Bees are incredible creatures, and one of the products they create, honey is a truly magical substance – it’s the only food that never spoils if it’s stored in a sealed container.
As long as moisture from the air doesn’t get in, honey keeps indefinitely! There are three reasons why it keeps for so long:
- The first is because of honey’s lack of water. Without much moisture nothing can grow in it, as it’s sufficiently concentrated to extract water from bacterial cells and kill them. When bees make honey, they remove most of the moisture from the nectar they gather (which can contain 60-80% water) by flapping their wings to fan the nectar and dry it out. Being so dry, honey is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the air, which is why in need stored in an airtight container to prevent spoilage.
- The second reason is that honey also quite acidic with a pH of 3-4.5, which is low enough to inhibit many pathogens.
- The third reason is that bees have the enzyme glucose oxidase in their stomachs, so when they regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey, the enzyme reacts with the nectar, breaking it down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Gluconic acid is considered a weak acid with a pH of approximately 3.8, which contributes to the bacteria-inhibiting acidity just mentioned. Hydrogen peroxide is an antibacterial agent, it’s the same thing as the disinfectant product sold at the chemist/pharmacy.
Additionally, honey contains several other chemical compounds with anti-bacterial activity that have been identified, and these include:
- benzyl alcohol
- 3, 5-dimethoxy-4-hydroxybenzoic acid (syringic acid)
- methyl 3, 5-dimethoxy-4- hydroxybenzoate (methyl syringate)
- 3,4, 5-trimethoxybenzoic acid
- 2-hydroxy-3-phenylpropionic acid
- 2-hydroxybenzoic acid
Honey is a natural food that contains around 200 different substances. It’s mainly composed of sugars (with fructose and glucose being the most abundant at 70% of total sugars) and other constituents such as enzymes, amino acids, organic acids, carotenoids, vitamins (especially vitamin B6, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid), minerals (including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc), and aromatic substances. It is rich in compounds known as flavonoids and phenolic acids that act as natural antioxidants.
What Are the Health Benefits of Honey?
Honey is a natural substance that has been used as a sweetener for over 5,000 years, long before cane and beet sugar came into use, and it has also been used for its therapeutic properties since ancient times.
It is known that honey contains flavonoids and phenolic acids which plays an important role on human health due to the high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that they exert. According to the WebMD site, honey contains beneficial antioxidants which can protect the body from inflammation, a physical condition that can lead to a variety of health issues, such as heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
They also state that health authorities don’t recommend over-the-counter medications to treat young children’s coughs and colds. As a preferred natural remedy, honey is a much better choice. A study showed that two teaspoons of honey relieved children’s nighttime cough and allowed them to sleep, but doctors don’t recommend this for children less than a year old.
Honey also possesses antimicrobial activity. In a review of studies published in 2020 by BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, researchers reviewed 14 studies of almost 1,800 people with upper respiratory infections (viral illnesses such as colds that cause symptoms such as a stuffy nose, congestion, sore throat, and cough) that were either treated with honey or with medications such as antihistamines, expectorants, cough suppressants, and painkillers. Their findings were that honey appeared to improve symptoms, especially cough frequency and severity, and in some cases shorten the duration of symptoms by a day or two.
Being mostly sugar, honey contains 17 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon. Honey is said to taste slightly sweeter than granulated sugar, so less can be used, and can be a great substitution in recipes calling for sugar. In addition, it has antidiabetic activity, and has been shown to reduce of glucose, fructosamine, and glycosylated hemoglobin serum concentration.
Another interesting property of honey is that it also exerts a protective effect in the cardiovascular system, where it mainly prevents the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins, in the nervous system, in the respiratory system against asthma and bacterial infections, and in the gastrointestinal system.
Honey is a truly amazing food, and the global production of honey reached 1.88 million metric tons in 2020 according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report. It’s amazing how easily we forget that this is important human food is produced by insects, Apis mellifera, the domestic honeybee, using nectar from flowers!
- The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life, Smithsonian Magazine, Natasha Geiling, August 22, 2013. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-science-behind-honeys-eternal-shelf-life-1218690/>
- Nair, Vineet & Pal, Neha & Jain, Akanksha & Das, Siddhartha. (2018). Journal of Medicine and Health Research ACHIEVING ORAL HEALTH THE NATURAL WAY: PART IV HONEY.
- Honey: Are There Health Benefits? Pros and Cons, Nutrition Information, and More. WebMD. <https://www.webmd.com/diet/honey-health-benefits>
- Abuelgasim H, Albury C, Lee J. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evid Based Med. 2021 Apr;26(2):57-64. doi: 10.1136/bmjebm-2020-111336. Epub 2020 Aug 18. PMID: 32817011. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32817011/>
- Cianciosi D, Forbes-Hernández TY, Afrin S, Gasparrini M, Reboredo-Rodriguez P, Manna PP, Zhang J, Bravo Lamas L, Martínez Flórez S, Agudo Toyos P, Quiles JL, Giampieri F, Battino M. Phenolic Compounds in Honey and Their Associated Health Benefits: A Review. Molecules. 2018 Sep 11;23(9):2322. doi: 10.3390/molecules23092322. PMID: 30208664; PMCID: PMC6225430. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30208664/>
- Priscila Missio da Silva, Cony Gauche, Luciano Valdemiro Gonzaga, Ana Carolina Oliveira Costa, Roseane Fett, Honey: Chemical composition, stability and authenticity, Food Chemistry, Volume 196, 2016, Pages 309-323, ISSN 0308-8146, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.09.051. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308814615013941
Fantastic reading. Thank you. When I became vegan over 15 years ago, I missed honey, so introduced it back in, so now I am a vegan. Honey is a survival food, and I have a spoonful of raw honey everyday straight from the jar. We were always told as kids to have some honey when we had a sore throat. Best remedy is simmering a whole lemon, skin and all had a couple of cloves of garlic and some ginger, simmer for 5-10 mins, strain and drink as soon as possible with honey to taste.
I believe manuka honey is also good but expensive, I think good quality raw honey is just as good.
I also have read coconut oil does not go rancid either if kept safely.
You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing your experience and this useful information, much appreciated! 🙂
I make mead (and drink it!), I’m just wondering if I’m missing some of the benefits of honey? The fermentation reduces the sugar content significantly but does it destroy any of the beneficial components of the honey?
Hi Wayne, you are carrying on a very ancient art! For readers not aware of what mead is, it’s ‘honey wine’, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey, and one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever made. It was consumed as far back as 4,000 years ago and was common across many ancient cultures including those in Asia, Europe and Africa. Since honey possesses medicinal properties, many people wonder if mead might also, but according to current research it’s unclear whether fermented honey retains the therapeutic properties as unfermented honey. Basically, nobody really knows right now!