Putting the spotlight on: honey

Drizzled over Greek yoghurt; dribbled into a steaming hot toddy; oozing from a hot crumpet … sticky, golden honey is one of nature’s sweet spots

A single teaspoonful of honey is the life’s work of twelve bees, each venturing as far as ten kilometres from her home hive on a single flight, collecting half her own body weight in nectar and visiting as many as 10,000 flowers a day. Back at the hive, the bee deposits her nectar into honeycomb cells and dances for her fellow workers, her fuzzy little body waggling incredibly precise compass directions to her latest floral goldmine.

Borne out of painful childhood experience, many of us are wary of these armed insects with suicidal tendencies, but bees and humans have maintained an uneasy, yet mutually beneficial relationship since we began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians identified abundant uses for honey, using it to both sweeten their baking and embalm their dead, while the art of beekeeping has been practised in China for untold thousands of years.

For most of human history, honey was a sacred and rare resource – until one fateful event: the invention of refined sugar. The sweetness of honey was suddenly replicable, accessible, widely available and cheap to produce. Today, sugar cane is the world’s largest crop.

Although sugar and honey pack a similar calorific punch – both are simple carbohydrates made up largely of fructose and glucose – the outcome of substituting honey with sugar in our diets hasn’t been so simple.

Dr Peter Molan, director of the Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, has been researching honey for more than 30 years. In one recent experiment, rats were fed the equivalent of a typical New Zealand diet, except half the rats were fed sugar in the form of honey, while the others ate ordinary table sugar. Over the rats’ lifetime, says Dr Molan, “the ones on the refined sugar got obese and the other ones didn’t.” The sugar-fed rats also suffered greater mental deterioration as they aged, until eventually they all became too fat to fit into the maze that measured their mental performance.

The implication for us humans is clear: replacing the sugar in your diet with honey will likely be good news for your body and brain. But why?

Molan says the results of his experiment probably reflect honey’s antioxidant action, but could also be explained by honey’s low glycaemic index (GI) compared to table sugar. Eating foods with a high GI raises your blood sugar level, Molan explains. “If you’re not a diabetic you have a strong response to produce lots of insulin to lower that level, and when it overshoots and your blood sugar level goes too low, you feel hungry.” If you find that one biscuit inevitably leads to another, sugar could well be the culprit.

According to a neurobiologist on Molan’s honey research team, sugar shows all the effects on the brain that you would see with an addictive drug. “You never see people pigging out on honey like they do on sugary things,” he points out.

The precise reasons why honey seems to be so much better for us than sugar are hard to pinpoint. That’s because while sugar and its modern-day mimics, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are basic organic compounds, honey is an incredibly complex liquid. It contains a multitude of micronutrients that vary according to the type of flower visited by the bee, the season and even the health of the plant.

No two honeys are the same; even those produced by the same hives vary from month to month and year to year. Each batch of honey contains a unique mix of sugars, enzymes, amino acids, proteins, polyphenols and small amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant compounds. While there are only trace amounts of these nutrients in honey, there are a large number of them, working together in ways we do not yet fully understand.

Depending on the honey, it can have antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antitumor effects. Unfortunately, most of these benefits aren’t gained by scraping a little honey over a slice of buttery toast come Saturday morning: most studies in humans are based on consuming around three tablespoons a day, which would account for about 10 percent of your day’s recommended calorie intake.

“You’re not going to be able to use honey like a dietary supplement – just take a teaspoonful and get your daily dose of antioxidants,” says Molan, “but if you start replacing the large quantities of sugar that are used for sweetening foods and drinks with honey, you will start getting reasonable levels of antioxidants.”

One rule of thumb is that the darker the colour of the honey, the higher it is in antioxidants, although Molan points out that all honeys darken with age.

Honey never really goes off – King Tutankhamun’s tomb contained 3000-year-old jars of honey thought to be still edible – but its key enzymes do have a half-life that is affected by both heat and time. Some of these changes happen at ambient temperatures, explains Peter Bray, owner of Airborne Honey, but heating honey in processing can speed the process up.

Raw honey contains a multitude of enzymes, but the one that’s interesting from a therapeutic point of view is glucose oxidase, says Bray. “That takes the glucose in the honey and it makes hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. That’s certainly worth protecting.”

Hydrogen peroxide is what gives antibacterial activity to honeys other than manuka honey, Molan explains. When honey is applied to a wound – your little girl’s grazed knee, for example – hydrogen peroxide will be slowly released, acting as a mild antiseptic.

Any honey is good for first aid, says Molan, but if your injury is inflamed (particularly if it’s a burn) or infected then it’s better to apply manuka honey, “if you can afford to and if it’s genuine”. Manuka honey has an exceptional ability to clear wounds of infection – even the deadly MRSA superbug is killed by manuka honey – and it has much better anti-inflammatory activity than other honeys.

Manuka honey’s anti-inflammatory, infection-clearing and antiseptic qualities are increasingly being harnessed to work wonders under wound dressings in hospitals – but they can be put to a more prosaic use closer to home, such as being used as a zit zapper.

The bacterium that causes acne is very sensitive to manuka honey, says Molan. “If you can see you’ve got a spot coming up – it’s red and you know it’s going to end up a zit the next day – put a Band Aid with a bit of manuka honey on it overnight and it won’t be there the next day.”

In skincare and beauty products, honey’s wholesome, all-natural image appeals to health-conscious consumers. But behind the appealing yellow labels, is honey actually useful in cosmetics? Skincare formulations expert Kate Robertson believes it is. “Honey is a really soothing ingredient,” she says. “It’s really good for skincare in the sense that it’s quite a good humectant, so it can be quite moisturising.” While she hasn’t had consistent results treating clients’ acne with honey, it seems to be those with the most aggravated skin that it hasn’t suited, while those with mild breakouts find it healing.

For a gentle, nourishing, calming and soothing mask, Robertson recommends applying honey straight onto your face. High concentrations of honey aren’t found in cosmetics, for obvious reasons. “It’s jolly sticky stuff. If you put it in a formulation at too high a level you’d end up with a goopy mess,” she says, but “even low concentrations of honey can add to a formulation. It can work synergistically with the other ingredients, rather than a single action from the honey.”

Whether we rub it on our skin or eat it on toast, the beneficial effects of honey often seem far greater than what we should expect from our current understanding of its constituent parts. And while scientists continue to explore the medicinal potential of this remarkable food, we can help ensure that our world continues to buzz and hum with the fuzzy honeybees that make it, by filling our jars – and our tums – with honey from good, local sources.

Behind the label
Bees don’t make honey to manufacturing standards, but various labels try to help consumers make good choices:

The Unique Manuka Factor is a measure of the antibacterial activity found only in manuka honey, which is additional to honey’s usual peroxide activity. The UMF number is correlated to the phenol standard, so UMF® 10 has the same antibacterial activity as a 10 percent phenol solution. “Phenol is an old-school antiseptic material which they used to use to sanitise hospitals and toilets,” explains Bray, who is also a member of the Bee Products Standards Council, a national honey industry group, including a new measurement for non-peroxide activity. The old measurement is controversial, says Bray. “There’s a lot of money in it so everyone’s pushing their own agenda.”

Manuka honey can now be tested for its active ingredient, methylglyoxal (MGO), “but the correlation between the methylglyoxal and antibacterial activity has been subject to a lot of industry debate,” says Bray. Different manuka honeys have different levels of MGO, and those with high levels can be diluted with cheaper, non-manuka honey and still achieve a UMF rating.

Prolonged exposure to heat during processing reduces the enzyme activity in honey, indicated by an increase in the level of an organic compound called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). HMF levels also increase naturally over time, says Molan. “Just storing honey for years at ordinary room temperature is enough to get quite high levels. It needs to be kept cool if you’re storing honey. But HMF has nothing to do with the honey’s antioxidant levels.” The EU regulates HMF levels to under 40 parts per million, but HMF is unregulated in New Zealand. There is also no compulsion to date honey with its harvest or packaging date.

Nectar origin
Just because a label claims its honey comes from a particular botanical source, doesn’t mean all the nectar came from that plant. To check the international standards visit: www.airborne.co.nz/monfloralhoneydef.shtml “We routinely measure other company’s products and we can tell you that there is product out there that has been labelled as manuka or clover that is just totally not manuka or clover”, says Bray.

Manuka honey should contain a minimum of 70 percent manuka pollen, says Bray, but he estimates that 70 percent of the manuka honey in the market falls below that, while some major brands fall below ten percent. Molan also sees problems with the way manuka honey is labelled. “There’s an awful lot on sale which isn’t [genuine] and its activity, even when it’s rated, is just hydrogen peroxide activity, like in cheaper honeys. It probably has little or no actual manuka in it.” To be sure your honey is from the source it claims to be, look for a brand that includes the pollen percentage on its packaging.

Honey can be certified organic if it meets certain strict criteria, such as avoiding synthetic chemicals and antibiotics within the hives, situating the hives several kilometres from non-organic agricultural areas, and not replacing the bees’ winter honey with sugar syrup (a common practice in beekeeping). The word ‘organic’ alone doesn’t mean anything unless it is accompanied by a third-party certification.

“There’s no definition for ‘raw’,” says Bray. It could mean that the honey has never been heated or filtered, or merely that is uncooked, or that it is simply a ‘raw material’.

Molan is planning to develop a measurement of antioxidant activity in honey, so that each batch can be labelled. New Zealand Honey Specialties, which produces the NZ Honey Co brand, is so far the only company to do this, he says. Each 340 gram jar claims to contain the same antioxidants as 100 cups of green tea.

The glycaemic index of honey is currently not labelled on honey, but Molan is seeking funding from the honey industry to develop a laboratory-based tool to be able to measure this a lot more easily than with dietary testing.

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