How It Is Made | Types | Baking Tips | Sweetener Ideas | Honey and Your Health | Alternative Uses | Beauty Benefits | Risks | FAQs
This natural sweetener has health-promoting qualities that may benefit your body, inside and out.
Honey is many things to many people. It's a nutritious, natural sweetener, a concentrated energy source, and an ancient folk remedy for health and healing. Honey is also an active ingredient in beauty and skin-care products and the subject of medical research. What exactly is this sweet, syrupy superfood, and how can it help you?
From Bee to Beekeeper: How Is Honey Made Exactly?
Honeybees make honey from sweet flower nectar that they gather in their travels and bring back to their hive. The nectar is transferred from the collector bee to the worker bees back at the hive, who process the sweet liquid into a thick syrup and store it in honeycomb. (1)
The honeycomb itself is made of wax produced by younger bees and molded into hexagonal-shaped cells strong enough to hold the honey. As the worker bees unload the nectar into the cells, they fan it with their wings to help evaporate moisture so it becomes even thicker, stickier, and more resistant to spoilage. The bees then seal the honeycomb cells with more wax to protect the honey during storage. (1,2,3,4)
Beekeepers use various methods to squeeze or otherwise extract honey from the honeycomb. Some methods drain the honey while preserving the wax comb so it can be used again, while others melt or otherwise manipulate the wax to remove and separate out the raw honey. (1) Small-scale beekeepers usually stop here and sell honey in its raw state, but most mass producers of honey sold in supermarkets take the process a step further, buying up big batches of honey, and then diluting, heating, and filtering the raw product to remove pollen and other naturally occurring substances.
How Honey Gets Its Color, Flavor, and Fragrance
How honey looks and tastes depends on the type of flower that provides the nectar and can also be affected by weather conditions in different regions. Lighter-colored honeys (such as clover, tupelo, and alfalfa) are generally milder in flavor, while amber-colored honeys (such as orange blossom, avocado, and eucalyptus) are more moderately flavored. The more deeply colored honeys, such as those from buckwheat and knotweed (sometimes known as bamboo or Japanese bamboo) have the most intense flavor of all. (6,7)
You can substitute your favorite honey for sugar in almost any dish or drink. Because honey is sweeter than sugar, you'll probably want to use less. Honey is also considered a liquid, so you may need to make adjustments to some of your recipes.
Tips for Using Honey in Homemade Baked Goods
Here are some general tips for baking with honey: (8)
- Substitute about 1/2 cup honey for 2/3 cup white sugar (the stronger the flavor, the less honey you need).
- Reduce the liquid called for in the recipe by 1/4 cup for every 1 cup sugar replaced.
- For every 1/2 cup honey you use, add 1/8 teaspoon baking soda along with the other dry ingredients (unless the recipe already calls for baking soda, then there's no need to add more).
- Reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid too much browning.
Easy Ways to Use Honey and Sweeten Your Day
- Add a few drops to vinaigrette dressing to sweeten green salad and side dish vegetables.
- Combine with equal parts mustard and just a dab of mayo to make your own honey-mustard sauce for dipping chicken fingers and spreading on sandwiches.
- Whisk honey into whipped cream cheese or ricotta; add grated lemon, orange, grapefruit, or lime zest (peel), or try ground cinnamon or ginger. Spread it on muffins or quick breads, or use as cupcake frosting.
- Drizzle over an open-faced nut butter sandwich.
- Combine with yogurt and fruit in a bowl or blend into smoothies.
Is Honey Good or Bad for You? And How Does It Compare to Sugar?
Nutritionally speaking, raw honey contains very small amounts of a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and disease-fighting antioxidants that, theoretically, make it more healthful than granulated white sugar (table sugar).
But honey is mostly a combination of glucose and fructose some of the same sugary substances that make up white sugar (though in varying proportions) as well as other liquid sweeteners from natural sources, such as agave and maple syrup. (10,11) Compared with granulated sugar, honey is sweeter, higher in calories, and higher in carbs and total sugars.
One tablespoon (tbsp) honey, equal to 21 grams (g), provides about 60 calories and 17 g carbohydrates (16 to 17 g from sugar), while 1 tbsp granulated sugar provides 49 calories and 13 g carbohydrates (13 g from sugar). (12)
Honey's natural antibacterial qualities are well known. In the hive, as the original nectar dehydrates and is converted into what we know as honey, small amounts of antiseptic hydrogen peroxide are produced. (13) Because hydrogen peroxide has antibacterial qualities, honey has traditionally been used as a topical medication and is currently used to promote healing and prevent infection in skin wounds, burns, and ulcerations, including surgical wounds, pressure sores, diabetic foot ulcers, and various types of leg ulcers.
When modern antibiotics were developed, medicinal use of honey fell out of favor. But with the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent decades, researchers are looking anew at honey's antibacterial qualities. Because bacteria do not generally seem to develop resistance to honey, it has therapeutic potential for use as a broad-spectrum antibiotic (one that can treat different types of infections). Just be sure to follow your doctor's orders. This potential benefit doesn't trump the known benefits of modern medicine.
Honey is the subject of ongoing research as a potential ingredient in supplements and medications that could be used to treat a wide range of health issues, including asthma, gum disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, diarrhea, fungal infections, inflammation, internal and external ulcerations, viruses, and even certain types of cancer. (9)
Because most experiments to date have been performed on laboratory animals and in petri dishes, using specially prepared, medical-grade honey, it's not yet clear if or exactly how honey can be used successfully by people for most of these conditions. If future research confirms honey's effectiveness in humans, scientists will also need to determine which types of honey are potent enough to have a medicinal effect and, when taken orally, how much honey is effective for different conditions.
Beauty and the Bees: The Possible Skin and Hair Benefits of Honey
The healing components of honey are also used in many cosmetic skin and hair preparations, not only for their antiseptic and antioxidant potential but for their softening, soothing, and conditioning effects. Honey lubricates your skin and holds onto moisture, making it an ideal ingredient in the production of beauty products ranging from lip balms and lotions to shampoos and facial scrubs. (1,19) Proponents of natural skin care and cosmetics sometimes recommend practices like applying honey directly on pimples and dry lips, and diluting about a teaspoon of honey in 4 cups warm water to use as a hair rinse for added sheen.
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