James Odell, OMD, ND, L.Ac. with Addendum by Dr. Colin I. H. Perry
Humans have gathered honey for thousands of years. Rock art in Spain from 6000 B.C. shows people harvesting honey. Beeswax from around 8000 B.C. was found in cooking pots in Turkey. By 2400 B.C., the Egyptians were skilled beekeepers. When early people cleared forests into pastures, they created bee-friendly habitats where flowers and bushes grew. As farmers moved into new areas, honeybees followed. Honey is both a food and a medicine. This article describes only a few of the many miraculous qualities of honey
Chemical Properties and Composition of Honey
Honey is the sweet, viscous substance elaborated by the honeybee from the nectar of plants. This simple definition excludes honeydew honey, which is produced by the bee from honeydew excreted by various plant-sucking insects. Nectars vary considerably in quality and quantity, depending on the floral source. Similarly, honey varies; some honey is nearly colorless (like water), with a light, pleasing aroma, and some is as dark as crankcase oil, with a heavy-bodied aroma. Honey from most floral sources falls between these extremes. Bees convert nectar to honey by drying it down to a moisture content of 15 to 20 percent and by adding a salivary enzyme that changes sucrose (long-chain sugar) into glucose and fructose (two short-chain sugars). Hence, honey is composed of sugars, mainly fructose and glucose. Honey also contains trace amounts of minerals, enzymes, vitamins, and colloids. Honey is water soluble, may granulate between 10° and 18°C, and is acidic.
The high acidity of honey also plays an important role in the system that prevents bacterial growth. The pH of honey may vary from approximately 3.2 to 4.5 (average pH= 3.9). Honey acids account for less than 0.5 percent of the solids, this level not only contributes to the flavor, but is partly responsible for the excellent stability of honey against microorganisms. Several acids have been found in honey, gluconic acid being the major one. It arises from dextrose through the action of an enzyme called glucose oxidase. Other acids in honey are formic, acetic, butyric, lactic, oxalic, succinic, tartaric, maleic, pyruvic, pyroglutamic, a-ketoglutaric, glycolic, citric, malic, 2- or 3-phosphoglyceric acid, a- or B-glycerophosphate, and glucose 6-phosphate.
The amount of nitrogen in honey is low, 0.04 percent on the average, though it may range to 0.1 percent. Recent work has shown that only 40 to 65 percent of the total nitrogen in honey is in protein, and some nitrogen resides in substances other than proteins, namely the amino acids. Of the 8 to 11 proteins found in various honeys, 4 are common to all, and appear to originate in the bee, rather than the nectar. Little is known of the many proteins in honey, except that the enzymes fall into this class. The presence of proteins causes honey to have a lower surface tension than it would have otherwise, which produces a marked tendency to foam and form fine air bubbles. Beekeepers familiar with buckwheat honey know how readily it tends to foam and produce surface scum, which is largely due to its relatively high protein content.
One of the characteristics that differentiates honey from all other sweetening agents is the presence of enzymes. These conceivably arise from the bee, pollen, nectar, or even yeasts or microorganisms in the honey. Those most prominent are added by the bee during the conversion of nectar to honey. Enzymes are complex protein materials that under mild conditions bring about chemical changes, which may be exceedingly difficult to accomplish in a chemical laboratory without their aid. The changes that enzymes bring about throughout nature are essential to life. Some of the most important honey enzymes are invertase, diastase, and glucose oxidase.
Invertase, also known as sucrase, splits sucrose into its constituent simple sugars, dextrose and levulose. Recently, it was found that other more complex sugars formed in small quantities during this action and partly explained the complexity of the small sugars of honey. Although the work of invertase is completed when honey is ripened, the enzyme remains in the honey and retains its activity for some time. Even so, the sucrose content of honey never reaches zero. Since the enzyme also synthesizes sucrose, perhaps the final low value for the sucrose content of honey represents equilibrium between splitting and forming sucrose
Diastase (amylase) digests starch to simpler compounds, but no starch is found in nectar. What its function is in honey is not clear. Diastase appears to be present in varying amounts in nearly all honey, and it can be measured. It has probably had the greatest attention in the past because it has been used as a measure of honey quality in several European countries
Glucose oxidase converts dextrose to a related material, a gluconolactone, which in turn forms gluconic acid, the principal acid in honey. Since this enzyme was previously shown to be in the pharyngeal gland of the honeybee, this is the most likely source. Here, as with other enzymes, the amount varies in different honeys. In addition to gluconolactone, glucose oxidase forms hydrogen peroxide during its action on dextrose, which has been shown to be the basis of the heat-sensitive antibacterial activity of honey. Other enzymes are reported to be present in honey, including catalase and an acid phosphatase. All the honey enzymes can be destroyed or weakened by heat.
The glycemic index of honey varies from 32 to 85, depending on the botanical source which is lower than sucrose (table sugar - 60 to 110). Fructose-rich honeys such as acacia honey have an exceptionally low glycemic index. The low moisture content of honey is one of its most significant characteristics, as it affects quality, rate of granulation and body. Honey is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture) and will remove moisture from the air if the relative humidity exceeds 60 percent. Care must be taken in the handling and storage of honey to be sure that this does not happen. Hygroscopicity, however, is one of the traits making honey ideal for baking; honey-sweetened products stay moist for longer. The low moisture content of honey also forms an important part of the system that protects honey from attack by microorganisms. Because of the high concentration of solids and low moisture content honey’s hyperosmotic nature inhibits the growth of bacteria and yeasts as it extracts water from the organisms.
Medicinal Properties and Usage of Honey
Honey has had a valued place in traditional medicine for centuries. The prescription for a standard wound salve discovered in the Smith papyrus (an Egyptian text dating from between 2600 and 2200 BC) calls for a mixture of mrht (grease), byt (honey) and ftt (lint/fibre) as tran