Natural Foods Merchandiser

Getting your honey's worth

Choosing which types of honey to stock can be difficult, because virtually all bottled honey sold today is natural. Even the kind that comes in that bear-shaped plastic bottle.

"All our honey is natural because it only comes from bees and flowers," says Beth Roberts, a spokeswoman for Dutch Gold Honey, which claims to have invented the bear bottle in 1957. The National Honey Board defines honey as "a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance," including water or sweeteners.

So how do you differentiate your honey section from that of a conventional grocer's? One option might be to carry only organic honey. But that's more difficult than it seems. Because a single bee can fly up to 12 miles from her hive, all flowers within her radius must be organic in order for the honey to be certified organic. "In the U.S., there are almost no beekeepers that can qualify," Roberts says. Lyons, Colo.-based Madhava Honey's Ambrosia High Altitude Wildflower Honey might pass the test, says company President Craig Gerbore, because it comes from more than 100 honeybee colonies on a pristine mountaintop near Aspen. "The wildflowers are organic, but I don't know anyone who can get up there to certify it," he points out.

Most organic honey sold in the United States comes from regions where there is no nearby agriculture, so consequently no contamination from pesticides or fertilizers. Dutch Gold recently began selling an organic honey that comes from the Brazilian rain forest. Also available is Hacienda Katanchel Organic Honey, which is produced in a Yucatan jungle.

But even if you can't stock only organic honey, there is another way to guarantee your customers are getting a sweet deal. It all comes down to how the honey is processed.

Busy bees
Bees make honey from the nectar of flowers, which is then stored in the bees' honeycomb. According to Royden Brown's Bee Hive Product Bible (Avery Publishing Group, 1993), it takes 75,000 bee loads of nectar to produce a single pound of honey. A busy bee colony can make up to 300 pounds of honey a season, Brown says.

Honey color, taste and nutrient value vary, depending on what type of nectar is used. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes seven different colors of honey. One of the palest is made from clover, while alfalfa honey is a dark gold. Gerbore says alfalfa honey also has more vitamins and minerals. "When dark honey sources like alfalfa or wildflowers are available, the bees will ignore anything else."

Honey is generally collected from hives in the fall, after bees have completed their pollination. Beekeepers remove the honey that the bees won't need to survive the winter. The honey is then processed. Methods include:

  • Filtering or straining. Brown says bees keep their honeycomb at a constant temperature of 94 degrees by fanning their wings or clustering together, which ensures the honey stays liquefied. Once the honey is removed from the comb, it begins to crystallize. To make it liquid again, it must be heated. The liquid is then poured through a filter to strain out any extra honeycomb wax, unlucky bees, pollen or other debris. Roberts says Dutch Gold heats all its honeys, including the organic version, to 185 degrees.
  • At Madhava, Gerbore says the honey is heated for four days until it eventually reaches a temperature of 130 degrees. Because it is lighter, wax floats to the surface and is strained out, but the pollen, which is heavier, remains in the honey.

    Gerbore says leaving the pollen in the honey ensures its nutritional value. According to a summary of bee pollen nutritional tests conducted by the Royal Society of Naturalists of Belgium and France, "Bee pollen contains all the essential components of life. The percentage of revivifying and rejuvenating elements in bee pollen is remarkable for exceeding those present in brewer's yeast and wheat germ." The Royal Society found that bee pollen has 10 amino acids; all the B vitamins plus folic acid and vitamins A, C, D and E; and 10 minerals.

    However, bee pollen can be a mild allergen, according to the National Honey Board's Web site. "[It] may contain residual proteins containing pollen from the plants the bee has visited, and proteins are the cause of most true food allergies." And raw honey is more likely to be allergenic since the filtering process removes many of these proteins.

    Despite its ability to induce allergies, honey can also prevent allergies—if it's local. "Allergies arise from continuous overexposure to the same allergens," says Tom Ogren, author of Allergy-Free Gardening (Ten Speed Press, 2000). But when a person eats small amounts of honey with those allergens, the honey acts as an immune booster, Ogren says. He recommends taking a couple of teaspoons a day for several months prior to the pollen season.

  • Raw honey. For a honey to be truly raw, it must not be heated or filtered at all, says Mimi Bennett, president of Baltimore-based Really Raw Honey. Bennett says once honey reaches a temperature higher than that of the hive, its enzymes are destroyed, and it's no longer a living food. She also points out that filtering honey can remove the propolis—a tree resin that bees mix with wax to help build their hives. Author Royden Brown says propolis has antiseptic, antibiotic, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, and points out that studies show that commercially processed, clarified and strained honey loses 33 percent to 50 percent of its original vitamin content. "It is important to emphasize that raw, unprocessed honey is the type that is valued for its nutrient content and medicinal properties," he says.
  • Brown quotes the research paper "Propolis, Natural Substance, the Way to Health" by Dr. K. Lund Aagaard, who gathered data on the use of propolis by more than 50,000 people across Scandinavia. "The field of influence of propolis is extremely broad," he writes. "It includes cancer, infection of the urinary tract, swelling of the throat, gout, open wounds, sinus congestion, cold, influenza, bronchitis, gastritis, diseases of the ears, periodontal disease, intestinal infections, ulcers, eczema eruptions, pneumonia, arthritis, lung disease, stomach virus, headaches, Parkinson's disease, bile infections, sclerosis, circulation deficiencies, warts, conjunctivitis and hoarseness."

    So why would anyone want to remove this wonder substance? Because when it's left in honey it creates a crunchy, waxy layer that can creep out even the most dedicated natural consumer. Heating also removes moisture from honey, preventing fermentation and pungent flavors. "People aren't used to raw honey," Bennett says. "The modern way is that everything needs to be clean and clear."

    Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer based in Lafayette, Colo.

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 22, 24

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