Real Food Encyclopedia | Honey

Honey has a long history as food, as medicine and in art and culture. But who would ever believe that a substance so delicious, so beautiful and so delightfully sweet is, in essence, bee puke? And yet, honey — that golden syrup we drizzle on toast and stir into tea — is created by busy little bees regurgitating their flower nectar-containing stomach contents. Read on to learn more about how honey is produced, along with the history and use of the sweet stuff.

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Fun Facts about Honey

What to Look for When Buying Honey

Despite claims that most honey is fake, in reality, it’s mostly honey that’s been ultra-filtered, a method perfected in China where honey is made containing unapproved antibiotics. The inability to trace honey’s origins is problematic because it allows “laundered” uninspected honey tainted with contaminants (like illegal antibiotics and heavy metals) to enter the market.

Finding “organic” honey is difficult because it’s difficult to produce: the beekeeper has to prove that the bees have only foraged in areas that are exclusively organic. The easiest way to purchase sustainable, pesticide-free honey is to buy it from local, small-scale producers at your local farmers’ market who use natural beekeeping methods to minimize chemical inputs and allow bees to engage in natural behaviors like swarming and overwintering. When shopping at a commercial grocery store, look for organic options.

You might come across several different honey preparations — here’s a quick guide to the most common:

  • Pasteurized liquid honey: this is the most common honey available. Generally, it has been filtered to remove impurities like bee wings and dust (but not pollen).
  • Raw honey: generally unfiltered and unpasteurized; it looks cloudy and is often a light-yellow color. This is a type of liquid honey.
  • Comb honey: is honey left in the honeycomb. You chew the comb to release the honey, then spit out the wax.
  • Creamed honey: is granulated honey mixed with liquid honey. It is more spreadable in texture than liquid honey.

Honey flavor varies dramatically depending on the type of flowers the bees collected their nectar from. Clover and wildflower honeys tend to be the mildest and the most versatile. Other honeys retain some of the flavor of the flower, like orange flower honey, which is distinctly floral in taste. And still other honeys are rich and almost molasses-like, such as buckwheat honey. Here is a great guide to some of the more common types of honey available in the US — there are more than 300 different kinds!

Sustainability of Honey

Bees are vitally important as pollinators for many fruits and vegetables — here is a long list of food crops that are pollinated by bees — and so any pervasive problems with bees may directly affect our food supply. There are a number of environmental issues impacting bees and honey production. First is colony collapse disorder (CCD), a devastating bee disease.

Additionally, there are large-scale commercial bee operations (a commercial beekeeper is one with more than 300 hives, according to the National Honey Board) that frequently truck their hives from farm to farm to help with pollination. Large-scale honey producers use antibiotics like tetracycline to control disease, and unfortunately, antibiotic resistance has been discovered in bees (similar to the arguably more serious antibiotic resistance as a result of antibiotic overuse on factory animal farms).

Further, in large-scale honey production, little honey is left for the bees to consume in the winter. Instead, they are fed sugar or high fructose corn syrup, practices that may also contribute to the decline in honeybee colonies. There are still many local, sustainable beekeepers out there — check your local farm stand or farmers’ market for small-scale produced honey, and talk to the beekeeper about his or her practices to learn more.

Finally, global warming may have a significant effect on bees and other pollinators, essentially “uncoupling” the complex and little understood relationship between bees and the flowers that they have evolved to pollinate.

If bee health is important to you, there are niche labels such as the Better Bee certification that promote food production in a way that benefits insects and soil.

Honey Seasonality and Geography

In the US, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Florida and California were the top honey-producing states in the US in 2013. North Dakota produced over 33 million pounds of honey alone!

In North America, honey is generally harvested starting in late July through mid-September. By the cooler months, the bees start using the honey they’ve made (and good beekeepers leave enough honey to sustain the hive). The bulk of honey production is, of course, when there are lots and lots of flowers — starting in the early spring through late summer.

Honey and Cultivation

The basics of honey production are this: bees move from flower to flower, sucking up nectar with their long tongues. The nectar is stored in the bee’s “honey stomach,” a specialized nectar receptacle (they have a “regular” stomach, too). Now here’s where things get a little gross. When the bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates the nectar into another bee’s mouth. This process continues until the partially digested nectar finally gets regurgitated into a honeycomb cell. The bees then fan the nectar in order to evaporate it, part of the process of turning it into honey. The bee seals the comb with another bodily secretion, where it can be stored indefinitely as food for developing bees. 

Eating Honey

Storing Honey

Store honey in a cool, dark place. It will keep almost indefinitely, although it may crystallize. (If it crystallizes, just heat it briefly in a glass container in a pan of warm water.)

Cooking With Honey

Of course, honey is used a great deal in sweets and as a sweetener, but it certainly has a place on the savory side of food, too. Try making this honey vinaigrette or classic honey mustard for dipping. Honey is traditionally used as a glaze for all sorts of meats — honey-glazed ham is a southern favorite, but a honey glaze is also a classic for chicken and even veggies (it’s especially good with carrots and sweet potatoes). Honey also pairs deliciously with strong cheese — try drizzling it over Brie, sharp cheddar or gorgonzola for a sweet-salty kick. You can use honey in place of sugar or other sweeteners in smoothies, popsicles (our latest favorite are these avocado-chocolate popsicles sweetened with only honey) and on top of yogurt. Here’s a nice recipe roundup of sweet and savory honey recipes from Martha Stewart.

Honey Nutrition

Like most sweet things, honey is high in calories and carbohydrates — not really a big deal if you only use a teaspoon here or there. It is composed of mostly fructose and glucose, with a bit of sucrose and other carbohydrates. Honey also contains a number of amino acids, vitamins (like Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C) and antioxidants. Honey has been used for millennia in Indian Ayurvedic medicine and other traditions.

Honey has incredible antimicrobial properties, owing in part to hydrogen peroxide, which is naturally present in honey. There is an old wives’ tale that consuming local honey (with its pollen intact) can help battle seasonal allergies; unfortunately, there seems to be little scientific evidence to back this up.