Honey is an extraordinarily nutritious food, despite its high sugar content. That may sound like a strange paradox; after all, the harmful effects of sugar on health are well documented. Even so, honey has some remarkable health properties that make it the exception to the rule.
Honey is made by bees, insects that live in highly organised colonies and that were around long before mammals made their way down the evolutionary chute to their present form. They emerge in spring to start foraging, and turn the nectar they gather into honey by mixing it with enzymes. It is the food that sustains the hive over the winter.
Credited with many health benefits, the use of honey for both culinary and medicinal purposes in most ancient cultures is legendary. Here are five reasons to keep a jar in your store cupboard.
1. Honey contains around 25 different oligosaccharides. An oligosaccharide is a prebiotic, a type of sugar that the body does not digest, but which serves to feed the friendly bacteria in your digestive system. It encourages the growth and activity of bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, which are an essential part of your immune system.
2. Honey, especially the dark variety, contains health-promoting chemicals called polyphenols. These polyphenols are powerful antioxidants with anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic activity. A hot lemon and honey drink really is a good idea when you’ve got a sore throat.
3. A number of studies have found that honey is able to block Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium known to cause peptic ulcers and gastritis.
4. So effective is honey as a wound healer that in a study published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, scientists recommend that surgeons apply it to postoperative wounds, to speed up the healing process and help prevent infection.
5. Despite its sweetness, honey has little effect on blood sugar levels, meaning that it does not cause the fluctuating energy levels normally associated with sugary foods. That’s because, like fruit, the main sugar in this food is fructose. Unlike other sugars, fructose does not directly enter the bloodstream once digested. Instead, it goes to the liver to be metabolised.
So how does this effect diabetics? Here’s the result of research that asked the same question. In a study of forty-eight patients with type 2 diabetes, half were given honey for eight weeks and the other half went without. The dosage started at 1g per kilogramme of weight per day, rising to 2.5g. Participants were asked to continue to eat their normal diet. Weight measurements were taken before, during and after the study. So too were blood samples. At the end of the study, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups, in terms of fasting blood sugar, but the honey group experienced lower body weight, and lower triglyceride (blood fat) levels.
Choosing The Best Honey
The flavour and consistency of the product depends on the flowers selected by bees to gather nectar. When making your selection, stick with this general rule: go for raw. Raw honey has not been pasteurised or heat-treated; it is much the same as when extracted from the hive. The only processing it undergoes is filtering to remove impurities, such as pieces of beeswax.
When honey is pasteurised, normally at temperatures in excess of 70ºC, the natural enzymes it contains are destroyed. These enzymes play an important role in the anti-bacterial activity of the product. Pasteurisation also kills yeast (and much of the flavour) and prevents fermentation. This is all so ironic, when you consider that honey contains natural antibiotics and also hydrogen peroxide, an anti-fungal and antibacterial agent. Pasteurisation also slows down the crystallisation process and makes the honey look clearer, and therefore purer. That’s why supermarkets favour pasteurised over raw.
The Manuka Factor
For health bods, there is only one go-to honey, and that is manuka. This alpha honey is made from bees that frequent the manuka bush in New Zealand, and is especially rich in enzymes. It is so powerfully antibacterial that producers use a scale of medicinal potency called the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), to rate the quality of the product. A rating of 10+ UMF signifies a therapeutic level of antibacterial activity.
The Food of Bears and Hunter-Gathers
Humans have always had a sweet tooth, and have always eaten honey whenever it was available. The hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era risked life and limb to extract honey from hives positioned high up in trees. Even today, modern hunter-gatherers are known to go to great lengths to get their sweet fix. But the seasonable availability and difficult involved in harvesting means that it is only ever an occasional treat – a luxury item.
On that basis, make high quality raw honey your occasional luxury item. You don’t need much – just a teaspoon in natural yogurt at breakfast should suffice.
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