Honey—it just might be the original health food. Sumerians and Babylonians ate it. Hippocrates used it to cure wounds. Egyptians ate it and embalmed with it. Cave paintings depict honey collection as early as 8,000 years ago. For years it was the original—and only—alternative sweetener. Your strange “health food nut” friends used it before you saw the light, joined the nuts and made it an indispensable kitchen item. Now, new types of honey —along with a growing list of its health benefits—can help you get your customers turned on to this quintessential, healthy, multi-use staple.
To bee …
Bees create honey from nectar and store it in honeycombs in the hive as a backup food source for when nectar is scarce. Honey is mainly fructose, glucose and water, with enzymes, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and other sugars thrown in for good measure. According to the National Honey Board, bees may travel as far as 55,000 miles collecting nectar to produce 1 pound of the more than 300 types of honey found in the United States. Honey’s flavor differs based on the type of flower the bees visit. Lighter-colored honeys generally have a milder taste, while richer flavor comes with darker color.
Bruce Wolk, director of marketing for the Firestone, Colo.-based National Honey Board, says honey is either monofloral or polyfloral—which are just as they sound: Single-flower-source honey is monofloral. “[The beekeepers] can time it so at the beginning and end of the nectar flow they will move the hives close to the source,” Wolk says. This can also be helped along by placing hives in large fields of a certain type of flower, such as clover.
“Multifloral honey, popularly known as ‘thousand-flower honey,’ comes from the nectar collected by bees from crop plants and plants that grow in meadows and forests,” says Warren Niece, director of marketing for Houston-based Himalaya Herbal Healthcare. In the case of Himalaya’s Soliga Forest Honey, the source is 600 types of forest flowers in South India.
Craig Gerbore, president of Madhava Honey in Lyons, Colo.—whose company sells Ambrosia High Altitude Wild Flower Honey, among others—says the differences among honey types are fairly easy for most palates to recognize. “You’ll see that most wild honeys will have a strong wild flavor. It’s probably not everyday table honey. You’ll notice it. It’ll have distinctive flavor,” he says. That’s why mild-flavored honey such as clover is so popular. But even monofloral types like orange-blossom honey can have a distinctive flavor.
Or not to bee?
Recently, a quick and drastic decrease in bee populations, known as colony collapse disorder, has received a fair bit of media attention, mainly because of bees’ role in pollination. Approximately one-third of our foods come from insect-pollinated plants—of which bees handle 80 percent.
While hypotheses regarding the cause of CCD range from cell phone use to disease, scientists have yet to pin it down. Gerbore says the consensus is that a combination of factors is probably to blame. He also says CCD’s effects seem to be leveling off. “While it’s probably still out there, it’s been very, very quiet in the industry.” He adds that beekeepers have adopted new nutrition techniques, which help bees’ delicate immune systems deal better with environmental stressors.
And, while CCD was clearly a negative event, attention to it has yielded positive benefits for the honey industry. “It seems to have raised people’s awareness of the importance of, and appreciation for, bees. And that makes them think more about honey,” Niece says.
Label claims for honey are not well-regulated. In fact, Gerbore calls them “mostly marketing hype.” Grades, as well as terms like raw or even organic are somewhat up for debate. Gerbore says when a U.S. rule for organic honey was being created, officials decided to certify the hives and the bees, not the flowers. But bees really have no genetic resistance to disease, he says. “The industry worldwide treats them with antibiotics,” which would rule out organic certification for other foods.
Other countries have different standards for organic certification, so you must do some detective work to figure out why a honey is being certified. On the other hand, wild bees, such as those used for Himalaya’s Soliga honey, can be—and in Himalaya’s case are—certified under U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.
Raw is another term without a legal definition. According to Wolk, “Truly raw honey is honey that is extracted right there on the spot.” However, most people probably don’t want pollen, wax or bee parts in their honey. In most cases, “raw” honey has been strained and heated gently to remove wax.
“Sampling the honey is powerful,” Niece says. Straight up is, of course, a tasty way to go. Recipes can also be a good addition to your sales technique, Wolk says. “We have a recipe database that has close to 1,700 recipes, and it’s totally free,” he adds.
You might also try touting honey’s healing qualities. Researchers have found benefits in wound healing, as well as cough suppression in children. Manuka honey has shown especially potent healing properties. (See “Mighty manuka,” above.) As far as allergy help is concerned, Wolk says the information to date has been inconclusive. “For some people it really did work, but for some people it had no effect. I won’t advise people to take it, but on the other hand it can’t really hurt,” he says..
Bryce Edmonds is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.