The Benefits of Raw Honey
Highly treasured throughout ancient history, golden honey has been utilised as a medicinal aid in many cultures all over the world. Historical scholars and researchers such as those with published works within the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences have found that the Chinese, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all used honey to treat skin wounds, inflammation and intestinal disease amongst other ailments. An article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1989 wrote that “honey has had a valued place in traditional medicine for centuries. The prescription for a standard wound salve discovered in the Smith papyrus (an Egytptian text dating from 2600 and 2200 BC) calls for a mixture of myht (grease), byt (honey) and ftt (lint/fibre) as transliterated from hieroglyphic symbols. Honey was the most popular Egyptian drug being mentioned 500 times in 900 remedies”. Have a read of the full article it’s completely fascinating! According to Bee World, the Ancient Egyptians practiced bee-keeping more than 5000 years ago, building hundreds of hives from mud for ease of harvesting the honey to supply the pharaohs and noble men with what was then considered an elite food item.
What is Raw Honey?
Unpasteurised and minimally processed, raw honey is usually only coarsely filtered to remove chunks of comb, wax, dead bees and other debris from the honey without adulterating, diluting or altering the honey itself. Preserving the honey’s natural chemical composition with the enzymes, vitamins, minerals and nutrients as it did when in the beehive; the natural goodness of the honey is left intact. Honey in it’s raw form, is described as being “natural and unheated” (Rahman et al. 2011, African Journal of Biotechnology).
The Composition of Raw Honey
Honey contains at least 181 substances; a supersaturated solution of sugars, and contains small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, trace elements, vitamins, aroma compounds and polyphonies. According to a research paper from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria; “The precise chemical composition and physical properties of natural honeys differ according to the plant species on which the bees forage. Differences in climatic conditions and vegetations are also important factors that can affect the various properties of honey”.
Natural honey’s chemical structure is made up of;
These are the monosaccharides fructose and glucose; and the disaccharides sucrose, maltose, isolates, maltose, turanose, and kojibiose. There are also oligosaccharides which have been shown to have prebiotic effects (causing an increase of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in the gut; as found by Popa and Ustunol, 2007, International Journal of Dairy Technology).
- Proteins and amino acids:
Enzymes such as invertase, amylase, glucose oxidase, catalase, phosphorylase, superoxide dismutase. There are 18 amino acids of which proline is the most abundant.
- Vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, antioxidants:
Trace amounts of B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6. Vitamin K (phyllochinon), Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The minerals calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, chromium, manganese, copper. Polyphenols in honey are mainly flavonoids (polyphenolic antioxidants naturally present in vegetables, fruits, and beverages such astea and wine which have been proven by the National Institute of Public Health and Environmental Protection to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease). The main group of antioxidants in honey are flavonoids – including pinocembrin which is unique to honey and bee propolis. Vitamin C, catalase, and selenium are also antioxidants. It has been noted that the darker the honey, the greater its antioxidant properties (which is why some dark Manuka honeys are more expensive).
- Organic acids:
Acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinct, lactic, malic, pyroglutamic, gluconic, and a number of aromatic acids. Also hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) – a natural product of the breakdown of simple sugars below pH 5.
The Difference between Raw Honey & Processed Honey
It is interesting to note that raw honey has a low glycemic index (GI) of 30-40 whilst average honey has a higher GI of about 58 (Dr Penny Stanway, 2013). If we compare this to the GI of raw sugar which is 65, we can see that raw honey is a better aid in preventing blood glucose and insulin spikes. In many health ailements such as high blood pressure, inflammation, Alzheimer’s and diabetes; high blood glucose only proliferates the problem. Raw honey is a great replacement as a source of energy.
The Minimal Processing of Raw Honey
To help understand the differences in processing raw honey and supermarket honey, I contacted raw British honey producer and Hilltop Honey founder, Scott Davies, who advised the following about the processes used in the manufacture of honey for retail: “There isn’t much of a process to explain to be honest as it’s raw we don’t do a great deal of processing. It’s extracted in a centrifugal extractor, the honey then drips to the bottom of the tank where it’s tapped off through a coarse filter into tubs or barrels. The honey is then poured/pumped from it’s container through a slightly less coarse filter but still extremely coarse to compared to supermarket honey. It’s then jarred and that is it. If the honey sets in the container it’s in after extracting we place it in a warm room for three days where the temperature sits around the temperature of a beehive (38°C). This melts the honey so it’s liquid enough for us to pump/pour and jar.”
Conventional Processed Runny Honey
When asked about how honey is conventionally processed, Hilltop Honey‘s Scott Davies mentioned the following: “The big manufactures of honey flash heat honey to pasteurise it to take any chance of the honey setting out of the question. This then destroys all the enzymes that make honey good for you as they can only function in temperatures under 40°C. This turns the honey into pretty much a water-like state where they can force it through extremely small filters, taking bits of pollen etc out of the honey which can aid setting. You are then left at the end with a blend of anything up to 5 or 6 honeys with no enzymes or pollen to give you the health benefits you expect from honey.”
The Concern with Cheap Imported Honey
In 2002, a news article from the Daily Mail reported that “food watchdogs ordered all Chinese-produced honey to be withdrawn from sale after trials found that much of it is contaminated by antibiotics including the powerful antibiotic chloramphenicol. The chemical is a trigger for aplastic anaemia, a rare but serious blood disorder which affects up to 100 people in Britain each year. It has also been linked to leukaemia.” In 2004 the BBC reported that the EU eased the Chinese food import ban due to “significant improvements” in China’s veterinary standards. A slightly shocking piece of information!
Meanwhile outside the EU, 11 German and Chinese executives were accused of conspiring to illegally import £26m worth of honey into The United States from China. Some of the honey was mixed with Indian honey to disguise its origin, or adulterated with antibiotics. This news article was only published by the BBC in 2011 – suggesting this may still be an ongoing problem. Reading these facts has persuaded me to try my best to purchase my honey either from local producers in my home county (available at farmer’s markets) or otherwise a British producer based elsewhere in the UK.
The Physiological Benefits of Raw Honey
Antimicrobial, antibacterial, antibiotic
Maybe the most studied aspects of honey, are its antibiotic and antimicrobial characteristics. It is well documented that honey inhibits a broad spectrum of bacterial species. A study by the Veterinary Journal in 2014 proved that honey prevents the growth of bacteria; “the high sugar concentration and low moisture content of honey causes osmotic stress to microbial cells and low pH is unfavourable for the growth of many micro-organisms. However, if a sugar solution with identical sugar components and pH to that of honey is prepared the antimicrobial activity of the sugar solution is often considerably lower than that of honey suggesting that other factors in the honey are responsible for its antimicrobial activity”.
The ongoing concern with antibiotic and antimicrobial resistant bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites has also seen honey become a popular subject for study. The World Health Organisation stresses the increasing and serious global threat of antimicrobial resistance including MSRA and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). As observed by The University of Western Australia, the Journal of Food and Agricultural Immunology and Biotechnology Research International, attention is being paid to extracts and biologically active compounds isolated from natural species used in herbal medicine. There are many reports of bactericidal as well as bacteriostatic activity of honey and the antibacterial properties of honey may be particularly useful against bacteria, which have developed resistance to many antibiotics.
The unique complex structure and composition of honey appears to be its strength as a natural antibiotic as noted by the Department of Microbiology at the Shriram Institute for Industrial Research: “antibacterial activity of honey may be because of the ability of honey to kill microorganisms has been attributed to its high osmotic effect, high acidic nature (pH being 3.2-4.5), hydrogen peroxide concentration and its phytochemical nature, i.e. its content of tetracycline derivatives, peroxides, amylase, fatty acids, phenols, ascorbic acid, flavonides, streptomycin, sulfathiazole, trepens, benzyl alcohol and benzoic acids”. Many studies also show the inhibiting effect natural honey has against the growth of S. aureus, E. coli, Shigella spp. and Pseudomonas sp. (African Journal of Biotechnology; Animal Health Research Institute; The State University of Feira de Santana).
In other research it has been found that honey flavonoids act as protection agents against oxidative damage to human red blood cells (Blasa et al. 2007, The Journal of Food Chemistry).
Raw honey has also been found to be;
- Immunosuppressive to allergen reactions (Duddukuri et al. 1997, International Archives of Allergy and Immunology)
- Hygroscopic (drawing water from air so keeping a moist environment)
Honey for Wounds, Eczema, Dermatisis & Psoriasis
It has been shown in research that honeys have potent microbicidal activity against microbes in dermatology. Interestingly, natural honey has also shown its ability to reduce pathogenicity and reverse antimicrobial resistance (McLoone et al. 2015 Journal of Microbiology, Immunology and Infection).
Honey is considered an excellent alternative treatment in place of conventional lotions to treat conditions such as dermatitis and psoriasis. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine in 2004 found that a topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil improved atopic dermatitis and psoriasis vulgaris in 80% of patients. It has been suggested that conventional methods of treatment often inflict unwanted secondary side-effects, for example corticosteroids cause skin thinning and ultraviolet radiation therapy has been associated with the development of skin cancer.
When using honey for wounds, it has been described as being therapeutic and much more pleasant to use for the patient than other methods, as Molan & Betts, 2004, Journal of Wound Care explains: “it is easy to apply, painless and comfortable, harmless to tissues, creates a moist healing environment, is antibacterial and stimulates healing and epithelialisation”. In addition Al-Waili, 2004, made the observation published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, that raw honey’s potency is “comparable to that of local antibiotics” as infected wounds reduced in swelling, redness, healing of lesions and quickly eradicated the bacterial infection.
Raw Honey as a Natural Medicinal Remedy
In addition to the above, the incredible spectrum of natural healing properties of natural honey make it a safe herbal remedy for even more ailments, including;
- Hair Loss
- Eye Problems & Conjunctivitis
- Colds, Cough & Sore Throats
- Hay Fever & Allergies
- Anxiety & Depression
- Weigh Loss
Different Types of Raw Honey
Different honeys vary substantially in the potency of their antibacterial activity, which varies with the botanical source on which the bee feeds (Wilkinson and Cavanagh, 2005, Journal of Medicinal Food). As the particular contents of each honey differs, so does the healing effects. For example honeydew honey is powerfully antimicrobial with more than twice the antioxidant capacity of honey just from nectar. Neem honey is useful for allergies, gum infection and skin issues; while heather honey is antioxidant-rich and reputed for its use against cancer (Dr Penny Stanway, 2013).
After all my research, it is very exciting to read about the multi-functionality and versatility of natural honey and its potential as an ingredient that could be added to healing skincare products and treatments. I highly recommend anyone with any health issues as mentioned above, try raw or Manuka honey. It’s safe, effective and incredibly powerful; I hope more people recognise the efficacy of wonderful honey.