Not all honeys are created equal. Some have additional health benefits, others are better for the environment and the bees themselves. There are also big differences in price. So how do you get the most out of honey and what should you look for when buying it?
What's the best honey to buy? : Honey

The basics

Honey is enjoyed all over the world. The color, texture and taste of Honey vary greatly depending on the nectar sources, with each jar offering a unique taste of a time and place. Look for specialty honeys sold online and by independents, such as Tasmanian leatherwood honeys and mint lime honeys, to get an idea of the diversity of tastes.

There are two main types of honey: Multifloral honeys come from a mixture of flowers growing in the same place, such as wildflower Honey or Greek mountain honey. Monofloral honeys are essentially made from one type of flower. Some of the most common include fragrant orange blossom and lavender honeys, tart eucalyptus, aromatic bitter chestnut and medicinal New Zealand manuka.

In general, mass-market honeys are more affordable, while honeycomb and specialty honeys can sometimes be pricey, but it is possible to find good deals, just look around!

Is honey good for you?

There are a lot of health claims for honey, including hay fever (which, unfortunately, are not based on sound science).

However, there is no doubt that Honey has health benefits. Honey has been used to heal for at least 8,000 years. Its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties are found especially in Honey that has not been overly heated (such as raw honey).

Researchers at Oxford University have found that Honey actually relieves cough and cold symptoms. A few monofloral honeys have been tested and found to be particularly beneficial, including manuka (although it is expensive). There is even medical grade Honey that has been approved by the NHS for wound treatment.

Of course, Honey is a sugar, and is best consumed in small amounts. But unlike table sugar, it also contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and beneficial enzymes. Darker honeys are generally a bit more nutritious and tend to be the ones traditionally favored for healing, such as buckwheat and manuka.

According to Professor Monique Simmonds of Kew Gardens, who studies the traditional and economic uses of plants around the world, Honey used in traditional medicines works in part because the Sugar manages to penetrate the cell wall of the plants, making it more effective. It seems that a spoonful of Honey actually helps to pass the medicine and makes the bitter compounds more palatable. A small drop in a cup of herbal tea works the same way and enhances the taste.

However, the NHS recommends that Honey not be consumed by babies under one year of age because of the risk of infant botulism.

What to look out for on the label

What to look out for on the label

The more accurate the information on the label, the more likely you are to buy good honey. For example, some jars will mention a particular beekeeper or a small business with its own hives in a particular area. The name of a place and a type of flower or flora, such as forest honey, means good news!

Conversely, if the label says "product of several countries," it means the Honey has been blended from several sources and is less distinctive than jars from a single hive and its surroundings.

Raw or unpasteurized Honey has been lightly processed, simply strained out of the cells and not finely filtered. It may be slightly cloudy because of the pollen it contains, and it will probably crystallize faster than processed honey.

Beware of what is known in the trade as "funny honey," such as Honey adulterated with Sugar syrup. If you open a jar and there is no flavor and a cooked sweet taste, you will not get all the joy, taste and benefits you expect from honey.

What's the difference between set and runny honey?

In terms of texture, some honeys start out thick, like heather Honey gel, and many thicken naturally over time. Other honeys stay liquid longer, like acacia Honey (another common type).

You may find that your once liquid Honey has thickened in your kitchen cupboard. To make it liquid again, surround the jar with barely boiled water in a bowl and leave it for five to fifteen minutes, or heat what you need very briefly in a pan or microwave.

In addition, producers can seed a Honey with a bit of crystallized Honey to get a more spreadable texture, called "crimped" or "creamy" honey. At the other end of the texture scale, mass-produced honeys can be heated and finely strained, so they don't thicken and are easier to pour, although this also removes some of the honey's aromatic and beneficial qualities.

The purest form is honeycomb, which is found in the cells of beeswax. After a delicious chew, you remove or swallow the remaining small ball of wax. More expensive and harder to find, it is an unusual treat that looks good on a plate with a piece of cheese and fruit.

Helping bees help the planet

Helping bees help the planet

Humans, insects and plants depend on each other to survive and thrive. Bees gather nectar from about two million flowers to make a single 450g jar of honey. Each bee produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of Honey in its lifetime. Four-fifths of the world's plants depend on pollination to reproduce, and at least one-third of the world's food crops. We need bees - all species, not just honeybees - to buzz through the air and stitch together the fabric of the living world.

Most Honey is produced in countries with warm climates, which allows for an abundant and steady flow of nectar, and monofloral honeys are often a byproduct of agriculture. Bees are affected by chemicals used in farming and gardening; finding Honey from untreated sources, such as heather Honey and multifloral honeys such as forest, mountain, and wildflower honeys, and organic Honey from farms that do not use pesticides, is a way to support beekeepers who help keep ecosystems alive.

One of the benefits of seeking out local Honey or buying directly from a beekeeper - urban or rural - is that you can find out where his or her bees harvest nectar. There is excellent British Honey that has less of a journey to make (and therefore reduces the carbon footprint of honey), including multifloral wildflower Honey and heather Honey from the moors of Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, Northumbria and Devon.

Those on a plant-free or vegan diet who are concerned about the negative associations associated with Honey - such as honey's carbon footprint or unethical practices related to bee welfare - will find that there are now vegan sweeteners that mimic the flavor of honey.

Not just for toast

Not just for toast

Versatile and beautiful, Honey transforms both savory and sweet dishes, like a classic Honey cake. Because of its distinctive taste, all it takes is a small spoon to work its magic. If you first dip your spoon in barely boiled water, the Honey will slide off easily. The same is true if you first use the spoon to measure out oil, for example in a salad dressing.

Fruit, cheese, spices, herbs and Nuts are best friends with honey, which also brings out the sweetness of roasted root vegetables, such as honey-roasted carrots.

Not surprisingly, Greeks love Honey and pair it with halloumi or feta cheese in a cheese, zucchini and Honey pie that combines several honey-friendly flavors.

Honey is frequently used as a key ingredient in marinades, often alongside soy sauce. This coconut brown rice Chicken uses both, as does this glazed trout.

Use the sweetness of Honey in a sweet and sour mix, and in the hot, sweet, sour and salty combinations commonly found in Southeast Asian and Chinese dishes, especially stir-fries.

A Moroccan cooking trick is to add a little Honey to cooked tomatoes, such as in a Sauce or tagine, to balance and enhance their sweet and sour taste.

You can also enter the land of milk and Honey by drizzling Honey over cheese - it's good with tangy blue cheese, goat cheese and aged cheeses like parmesan and pecorino.

Honey adds another dimension of flavor to sweet dishes. You can use it to replace a Sugar glaze on a yogurt cake, or add it to the syrup of a fruit salad. In Honey cakes and pastries, it combines well with light brown sugar. However, keep the temperature lower (about 25°C) than usual because Honey burns more easily than sugar.

Recipes often refer to "clear" or "runny" honey. It is useful to have a lighter, cheaper clear Honey for everyday use and recipes that use heat, although all honeys will melt and become liquid when slightly heated. Use more unusual honeys to add a special finishing touch, such as drizzling over cheese, or drizzling over yogurt and spreading on toast.

Hattie Ellis is the author of Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee and Spoonfuls of Honey.


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