by Danielle Jackson
When most people think of honey, they might conjure up images of a colorful beehive, a hungry bear or hot brewed tea. But how many would think about using the natural sweetener instead of sugar in recipes, or eating a tablespoon each day to stave off allergies?
More and more, honey is becoming a popular superfood, used to make everything from baked goods to wine and soda, and to sooth everything from allergies to a sore throat.
Put simply, the sweet benefits of honey are endless.
Through the ages, honey has been used medicinally by many cultures and was documented as early as 2,400 B.C. Ancient Egyptians and Romans used it to treat colds, flu, sore throats, stomach ulcers, and intestinal conditions — even wounds.
“Honey is good for allergies — it contains a small amount of local pollens, so it’s good to eat local honey to get an immunity boost for things like hay fever,” says Jill Currin, a beekeeper who runs Jilly Bees Apiary with her husband, Andy, in Willow Spring.
“It also coats the throat, so it’s good for coughs.”
Currin also touts the health benefits of propolis, a natural resin that honeybees create when building hives. Propolis is commonly found in chewing gum, cosmetics, creams and lozenges, and aids in regenerating skin and healing wounds.
“It has antibacterial properties, and can be frozen and eaten,” she says. “It’s sticky, like sap.”
The sweet and lowdown
Pure honey is plant or flower nectar that has been broken down by a honeybee’s enzymes and is primarily composed of fructose, glucose, and water. According to the National Honey Board (NHB), an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the food’s many health benefits, because there is no processing involved, pure honey literally travels from the hive to the bottle to the kitchen.
“It’s the only human food that’s made by insects,” Currin says. “We don’t harvest anything else humans eat than pure honey.”
Honey also is a direct product of pollination, and crops relying on honeybee pollination are estimated at $14 billion per year in the U.S. If it weren’t for honeybees, there’d be significantly less cotton, apples, oranges, blueberries, cucumbers, strawberries, almonds, and countless other fruits and vegetables.
There are more than 300 varieties of honey throughout the U.S., each with a unique flavor and color profile, ranging from almost colorless to dark brown. Color and taste vary greatly and are based on the types of blossoms honeybees visit while searching for nectar, as well as location and climate. In the Triangle, popular varieties include clover, cotton, wildflower and sunflower.
According to NHB, honey not only is an ideal natural food, but purchasing local honey can benefit the environment as well. Local honey promotes sustainability by encouraging growth of the local economy and reducing production waste. It also takes less energy to produce than other sweeteners because it is bottled and sold in its original state. Most area farmers markets sell many varieties year-round, and the Wake County Beekeepers Association counts dozens of members, many of whom sell honey locally.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), pure honey also is one of the best high energy-producing foods. And because it is comprised almost entirely of simple sugars, it can be digested and added to food easily. It contains no fat, cholesterol or sodium, and is loaded with vitamins, trace enzymes, amino acids, and antioxidants. One teaspoon contains only 21 calories and 17 grams of carbohydrates and is a natural source of readily available carbs, which helps improve performance and speed recovery of muscles before, during, and after exercise.
This explains why many professional athletes from wrestlers and runners to cyclists rely on the superfood to fuel their workouts. Over the summer, NHB even partnered with spokesperson Turk Wendell and Minor League Baseball teams, including the Durham Bulls, to promote its many health benefits.
So the next time your recipe calls for sugar — or you’re sneezing or suffering from a sore throat — consider stirring a little honey into the mix.
Danielle Jackson is editor of Fifteen501, Wake Living and TriadLiving magazines.
Did you know?
Here are some little-known facts about pure honey, one of the first sweeteners and preservatives in existence:
- Egyptian royals were buried with pots of honey to help sweeten their transition to the afterlife. Pots of unspoiled honey are still being found by modern archaeologists. However, honey’s typical shelf life is two years.
- In Greek mythology, it is said that Cupid dipped his arrows in honey to fill lovers’ hearts with sweetness.
- In ancient Greece, honey was believed to grant immortality and as a result was a staple in the diet of its gods.
- Honeybees are one of science’s great mysteries, primarily because they have remained unchanged for 20 million years as the world has changed around them.
- Honey is being studied as a potential solution to cataracts and ulcers.
- One out of every three bites of fruits, vegetables and seed crops consumed in the U.S. is accomplished by pollinators, including honeybees.
- While most of the country has experienced a sharp decline in the number of honeybees — partly due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomena wherein honeybees inexplicably leave their hives and die — North Carolina has fared well. In fact, no cases have been reported in the state.