So if you try even a little to eat clean, or healthy, or organic, or paleo, you’ve likely heard someone wax poetic about the benefits of raw honey:
It possesses super healing powers…
It helps to treat allergies…
It’s basically the Chuck Norris of natural sweeteners…
Don’t get me wrong, honey is my favorite sweet ingredient for some of those reasons, indeed. But the truth is raw honey is highly misunderstood and a lot of the hype surrounding its recent popularity is anecdotal at best.
So I thought I’d debunk some raw honey myths so you can better understand what you should be spending your money on, what you can expect raw honey to do for you, and how to use it for maximum nutritional impact. Basically, I want to save you from making my rookie mistakes. ‘Cause I’m a giver like that.
Let’s start with a definition.
The National Honey Board defines honey as raw when it’s sold “as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling, or straining without adding heat.”
Now that you know what qualifies as raw, here’s what you’ve probably heard about raw honey nutrition.
Raw honey provides vital health benefits, including:
- soothing coughs(1)
- eliminating free radicals due to antioxidant properties, and possibly even acting as a cancer preventative(2)
- delivering a time-released energy boost(3)
- moisturizing skin and hair
- reducing dark circles and signs of skin damage
The good news is that all of the above is true.
All of the above is true for processed honey as well!
In fact, a 2012 study by the National Honey Board analyzed the levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in both raw and processed honey. The study concluded that neither the antioxidant activity nor the nutrient levels of honey were affected by processing. So…
The nutritional values for processed and raw honey are the same.
This was big news for me. I spent a lot of time worrying that the way I prepped a recipe that included raw honey as an ingredient was rendering the health benefits moot. This affected everything I did in the kitchen, from baking to sweetening my morning coffee. I was convinced that heating raw honey above 95 degrees was ruining each pricey golden spoonful, so I eventually bought processed honey for all those myriad “heated” projects and saved the raw honey for what was left, namely drizzling over my morning yogurt.
Then I wrote a product description about honey for a client and did a bunch of research. Which led to a facepalm.
Don’t be like me.
Be smarter. Go boldly forth into the health food store, secure in the knowledge that:
Heating raw honey doesn’t affect its vitamin and mineral content.
Now if we were to go beyond applying honey topically for beautification, and wanted to make use of its antimicrobial qualities, raw honey actually is superior to processed when it comes to:
This is because the pasteurization process kills the beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Instead, try manuka honey–made in Oz and New Zealand from tea tree pollen. It has the highest levels of antibacterial activity and is often referred to as medical grade honey.
Manuka honey is so powerful at inhibiting the growth of microbes, it even works on drug-resistant bacteria, providing a natural wound remedy that doesn’t contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Stop the presses. Drug-resistant bacteria? In this regard, honey is more potent than man-made medicine!
High five, honey.
WAIT! I hear someone shouting from the back of the room.
What about raw honey for allergy relief?
Ah yes, that is what everyone is talking about it, isn’t it?
The theory that local raw honey can prevent seasonal allergies initially came into existence because raw honey has small amounts of pollen present in it. This pollen is missing from conventional honey because of the filtration process.
Some people believe that regularly consuming small amounts of local pollen might act like a series of allergy shots. Over time, the body will build up an immunity to that offending allergen in your surroundings.
There is very little proof to substantiate that raw honey can prevent or diminish the effects of seasonal allergies.
One issue with this hypothesis is that the amount of pollen present in honey is negligible–we’re talking less than 0.5%. Not only that, but some experts claim that the pollens that are the greatest cause of allergies are small, windblown types that are not typically found in honey at all.
Very few studies have been conducted on the subject, contributing to the confusion. This study found that participants showed no change in allergy symptoms regardless of whether they consumed local, unpasteurized, and unfiltered honey or commercial, filtered, and pasteurized honey. The researchers, therefore, concluded that regardless of its processing, honey is ineffective for treating allergies.
Of course, the participants were only instructed to eat one tablespoon a day.
This study, on the other hand, did see its participants’ allergy symptoms improve…the only difference was that a 150-pound person had to consume just over three tablespoons of honey per day! And if you weighed more, you took more.
It’s also important to note there is no mention of “raw” honey in this experiment. Quite possibly, the researchers used the good ol’ store-bought honey bear, and the results can just be attributed to that Chuck Norris quality that all honey has.
Since we’ll likely never know, I settled on “jury’s still out” or “most likely hype” for this one. Feel free to check out the studies and decide for yourself.
But don’tcha feel just a little bit smarter than everybody else now?
Raw Honey Buying Tips
Ideally, you would buy raw honey from a local beekeeper. Other considerations include:
- Filtered–filtering, or straining, doesn’t require the application of heat so isn’t technically considered processing. Unfiltered honey has bits of wax and bee parts, so if you don’t enjoy spreading those things on your toast and you have an option, choose filtered.
- Unfiltered–because the straining process removes the “bits,” it’s thought to remove the pollen and the propolis too. You already know the pollen probably doesn’t matter, and even though propolis is a fascinating thing that sounds crazy good for us, if the National Honey Board says the antioxidant activity of honey is the same whether raw or processed, then it doesn’t matter that much either.
- Pure–100% unadulterated honey with no added ingredients, like water, sucrose, flavorings, or colorings.
- Organic–to be considered organic, honey producers must consult with every land user within a five km radius to ensure the crops are free of chemical residue. They must also regularly test the samples and keep the hives free of sugar and antibiotics. But finding 100% organic is nearly impossible. I mean, they’re bees. They do what they want.
- Manuka–the FDA approved the use of medical honey in 2007. The healing action is attributed to what’s known as the “Unique Manuka Factor (UMF).” Official manuka honey displays the UMF on the label. Look for a rating higher than 5; 10 is acceptable for clinical use. This is definitely the honey to use topically, but it decreases inflammation and assists in creating a healthy gut biome when taken orally as well.
But wait there’s more!
There’s some cool research out there on the interweb regarding honey helping with weight loss.(7) The science looks sound, and I feel compelled to deep dive into whether a spoonful of honey before bed will, in fact, make me superhuman. Okay, maybe not superhuman, but well rested, lean, and detoxed, which is close enough.
I’ll be sure to post my results for you here so we can assign “honey helps with weight loss” to its proper category of fact or fiction.
Until then, I wrote this post about how honey can help prevent hangovers in case you want to whip up a Bee Sting and do something delicious for yourself. You know, for science.