December 4, 2004
Q: Is honey a better sweetner for a person than sugar? - Layperson
A: As far as nutrient content goes, only slightly. Honey comes from the nectar that bees extract from the fragrant blossoms of plants and trees.
Honey, even more than wine, is the essence of terroir (combination of soil and climate), a direct line from plant to bee then to the tongue! Bees travel up to 3.2 kms (two miles) from their hives in search of nectar and prefer to return to the same type of flower repeatedly for whatever they have been gathering. If an apiary is next to an apple orchard, or orange grove, or buckwheat or lavender field, the apiculturist will end up with buckwheat, lavender, orange, or apple blossom honey. There are apiarists who feed their bees sugar water and the product tastes accordingly - bland and undistinguished. Commercial honey is made by bees fed with sugar syrup that tastes just as sweet but offers nothing else.
Most honey sold in North America is churned to render it transparent and pasteurized. Pasteurization, however, is a double edged sword; it stabilizes the product but diminishes its taste.
Honey is available in several different forms, in a range of colors from clear to dark brown, and a variety of flavors dependent on the flowering plants chosen by the bees, which can range from flowers grown on ground plants, bushes, or trees, such as chestnut and tupelo trees. It can be found in the form of comb honey, chunky honey or liquid honey from honey processors. The comb honey is a pure form, taken directly from the beehive as a comb with a layer of wax sealing the honey in the comb cells. The chuck honey is a bottled version of the comb honey with pieces of the comb mixed into the thick honey mixture. In both products, the honey and comb are edible, providing a sweet chewy delight. Liquid honey is processed honey that has been pasteurized to remove the comb and maintain the liquid form of the product. Bees typically extract the nectar from a specific group of flowering plants before moving on to a different variety of plant, thus creating a specific honey varietal as they work an area with plants. The bees have to take the nectar from about two million flowers just to make one pound of honey. A bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers in one trip alone. In order to get from flower to flower, the bee flies roughly 15 miles per hour. Luckily each bee has four wings. After all this work, the average bee only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. When the bee gets back to the hive there is still a lot for the bee to get done. Its home is a wax honeycomb and each cell has six sides. When they want to communicate with their fellow bees, they go dancing. They have numerous different dance moves, each communicate a different signal: when the nectar is out, how far it is to the nectar, and where the pollen is too. There is a social order in the hive in which a division of labor between the various bees is set. The colony has one queen bee, 500 to 1,000 drone bees, and between 30,000 to 60,000 worker bees. The queen bee is fed on royal jelly and is the only sexually active female bee in the hive. Drones are male bees without stingers and their only purpose is to mate with the queen. A few weeks after hatching the queen mates once, receiving millions of sperm cells from the drones, which will last for the entire two years of the queenâ€™s life. The queen can lay 3,000 eggs in one day. The worker bees are sexually undeveloped female bees. Their purpose is to collect nectar, cool the hive by fanning their wings, make the wax comb, clean the hive, feed the larvae, and guard the hive. The worker bees also pollinate flowers. This is actually maybe their most important purpose since bees pollinate about one-third of the vegetables we eat. Pollination is the process of fertilizing a flowering plant. Pollen is transferred by the bees from the anthers of one flower to ovules another flower or sometimes that same flower.
Honey is quality graded into three classes which are based on a combination of flavor, clarity, absence of defects and moisture content.The moisture content of honey plays a critical role in its quality. Honey is very hygroscopic, which means that it will absorb moisture from the air. Honey, on the average, contains 17.2% water by weight. Grades A and B must not have more than 18.6% moisture. Grade C honey can contain up to 20% water.
Honey is color graded into seven categories by the U.S.D.A., and these do not have any bearing on quality. Honey should not be judged on the basis of color, as some of the most distinctively and strongly flavored honeys, such as basswood, are very light, while very mild and pleasant honeys such as tulip poplar can be quite dark. Honey color is based on the Pfund Scale in millimeters; the common names for the range of standards from lightest to darkest are: Water White, Extra White, White, Amber, Amber, and Dark Amber. Honey has an average specific gravity of 1.41, which gives it a weight of about 11 pounds, l2 ounces to the gallon. Although the sugars in honey have more sweetening power, due to moisture content, honey matches the sweetening power of sucrose (table sugar) pound for pound.
Honey also exhibits antibacterial properties and may aid in topical applications for wound healing.
Honey is not a suitable medium for bacteria for two reasons - it is fairly acid and it is too high in sugar content for growth to occur. This killing of bacteria by high sugar content is called osmotic effect. It seems to function by literally drying out the bacteria. Some bacteria, however, can survive in the resting spore form, though not grown in honey.
Another type of antibacterial property of honey is that due to inhibine. The presence of an antibacterial activity in honey was first reported about 1940 and confirmed in several laboratories. Since then, several papers were published on this subject. Generally, most investigators agree that inhibine (name used by Dold, its discoverer, for antibacterial activity) is sensitive to heat and light. The effect of heat on the inhibine content, of honey was studied by several investigators. Apparently, heating honey sufficiently to reduce markedly or to destroy its inhibine activity would deny it a market as first-quality honey in several European countries. The use of sucrase and inhibine assays together was proposed to determine the heating history of commercial honey.
Until 1963, when White showed that the inhibine effect was due to hydrogen peroxide produced and accumulated in diluted honey, its identity remained unknown. This material, well known for its antiseptic properties, is a byproduct of the formation of gluconic acid by an enzyme that occurs in honey, glucose oxidase. The peroxide can inhibit the growth of certain bacteria in the diluted honey. Since it is destroyed by other honey constituents, an equilibrium level of peroxides will occur in a diluted honey, its magnitude depending on many factors such as enzyme activity, oxygen availability, and amounts of peroxide-destroying materials in the honey. The amount of inhibine (peroxide accumulation) in honey depends on floral type, age, and heating.
A chemical assay method has been developed that rapidly measures peroxide accumulation in diluted honey. By this procedure, different honeys have been found to vary widely in the sensitivity of their inhibine to heat. In general, the sensitivity is about the same as or greater than that of invertase and diastase in honey.
NOTE: Do NOT feed honey to babies. Babies under the age of one year should never be fed honey. Honey can contain trace amounts of botulism spores. Babies have a propensity to be at risk to these spores because their immune system is undeveloped.
Fructose and glucose rank as the predominate carbohydrates, with maltose and sucrose present in small percentages as well as trace amounts of nutrients. Because of its high fructose content (almost 40%), honey has a higher sweetening power than sugar. One tablespoon contains about 64 calories. The diastase activity of honey is of importance, particularly if the honey is stored or if used with starches. It is apparent that the higher the temperature and the longer the storage time the greater the decrease in activity.
TABLE 1. - Average composition of floral and honeydew honey and range of values(1)