People who feel strongly about raw foods are a little overwhelming. Nutritional pseudo-science is one of my least favorite kinds of pseudo-science, and raw food people tend to have drunk all the nutritional pseudo-science kool-aid.
So imagine my surprise at finding myself in the middle of an impassioned rant about how one should only buy local, raw honey.
To some degree, it’s a matter of taste. We kept bees when I was little, so I grew up eating honey that was not only not pasteurized, but sometimes had bits of errant bee floating in it (involving small children in the extraction process may have compromised things a little). Pasteurized honey tastes very different from, and not as good as, what I grew up with. It may not matter to you, but I notice it, and like to find honey that tastes to me like the honey we used to produce (in my experience, raw wildflower honey from the northeast).
But there are other valid reasons for buying local, raw honey, and digging into them starts to give you a sense of how fascinating honey is. Really fascinating!
First, there’s been a ton of interesting research lately about the medical uses of honey. Honey has been used as a topical antibacterial ointment basically forever, and these recent studies are providing some scientific backing for that use.* For instance, researchers have found honey effective at killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria (here’s a Museum of Science videocast about it). A 2006 study found honey more effective at treating burns than antibiotic creams and other dressings (source). A different study found that it was better than the most common over-the-counter cough medicine in treating coughs in children (source). Researchers now think that a protein from the bees’ immune system— defensin 1— that the bees add to the honey is the primary source of honey’s antibacterial properties (source).** For the most part, all those awesome things don’t happen if the honey is pasteurized.
And then, midway through my benefits-of-honey research, I fell into the honey laundering rabbit hole. Apparently, it can be hard to guarantee that imported honey is from the place it’s labeled as coming from. What happens is that honey that’s been banned in the E.U. is ultra-filtered to strip it of its pollen (removing the pollen disguises the honey’s origins) and mask the presence of contaminants, labeled as being from someplace else, and dumped in the U.S. The laundered honey can contain lead and antibiotics, or simply not be honey at all. While the bulk of honey found in big box stores and supermarkets has been ultra-filtered, honey found in farmer’s markets and natural food stores or labeled as organic mostly still had its pollen.
Which takes me back to my original point about how you should be buying local, raw honey.
You can find honey at the Portland Farmer’s Market and at the Honey Exchange, a lovely store on Stevens Ave with beekeeping classes, extraction facilities, a wealth of information about bees and beekeeping and a lovely shop with bee-related products and local, raw, unfiltered honey.
Other fun and bizarre honey facts:
- Bees make honey from nectar by repeatedly eating and then regurgitating it! The resulting partially-digested honey is still too watery, though, so they fan it with their wings to get the water to evaporate.
- The resulting low moisture content (and high sugar content and acidity) prevents fermentation, meaning that if the honey is properly sealed it stays good for ages.
- It does, however, sometimes contain naturally occurring botulinum endospores, which can (very rarely) cause botulism in babies under 1 year old.
* It’s also reputed to alleviate seasonal allergies, though I couldn’t tell whether research had refuted that or was simply non-conclusive.
** One of the reviews of research around the medical uses of honey apparently also looked at the use of maggots for wound healing. I hope the maggots have a good PR team, because that, my friends, is an uphill battle toward widespread adoption.
I found the above photo in the Library of Congress photo archive, from the U.S. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection. It was taken in 1939 by Arthur Rothstein, titled “George Arnole exhibits a super of honey raised on his farm in Chaffee County, Colorado.”