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Many of us begin our day with honey dissolved in luke warm water/lime juice/green tea/lemon tea or cinnamon tea for health. Honey has been an integral part of human lives since ancient times, as food and as medicine.

Everyone is familiar with the lingering sweetness, smoothness, aroma and flavour of honey. But not all honey tastes the same. The flavour of honey depends on the source of nectar. The source can be either monofloral (single type of flower) or multifloral (several varieties of flowers), and this changes the taste, colour and even potential health benefits of the honey. Why is this so? This difference is due to the ratio of glucose and fructose and the presence of minerals and amino acids in honey and because of the collection of nectar from flowers grown in different regions and at different seasons.

Honey as a natural preservative

Honey is a functional food, loaded with lot of health enhancing properties. It is also a natural preservative of foods. We may remember the archaeological discovery from the Bronze age on the bank of the Alazani river in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2012, where wild berries had been preserved in honey. The color and aroma of the red berries remained intact even after 4,300 years since it was preserved. Isn’t that amazing! That’s the magic of honey.

Just like salt, honey acts as a preservative through the process of osmotic dehydration. The water content in the fruit or vegetable to which honey is added is replaced with the sugars present in honey, thus preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms. Amla (Nellikai, gooseberry), ginger and berries are mostly preserved using honey. These products have a good shelf life as well as health benefits.

We may remember the archaeological discovery from the Bronze age on the bank of the Alazani river in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2012, where wild berries had been preserved in honey. The color and aroma of the red berries remained intact even after 4,300 years since it was preserved. Isn’t that amazing! That’s the magic of honey.

There is, however, a limitation in this preservation technique. Honey absorbs excess moisture from the atmosphere, so if the container or package is not airtight, the preserved item will form mold. The increased water content absorbed by the honey from the air will disrupt its preservative quality and stop inhibiting bacterial growth. Hence airtight packaging is must if honey is used as a preservative. On the other hand, this moisture absorbing nature of honey gives freshness to bakery products like bread, cakes, cookies and candies.

Honey as a therapeutic agent

Honey in its raw form naturally possesses antibacterial effects against E-Coli, Clostridium, Salmonella
and other pathogens. Honey contains oligosaccharides such as raffinose and trehalose which act as prebiotics for the gut microflora and is good for health. It is particularly useful in treating diarrhea. It is taken with pomegranate peel powder.

Honey also has antioxidant properties, scavenging on the free radicles in our bodies and protecting us. The polyphenols present in flowers give honey its antioxidant nature. Monofloral honey (honey collected from the nectar of a single variety of flowers) can be obtained and used exclusively for its therapeutic effect, as it is said to retain all the vitamins and minerals from the flower.

Honey is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine as an important ingredient for the upkeep of health. According to Susrutha Samhita (an ancient text on medicine), there are eight types of honey, classified based on the kind of health benefit it provides and also depending on which types of honey bees make the honey. They are Pauttika, Bhramara, Ksaudra, Makshika, Chatra, Arghya, Auddalaka and Dala Madhu.

In other countries, monofloral honey are classified into different types based on the flowers from which the nectar is extracted by the bees. Some commercially available Canadian monofloral honey are Raspberry blossom honey, blueberry blossom honey and buckwheat honey.

Similarly, In India, we have different types of herbal honey available like ajwain (caraway or carrom) honey and clover honey, which have specific uses.

Fresh honey from a honey comb (Photo Credit): Marco Verch Professional Photographer

For external and internal use

Honey is a good antiseptic for external wounds. It has a sterilization effect and helps regenerate tissue, which helps in speedy recovery. In ancient days, honey was applied over burns to heal the skin. Honey’s healing property comes from the hydrogen peroxide it contains. This is what makes honey-coated medicated bandages effective.

Honey also acts as cough suppressant more effectively than commercially available cough syrup, and also improves the sleep of children with respiratory problems.

Honey was one of the foods taken along by travelers in ancient days to give them energy. It is the equivalent of rocket fuel for a walker. As in life, honey has had a role even in the rituals of death. Honey was used to mummify/embalm the dead. It is said that the body of Alexander the Great was immersed in a vat of honey to preserve it while it was taken from Babylon, where he died, to his country Macedonia.

Poisonous honey

Another interesting fact about honey is that bees can make honey from the nectar of flowering plants that are toxic for humans as well. Honey thus produced is poisonous for human consumption, though it does not affect the bees themselves. Scientific papers say that honey collected from Andromeda flowers contain grayanotoxins that can cause paralysis and even death. Such poisonous honey was used during war to poison the food of the enemy. Honey from the nectar of Ericaceae plants when consumed leads to vomiting, convulsions, loss of consciousness and so on.

As in life, honey has had a role even in the rituals of death. Honey was used to mummify/embalm the dead. It is said that the body of Alexander the Great was immersed in a vat of honey to preserve it while it was taken from Babylon, where he died, to his country Macedonia.

Apart from this, honey could also be poisonous because of the usage of pesticides in the crops from which nectar has been collected by the honey bees.

Fermented honey used in various cultures

Mead or honey wine is an alcoholic drink made by naturally fermenting honey mixed with water, and by sometimes adding fruits, spices or grain. It was produced by various cultures in Europe, Africa and Asia. One of the oldest discoveries of the drink was in China. Chemical signatures consistent with the presence of honey, rice, and organic compounds associated with fermentation were detected in clay vessels dating back to 7000 BCE discovered in northern China. Mead is said to be a popular drink in neighbouring Nepal as well.

In some cases, the honey gets fermented in the hive itself.

How to tell if your honey is pure or not

All the natural products are getting diluted or adulterated in present times. Honey is no exception. The FSSAI defines honey as the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of blossoms or from secretions of plants, which honey bees collect, transform and store in honeycombs for ripening. Pure honey should have no additives, and it should not be heated or processed to such an extent that its essential composition is changed and its quality is impaired, say FSSAI standards.

At home, honey can be tested by tasting it. Raw pure honey leaves an aftertaste or a slight burning sensation in the throat. Also, when pure honey is cooked it forms caramel (from its sugars) whereas impure honey becomes foamy.

Dr Sandeep Janghu, Assistant Professor at Liaison office-Guwahati, National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), Thanjavur says that honey is mainly adulterated with various sugars, such as fructose, corn syrup or rice syrup. This can be detected at the laboratory level through various tests. The presence of pollen in honey is also one of the indicators of its authenticity.

Cosmetic uses

Honey is an important functional food to keep in every home. Not only can it be consumed for cough and diarrhea, and applied on burns, it is also a good cosmetic agent. Applying honey to skin gives a radiant look, cleansing and moisturizing it. Rinsing hair with honey-mixed water conditions hair and gives it a shiny look. Honey-based wax is effective in unwanted hair removal from skin as well.


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