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By Jennifer Hobbs
Honey, super sweet, unctuous and delicious, a symbol of luxury and riches for millennia. “The land of milk and honey” refers to a place where riches abound. From Biblical times, "milk and honey" have been said to denote fertility and the phrase itself was used in the bible referring to what is now known as Israel. Honey figures large in contemporary language too.“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” which means a sweet-temper will get you what you want faster than an ill-temper and surely terms of endearment like 'honey' and 'sweet-heart' refer to exactly this idea.
Honey has been used for millennia in both medicinal and domestic contexts with the earliest recorded uses of honey as a medicine dating as far back as 700BC. The ancient Egyptians used it in beauty products and honey found in the tomb of King Tut was apparently found to be edible despite being around 2000 years old. Before the discovery of beer, Mead was an alcoholic drink made from honey and was enjoyed by early Romans, and Saxons.
In more recent times scientists have been working to unlock the secrets of honey and determine if the mythical health giving properties of honey are based on fact or just superstition.
All honey consists of about 80% sugars, 17% water, and around 3 % minor nutritive and non-nutritive compounds, however, there is enormous variation in different types of honey depending on where the bees that made it foraged, so not all honeys have the same qualities. Generally speaking the darker the honey the stronger it is and better quality.
There are two main types of sugar in honey, maltose and dextrose, and with a whopping 80% sugar content it is surprising that it has a Glycemic index of only 83. Not too bad when compared with sugar, up around 150. To give a bit of context plain boiled rice has a GI rating of about 80 and cornflakes rate about 120 on the Glycemic Index.
Being high in sugars it's tempting to avoid it if we're dieting or body building however honey does not appear to cause the spike in insulin levels you might expect, meaning it burns slower and so is useful in replacing glucose in the muscles after intense workouts. One study showed honey to be just as effective as dextrose in protein shakes to maintain blood sugar levels after an intense, body-building workout.
Honey is particularly rich antioxidants giving it promise in the prevention of cancer, coronary diseases, inflammatory disorders, neurological degeneration, and aging according to current research. Antioxidants work by countering the effects of normal but potentially harmful oxidation in the body. Phenolic compounds and other antioxidants found in honey, like ascorbic acid, amino acids, and proteins, have been shown to inhibit proliferation of cancer cells.
Honey bees make a journey of nearly 55,000 miles to gather nectar from approximately 2 million flowers for accumulating one pound of honey. Considerable differences in both composition and content of plant compounds have been found in different uni-floral honeys. So while different specific compounds in honey show anti-cancerous effects in lab studies the oral consumption of honey from the local store or hive may not have the same effect. Specific compounds are tested in these trials and these have specific effects on specific cancer cells. Studies of raw honey taken orally do exist though, and have shown numerous beneficial effects including inhibiting some cancers.
Manuka honey is world famous and its anti bacterial qualities have long been recognized. Scientist are now able to show, "Manuka honey has an extra [unidentified] component that isn't found in other honey, which gives it an extra kick," according to study team member Rowena Jenkins of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. "It may even be several components working together."
Rowena Jenkins and colleagues at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, found that the highly infectious MRSA bacteria when treated with manuka honey didn't “have the necessary proteins to complete their life cycles," so they are unable to reproduce and eventually die.
(MRSA, or meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of staph infection that isn't affected by many common antibiotics . The previous research was cited by Ker Than for National Geographic News September 8, 2009.)
Honey is very effective in the treatment of coughs. One study found honey to be more effective than cough syrup in the treatment of night time cough in children, improving sleep by reducing disturbance from coughing by up to 40% according to parental reports.
Honey has been shown to have positive effects in the treatment of external wounds such as leg ulcers and burns. Compared to concentrated sugar compounds, honey has shown some favorable results suggesting the action of compounds other than the high sugar content, which prevents bacterial growth, may promote healing. It is probably worth noting here that doctors would not usually recommend using store bought honey for such topical treatment as it could introduce other, unwanted microbes to the wound, though presumably pasteurization would deal to most of that leaving only contamination by human contact to put you off.
It is also big news in the cosmetics industry currently with a new strain from Chile popping manuka honey off it's perch for it's beneficial action on skin. Apparently 'Active Chilean Rainforest Honey' is a wonderful face mask and moisturizer however I was unable to find and information about how it is harvested or the environmental impact of this in the rainforest ecosystem.
The anti-aging effects may not be limited to skin-care however. Lynne Chepulis and Nicola Starkey of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, “raised rats on diets containing 10 per cent honey, 8 per cent sucrose, or no sugar at all for 12 months.”
The behavior of the rats during the trial suggested those fed honey were less anxious about exploring new sections of the maze they were placed in and more accurate in finding their way about, suggesting better spatial memory compared to rats in the control group.
"Diets sweetened with honey may be beneficial in decreasing anxiety and improving memory during aging," says Starkey, whose work was funded by Fonterra, a dairy company interested in sweetening yoghurt with honey (New Scientist – 2007).
Most honey you see in the supermarket has been pasteurized – heated – to kill any unwanted microbes or bacteria. Unfortunately this also destroys many micronutrients. Buy this sort for cooking, the cheaper the better if you are cooking it anyway. Raw honey has not been heated and so maintains its full nutritional and medicinal value. Buy raw, organic honey for toast and eating. It may be crystalized or foamy on top. These are all good signs that your honey is as nature intended it.
So there is not much negative to say about honey. Like all foods it should be consumed in moderation and it bears remembering that the majority of research is being done in laboratories, often using isolated compounds found in honey rather than the honey itself, so honey is not suddenly going to cure cancer or heart disease. Some sources I found listed honey as being a food that promotes inflammation but I found much more to the contrary. Honey can be used to replace sugar in baking and in most other culinary applications. It is super-sweet without being super-fattening and may help you live a longer and healthier life.