Winnie the Pooh might have been on to something. While honey is known as a natural way to sweeten foods, it may have benefits for your body, too, says registered dietitian Mira Ilic, MS, RDN, LD.
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How honey is made
Honey is a liquid sweetener that bees make. After they collect nectar from flowers, they take it back to the hive and regurgitate it. Then, the other bees chew it until it becomes honey. The bees deposit the honey into tiny, waxy storage units called honeycombs. They fan it with their wings to dry it out. This process makes it stickier.
“Honey gets its sweetness from its chemical makeup,” Ilic says. “It’s made up of two simple sugars called glucose and fructose, along with some minerals.”
Types of honey
The U.S. boasts more than 300 different types of honey. You can buy it:
- Raw: Raw honey comes straight from the hive. “Raw honey is the least processed and probably has the most antioxidants,” Ilic says. Despite its raw status, it’s considered safe to eat except for children younger than 1, who should avoid all honey.
- Pasteurized: Pasteurized honey has been processed to remove imperfections and improve its shelf life. “It can also be spiked with added corn syrup or other sweeteners,” Ilic notes. “Not all honey sold in the stores is the same even though it all starts naturally in the hive.”
Why is some honey light and others dark?
Whether honey is light or dark in color depends on which kind of plant the bees who made it took the nectar from. “For instance, dark buckwheat yields dark honey,” says Ilic. “But nutritionally, there’s evidence that darker honey has less water and more antioxidants than light-colored honey.”
Honey has so many different tastes you can enjoy compared to plain sugar, she adds. “It can be sweeter or more bitter, depending on the flower source.”
Light honey varieties
Light-colored honey tends to be mild in flavor. Varieties include:
- Acacia honey: It has floral scents and sweetness but doesn’t change the taste of what you put it in, such as tea and oatmeal, Ilic says.
- Clover honey: This honey is common in the U.S. “It has a floral, sweet taste and a bit of a sour aftertaste,” says Ilic. “It’s good for baking, sauces and dressings.”
Dark honey varieties
Dark honeys are known for their stronger flavors. Examples include:
- Buckwheat honey: “This full-flavored honey can be used in marinades,” says Ilic.
- Manuka honey: Manuka honey comes from the nectar and pollen of the Manuka bush in New Zealand. “Studies have shown it contains antioxidants, along with antibacterial and antifungal properties. It’s also expensive,” adds Ilic. It’s traditionally used topically to treat burns, cuts and sores.
Is crystallized honey bad?
Store honey in a cool location away from sunlight. But sometimes, even in the perfect spot, honey can crystallize and solidify. “Honey with a higher ratio of glucose versus fructose crystallizes sooner,” Ilic explains. “Glucose may also attach to the little particles of honeycomb and pollen in raw honey and is more likely to crystallize as a result.”
But crystallized honey is still safe to eat: Ilic recommends using it as a spread, like butter. You can also re-liquefy it by putting the container in a warm water bath.
Honey’s health benefits
Honey contains antioxidants, minerals, enzymes that have many potential health benefits. There’s also evidence that honey can:
- Soothe coughs: The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics both endorse honey as a natural cough remedy.
- Treat wounds and burns: Pharmaceutical-grade manuka honey dressings have been used in clinical settings to treat burns and pressure ulcers.
“Many other claims have been made about the health benefits of honey – some based on very small studies, others overstated and based on mixed study results,” Ilic says. “Additional studies are needed.”
How to add honey to your diet
While honey has health qualities that other sugars only dream of, Ilic says it’s still an added sugar — and eating too much of it can wreak havoc on your health. The American Heart Association recommends:
- Women: Consume no more than 6 teaspoons daily of added sugars (100 calories).
- Men: Consume no more than 9 teaspoons daily of added sugars (150 calories).
Those limits include all sources of added sugar in your diet, so use honey in moderation to avoid exceeding the limits, says Ilic. “Try sweetening plain yogurt with a light drizzle of honey and add your own fruit, instead of eating flavored yogurt with too much added sugar.” You could also use honey in sauces and marinades or as a skin mask.
If you want to use honey medicinally, Ilic says talk with your health care professional first.
How to choose honey
Ilic’s first tip? The best honey doesn’t come in a cute little plastic teddy bear. That kind of honey is processed and less beneficial than its counterparts.
“The clearer the honey, the more processed it is. Raw honey seems to be the better choice,” she says.” It’s likely to have some pollen and more enzymes because it’s not treated with heat. Pollen may have beneficial properties. But pollen does make honey look foggier.”
If you’re buying honey from a local source, she also recommends asking:
- Where did the honey come from?
- Did the seller produce it?
- What can they tell you about it?
Ilic adds that an “organic” label doesn’t automatically mean the honey is healthier or better quality. “Bees sometimes fly a few miles past their pesticide- and herbicide-free property to ones with flowers that aren’t. And even organic honey may be ultra-pasteurized.”