be a dangerous means of warding off allergies because consumers have no way of knowing the amount of pollen in the honey.  So it may have the potential to cause a bad reaction!
If you know that you don’t normally have a reaction to honey, I would suggest trying a good quality raw honey – small dose to start, to ensure you are fine with it – in the month lead-in to  ‘your’ allergy season.  It may just give your immune system that extra bit of support to improve your overall immunity – and this may include your reactivity to grass and pollen allergens. Again, eat it in moderation and with some protein or fibre.

So, after all that, I’ve come to the conclusion that my new Arbutus, bitter honey has lots of beneficial properties: its dark colour and bitter taste confirm a high antioxidant status, and the fact that it’s raw means it’ll have higher levels of antibacterial and antiseptic qualities.  Nonetheless the price and its sweetness will keep it a ‘treat’ food rather than something on my daily menu!




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