Sweet, sweet healer


FLOWER TO FORK Our native Irish honeybee, Apis mellifora mellifora, collecting pollen and nectar.

Alex Blackwell

Honey is by definition ‘a sweet viscous fluid made by honeybees using the nectar of flowering plants’. There are hundreds of different varieties of honey, which vary in colour, odour, and flavour depending on the flowers foraged by the bees that produced the honey.
Taking one spoonful of raw honey every day can have numerous benefits to your health. Honey has been used for its nutritional value since ancient times. It has also been found to be beneficial in the treatment of many clinical conditions. The main nutrients in honey are carbohydrates mostly in the form of glucose and fructose, as well as a mix of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

The good
In addition to its use as a natural sweetener, honey is used as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial agent. Research about the effects of honey on specific medical conditions has shown that honey, besides tasting very good, can be indeed good for you.
Folk-traditional doctors have long included honey in medicine to treat common conditions, including asthma and chronic bronchitis (by preventing airway inflammation), common cough and fever symptoms. Honey has a lower glycaemic index (GI) than sugar, and contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may play a role in controlling diabetes mellitus.
Honey is rich in flavonoids, with recent studies suggesting that it may help fight cancer by preventing cells from proliferating.
Rich in antioxidants, honey can help protect your body from the free radicals responsible for ageing, impairing cell function and causing heart and blood vessel disorders.
It is also the oldest wound-treatment and healing agent known to humankind. It has natural antimicrobial properties and activates an immune response that fights infection, stimulating white blood cells to begin tissue repair. Honey is effective in the treatment of acute and mild wounds and surface and partial burns.
Evidence suggests honey may even help relieve gastrointestinal tract conditions, such as diarrhoea associated with gastroenteritis. It is rich in prebiotics too, which promote the health of beneficial bacteria found in the digestive system.
Honey might also offer antidepressant, anticonvulsant and anti-anxiety benefits. In some studies, honey has even been shown to help prevent memory disorders.
A note of caution, however. It is not recommended to give children honey until they are one year old. Honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores, and bacteria from the spores can grow and multiply in a baby’s intestines, producing a dangerous toxin that can cause infant botulism. To avoid this, do not give honey – even a tiny taste – to infants. (Some people are sensitive or allergic to specific components in honey, particularly bee pollen. Although rare, bee pollen allergies can cause serious adverse reactions. Honey could also affect blood sugar levels.)

The bad
According to compliance management company Decernis, honey is one of the most adulterated foods in the world.
A major study of honey samples from 19 different countries published in ‘Nature’ (October 2018) showed that 27 percent of the samples were of questionable authenticity. More than half of samples that originated in Asia were adulterated.
Take for example Manuka honey, New Zealand’s iconic product proven to have beneficial health effects and commanding premium pricing. Whereas the annual production of Manuka honey in New Zealand is only 1,700 tons, it is estimated that as much as 10,000 tons of ‘manuka honey’ is sold globally each year.
Cheap honey is highly filtered and flavoured. It contains little or no pollen – certainly no local pollen, that might be beneficial to you. It may contain antibiotics. Its main ingredient is likely to be high fructose corn (maize) syrup (HFCS), which is commonly derived from GMO maize. HFCS had been linked to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and liver damage. HFCS also leads to arterial plaque build-up and narrowing of blood vessels.
What is labelled as honey is not necessarily ‘Honey’; this can include ‘Pure Honey’. If the label says something like ‘Honey from EU and non-EU sources’, it is quite possible that it is not all real honey.

Bottom line
It is difficult to standardize honey. Honey from different regions may have variations in its health benefits because its efficacy depends on the floral source. Isolating the active fragment of honey does not produce as good an effect as total honey. So, it is best to consume local raw and unrefined honey. In addition, mass produced honey may not have any benefits, but more on this later.
Your local raw honey, which you will find in local shops and supermarkets, is produced by local beekeepers. Yes, it is a bit more expensive, as its price is based on the actual production costs of acquiring real honey from bees and not on sourcing the cheapest sweetener. The local honey has all the vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes intact; all the anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties; all the antioxidants. As it contains local pollen, it helps ward off allergies and boost immune functions. It can help stabilise blood pressure, balance blood sugar levels, promote digestive health and much, much more.
Read the label and bee smart!

Alex Blackwell is a member of Westport Beekeepers.