Liquid Gold: Your Guide to Honey

By Kate Geagan, MS, RD

Posted on | By Kate Geagan, MS, RD

Called “the nectar of the Gods” by ancient Greeks, honey is one of the most multifaceted staples in your pantry. It can work as a beauty elixir (used in facial masks or to soothe scars), but, above all, it is a delicious, healing food. Bees are responsible for one of the most sacred acts of nature: taking nectar from flowers and transforming it into honey, through interactions with enzymes in their saliva and digestion.

Honey ranges from colorless to a deep shade of caramel. It’s mild to richly complex in taste. Think of honey like a fine wine: Its color, flavor and aroma are uniquely dependent on the nectar of the flowers the bees visited, connecting you with a taste of a region. And with the growing interest in foods plucked straight from nature, not to mention the growing science behind its health benefits (research suggests raw honey helps kill H. pylori bacteria that cause ulcers, for instance), honey is an amazing superfood. Honey is also a straightforward sweetener, a 100% natural, right-from-the-earth food – from hive to table, if you will.

Here’s the lowdown on “liquid gold” and what you need to know.

Honeycomb

This is as pure as it gets. Dubbed by honey enthusiasts as “nature’s perfect package,” most people are surprised to learn that these wax combs are cut straight from the hive and completely edible. While it may seem a bit waxy to some (you can just chew it until the flavor is gone and then discard the rest), the comb has an intense honey flavor that is delicious; look for it at your farmers market or favorite natural foods store. A word of advice: Be sure to put it on a plate – once it’s cut, the comb will start oozing honey.

Raw Honey

Many naturopaths and nutrition experts (myself included) suggest choosing raw honey for optimal health and beauty benefits. Raw honey is never strained, filtered or heated. Research suggests it’s loaded with many trace minerals, organic enzymes, antioxidants, plus antibacterial and anti-fungal properties that make it a powerful package of health. Its rich origins mean that it’s loaded with more interesting taste and flavor.


Raw honey is a shining example of food as medicine. Your grandmother’s home remedy of dosing you with a bit of honey for your cough, for instance, seems to have some science behind it. Honey has promising evidence as a cough suppressant, not to mention a favorite alternative topical remedy for cuts and scrapes.

Look for honey labeled “Raw Honey” in your favorite grocery store or farmer’s market. If it crystalizes in your pantry over time, you can still enjoy it that way (it just means the glucose in the honey has precipitated out of the liquid); if you prefer a more liquid honey, simply place the jar into a warm water bath and stir gently until the crystals dissolve.

Caution: The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children age 1 and under should not be given honey whatsoever, as it can potentially carry spores of the toxin Clostridium botulinum, raising the risk of infantile botulism.


Manuka Honey

There’s been intriguing research looking more closely at Manuka honey. This darker, stronger-flavored honey is harvested from bees that gather nectar in areas populated with the Manuka bush, a type of shrub which grows in New Zealand. Manuka honey seems to hold particular promise as an anti-bacterial treatment and in helping to treat burns, ulcers and gingivitis.

Manuka honey is sometimes promoted to cancer patients as having miraculous anti-cancer properties. Patients should proceed with caution and absolutely speak with their doctors before adding anything to their health-care regimens.

Royal Jelly

Consumed as a heath food around the world, this prized milky-white cream is rich in an array of nutrients, including B vitamins, amino acids, sugars, minerals and fatty acids. Royal jelly is a food secretion made by worker bees and is the exclusive nourishment of queen bees throughout their life.

With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see why royal jelly is seen as one of the most prized elements to come out of any hive. It’s a logical leap to assume if it’s the “bee’s knees,” we should be eating it, too. So, should you? Here’s my opinion: Given its role in nature as a unique nutrient powerhouse for the bee kingdom, it may indeed be a safe, nutrient-rich addition to your diet.

Royal jelly has spawned a robust online and supplement industry filled with inflated claims ranging from curing sexual impotence to balancing hormones, so proceed with caution.  

Women should also note that royal jelly may have possible estrogenic effects (some research has suggested it may have an effect on fertility and menopausal symptoms). Women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer should not consume royal jelly without first consulting their doctor. Also, you may want to avoid it if you have a history of bee allergies.

There’s certainly some encouraging science about the health benefits of royal jelly. One of the strongest areas is in the promise of possibly lowering cholesterol. Additionally, many in the beauty industry claim it can stimulate collagen and be used topically or ingested for skin-boosting benefits.

Remember that a diet rich in darkly colored fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains is a proven path to supercharged health. You should take the approach of “healthy diet plus royal jelly” rather than “drive thru plus royal jelly” as your strategy for success.

How Much Honey Is Healthy?
With all the buzz around sugars these days, it’s important to remember that like any sweetener, honey should be savored in small amounts. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 10% of your total calories should come from added sugars, which for the average American woman translates into about 100 calories a day, or just under 5 teaspoons of honey. For context, consider the average American currently consumes roughly 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day – more than four times as much!

But honey does have some unique appeal: For one, this golden liquid is significantly sweeter than table sugar (about 25% sweeter), meaning you’re satisfied with less. This can shave calories off of your morning cup of tea, your oatmeal (just add a drizzle), or even the amount of sweetener you need in a recipe when baking.

Another plus? Honey has long been loved by athletes as a source of a lower glycemic carbohydrate, which means it enters your bloodstream more slowly than other refined sugars, giving you sustained energy to power your performance. In ancient Greece, athletes feasted on honey and figs prior to the Olympic competitions; today, my colleague, a sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals, has her pro ball players eat honey sandwiches (with all-natural peanut butter and whole wheat bread) for sustained energy prior to a game. Personally, honey is a family favorite. My four year old eats it just because he loves it. As a mom, I'm proud (and it saves me a lot of trouble) that he's into the healthy stuff.

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