Nearly everyone has heard of honey, but most do not know exactly what honey is, or how it is made. So let’s take some time to answer the question “What is Honey?” To put things very simply, honey is a sweet food made by honeybees using nectar from flowers. Honeybees are the one most commonly known honey producer and they are the only insect that produces honey in quantity. Honeybees are also the only insect that produces food for human consumption.
Honey has been gathered by humans for thousands of years. It is even written about in the Bible’s Old Testament, being mentioned in the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, 2 Chronicles, 2 Kings, and others. These bees were often local species and differed depending on the location. In more modern times, for commercial purposes only Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee, and Apis cerana, the Eastern Honeybee, have been used for honey production. Honey produced by other bees and insects has distinctly different properties, and are often not deemed fit for human consumption. Although honey harvested by beekeepers from honeybees is an affordable food, bees spend thousands of hours collecting pollen from around two million flowers to make one pound of pure honey. This takes thousands of hour’s worth of labor and requires bees to fly thousands of miles to perform the tasks. So no matter what you pay for the premium artisan honey, you are a getting a bee bargain!
Honey is actually a bit more complex than that simple explanation that was just afforded to it, and based on the effort that honeybees place in its production; it barely scratched the surface of what honey actually is and how it gets from the bee to the table to eat. In fact it is so complex that parts of it have only recently been unlocked by modern technology. So let us dig a bit deeper into the question of “What is Honey?” Most honey is very sweet, but how does it get that way? Honeybees gather nectar from various flowering plants. Nectar’s main ingredients are natural sugars – sucrose, glucose, and fructose. But depending on the plant the nectar is collected from, it will contain other substances as well. For instance, a tobacco plant will have small amounts of nicotine in its nectar. In the same way, citrus trees impart hints of citrus flavors into the nectar. It is these trace substances that give honey its unique flavor and aroma.
Once the honeybee collects the nectar from the flower it is stored for a period of time in the bee’s honey stomach, which is a separate compartment from its digestive stomach. After returning to the hive, the honeybees regurgitate the nectar and the house bees “chew” the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. This makes the Nectar more digestible for the bees and less likely to be attacked by bacteria while it is stored within the hive. The house bees then deposit the processed nectar into the individual cells of the honey comb where water evaporates from it. The evaporation process takes the nectar from as much as 80% moisture content down to approximately 17%, making it thick syrup that we know as honey. The bees can make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the bees deem the drying process to be complete, the cells are capped with wax to seal out bacteria and moisture and prevent fermentation. At this point honey is a supersaturated liquid and at room temperature it is considered supercooled since the bees have successfully packed more sugar molecules into the solution than would normally dissolve in water.
As part of the answer to the question “What is Honey?,” the basic process that honey bees use to make the honey has been explained. To further understand what goes in to getting honey from the bees to the table for consumption, the honey harvest must be described. This is the process the beekeeper uses to remove the honey and package it so it can eventually be consumed. Let’s continue to that part of “What is Honey?” journey.
After the honey has been stored, dried, and capped by the honey bees, it is ready for harvest by the beekeeper. The honey is usually stored within in a hive in removable frames. These frames hold the honey comb, and it is inside these honey combs where the bees have stored the honey. The first step in the honey harvest is to get all the frames of honey out of the hive. After they are removed, the capped honey must be freed from the cells to be consumed.
There are two ways to remove the honey. If comb hone is desired, the honeycomb is cut into pieces, packed, and sold to consumers. Comb honey is possibly the best source of unadulterated honey that can be purchased. This is due to the fact that it is left in the very honeycomb that the bees produced it. Unfortunately it is growing harder and harder to find.
Today, the more popular method of removing honey is extraction. To extract the honey, the cappings placed by on the cells by the house bees must be cut off. Once the cappings are removed, the frames are placed in an extractor. Modern extractors spin the frames so that nearly all of the honey is removed from the comb by centrifugal force. If done correctly the wax comb is nearly unharmed and can be reused by the bees during the next nectar flow.
From the extractor, the honey must be screened or settled to remove any extra wax particle and bee remnants. After screening or settling, it may be bottled and sold to the consumer. Honey does not require pasteurization because it contains many natural antibacterial components. These components and others are removed by excessive filtering and pasteurization. This is why many honey consumers prefer raw honey. There are many raw honey benefits.
Now that the process of how honey is made has been described, it is time to look at the final part of the question of “What is Honey?” We will look inside to see what makes up the substance that we call honey. As far as bees are concerned, honey is far more than a natural sweetener. It is a “functional food”, which means it is a natural food with health benefits. These benefits have only recently been unlocked due to their complex nature. The primary components of honey are water, sugar, acid, proteins and amino acids, and various minerals.
Honey is primarily composed of sugars. Those being, with average percentages of the total honey composition shown for comparison: Fructose (38.2%), Glucose (31.3%), Maltose (7.1%), and Sucrose (1.3%). Approximately 17.2% of honey’s composition is water. If the honey contains too much water it will ferment. If it contains too little it will begin crystallizing. There are also other sugars occupying approximately 1.5%. Ash makes up 0.2 percent of honey and 3.2 percent is other solids. Aside from the sugar, which is an amazing energy source, the “other solids” is truly the amazing part of honey, and is what makes honey, well, honey. To get the most complete answer to “What is Honey?” we will go over this percentage in detail.
The acids of honey account for less than 0.5 percent of the reported solids, but this level contributes not only to the flavor, but is in part responsible for the excellent stability of honey against microorganisms. Several acids have been found in honey, gluconic acid is the most common one.
Another component of solids is amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and in honey they come from the pollen that is left in the honey by the honeybees. It has been found that honey, depending on its source, can contain all of the essential twenty amino acids in its pollen or protein components. On average honey contains anywhere from 11 to 21 common amino acids. They are the “building blocks” of the proteins and several of them are essential to life and must be obtained in the diet. Because honey contains pollen, it can be useful in treating allergies.
The minerals contained in honey are Potassium, Chlorine, Sulfur, Calcium, Sodium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Silica, Iron, Manganese, and Copper. Honey also contains in important enzymes Invertase, Diastase (Amylase), and Glucose Oxidase. Vitamins found in honey include B6, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and niacin. In addition, the antioxidants chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase, and pinocembrin help neutralize damaging free radical activity. All of the vitamins, antioxidants, and enzymes can be destroyed by heating the honey.
It is very important to note that most of the vitamin and mineral content of honey is due to it containing pollen. This is why consuming raw unfiltered and unpasteurized honey is so important if honey’s health benefits are to be obtained.
One tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories, yet it has a healthy glycemic load around 10 for 1 Tbsp, which is a little less than a banana. Because of this, it does not cause a sugar spike and elevated insulin release like regular table sugar.
The USDA has reported on the nutritional content of honey, but not all honey is created, or treated equally. Consuming raw honey will be better than eating commercially processed honey.
The USDA’s answer to “What is Honey?”
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The next time someone you know wants to know “What is Honey?” you will know exactly what to tell them.