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To bee or not to bee

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

My deeper dive in the honey world started when we opened a jar of Corsican honey, mysteriously called “autumn honey”, and immediately thought there was something wrong with this product.

It tasted strong, bitter, rough and you couldn’t get more than a teaspoon without grimacing. Before throwing it into the bin, I decided to do some research and by pure coincidence it happened that we met a local apiculturist at a friend’s lunch, who helped to understand the complexity of the honey market.

Is there anyone in the West who hasn’t heard of Manuka honey? I doubt it. Clever marketing strategy, expensive price tag and large amount of research created a modern story of “magical food” with superior medicinal properties. It’s a fantastic product, if you can afford it. But I’d bet there could be plenty of other honey varieties with at least the same medicinal properties and at a much more affordable price. The answer might be no, but the challenge would be to find those varieties. Human use of honey as an antimicrobial treatment for wounds, burns and inflammation is traced to some 8000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans employed it for wounds and diseases of the intestine, and it was definitely not down to magic “Manuka” brand at that time.

Picture taken in NZ shop during our 2017 trip

Currently, there is a significant scientific evidence to support honey therapeutic use for gastrointestinal tract diseases, fungal infections, wound healing, oral disease (mouth ulcers, stomatitis, dental plaque) antiviral infections (e.g. herpes, rubella) and cardiovascular disease. We still don’t have enough randomised placebo controlled trials on humans, given that a lot of studies are observational, done on animals or in vitro, but there is a massive potential. Honey’s antimicrobial properties are now even studied for antibiotic resistant organisms. In short, honey may definitely be considered super food to use trend vocabulary!

It’s true that Manuka has strong antibacterial properties, but how about other varieties? That said, not all honeys are equal, botanical origin and geographical locations have significant impact on antimicrobial activity. Research showed that honey antibacterial property also depends on hydrogen peroxide content, sugar concentration, low pH, polyphenolic compounds, beeswax, pollen, propolis and other antimicrobial agents (i.e. methylglyoxal). Natural honey is a complex product, containing about 200 known substances, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, sugar and water. These multiple agents might act synergistically enhancing its antimicrobial potency.

For example, honeydew honey, when bees collect secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on plants, has as much antioxidant and antibacterial properties as blossom honey (when bees are feeding on nectar of plants, e.g. Manuka honey). Since chemical composition of honeydew is different from nectar, honeydew honey is also chemically different from regular blossom honey. Some research show that honeydew honey antibacterial properties are even stronger than most of blossom honeys, including Manuka honey, due to its higher content in hydrogen peroxide and phytochemicals.

Honeydew honey is also known to have high content of phenolic acids (ferulic acid, kaempferol, p-coumaric acid) and flavonoids that may potentially be involved in the generation of hydrogen peroxide. Combination of hydrogen peroxide and plant polyphenols seem to be more effective against bacteria than just hydrogen peroxide alone.

The real problem is that we have such a multitude of honeys making it very difficult to choose one that doesn’t have added sugar, sweeteners or corn syrup (current practice to reduce the cost of production). Low quality honey may come from poor production methods or poor bee health. Some ultra filtered honey from China has been found to be contaminated with antibiotics and heavy metals. Given that EU is only 60% self-sufficient in honey, imports are needed to cover domestic consumption. And 40% of all EU imports are coming from China at the cheapest price of €1.3/kg, surprisingly 20% is coming from Ukraine, as of 2018. EU produced cost of honey is at least €4/kg. For comparison, the NZ average honey export price to the EU is €24/kg.

Here is the key points summary from a large number of research papers:

  • All honeys have hydrogen peroxide content- strong antibacterial agent. European varieties seem to have higher content of hydrogen peroxide than Manuka honey.

  • Peroxide effect can be reduced during honey processing, so it’s important to know how a special honey type was made. If quality norms are applied for honey making, there is no reason to believe that hydrogen peroxide content would be significantly reduced.

  • Non-peroxide activity such as phytochemical compounds such as methylglyoxal (high in manuka, but not in European varieties) and polyphenolic agents might also have antibacterial properties. Their concentration varies in honey samples based on botanical origin, geographical location and bee health.

  • There is not enough evidence that other types of honey are less effective than Manuka. For example, Australia has more than 80 Leptospermum species (manuka) and at least some of them produce honey similar to New Zealand manuka. Honeydew honey produced in various countries has very strong antibacterial properties.

  • Some countries such as Switzerland, Slovenia, Bulgaria label honeydew honey as “forest honey” or “autumn honey” or “fall honey” (e.g. miel d’automne in Corsica priced in retail at circa €35/kg). Some countries have specific denominations such as “fir” or “oak” based on chemical and sensory analysis.

  • It’s important to read the label to understand the ingredient list. Try to opt for Organic or Raw honey. Raw honey is not allowed to be filtered and pasteurized, but the term “raw” is not recognized in the EU honey regulation. Words like “untreated” or “unpasteurized” can be helpful. Don’t be afraid of crystallized form (it’s a natural process, causing sugar to take crystal form and all raw honey will crystallize over time, especially at low temperature). Honey staying long in liquid form has been filtered and has much lower level of natural compounds.

  • Organic honey is not the same as raw, due to specific rules restricting bees, honey and flowers to be in contact with pesticides and other prohibited chemicals. The EU honey regulation doesn’t allow honey producers to heat honey to pasteurisation, as it may destroy the natural enzymes.

  • Honey colour does reflect polyphenols, minerals, pollen and pigments flavonoids contents. Some studies demonstrate that darker honey has higher antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

  • When in doubt, chose “blend of EU honeys” instead of “blend of non-EU honeys” to be on a safe side. Unfortunately the regulation doesn’t help to trace the origins of honey.

  • Try to find a local producer (local farmer market) instead of buying honey from supermarkets and you’ll definitely get a better outcome.

Enjoy your degustation!

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