Raw honey is playing its part in the growing movement towards the consumption of unprocessed foods as more and more people realise that these foods are not only far healthier, but they taste and smell so much better too. So you get a double bonus from raw foods – the natural vitamins and enzymes are all intact, and the taste is incomparable to the processed product. Of course, all this applies only too well to raw honey.
Raw Honey – a Definition
Unfortunately for anyone trying to find the real thing, there is no legal definition for “raw” honey, and the term “organic” is also ambiguous under current U.S. law.
So if the law cannot define “raw” honey – what do we mean by the term? Well, when I say that honey is raw what I really mean is that it is very close to the condition it was in when it left the beehive. Unheated, unpasteurized, nothing added, nothing removed. Just as it comes from the beehive. On the subject of heating I would ideally want the honey to have been produced without exceeding its maximum beehive temperature, but of course that is a bit vague as this can change depending on the time of year. Most experts would say that the honey will not lose any of its benefits and can still be considered raw if it is maintained through production and storage at 118 degrees F or lower. This means that raw honey cannot be filtered in the same way as heated honey because it is not as runny so it won’t flow through commercial filters, but some producers allow the honey to seep slowly through a coarse strainer before bottling it, just to remove any sizeable debris. This does no harm to the honey and does not alter its properties, but true aficionados would say that the best raw honey is totally unfiltered, which means you get little shards of honeycomb and grains of pollen still clearly visible in the jar – a very good indication that you have the real thing, incidentally.
Benefits of Raw Honey
When honey comes from the beehive, it contains an estimated 600 components including small amounts of a wide range of vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients.
Here’s a list of the vitamins, for example:
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)
Thiamin (Vitamin B1)
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)
It is these components that give honey its antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Checkout honey and health here for the full story, but basically keeping the honey raw means you preserve all of those many hundreds of unique components that make honey so special – destroy these and you may as well eat corn syrup instead.
This also applies to using honey to make beer or mead – you will get a far superior result if you use raw honey – use processed honey and you’re adding nothing much better than a glucose/fructose mixture.
That Raw Honey Taste
Health benefits aside, the real difference between genuine raw honey and the factory-processed brands is in the taste and aroma. Once you have experienced the exquisite aroma and flavor of some of the raw honeys from around the world, there really is no going back – you will start to realize that true raw honey is in so many ways like fine wine, with differences from year to year because of the weather, and amazing variations depending on the climate and the flowers on which the bees feed.
All of this kaleidoscope of flavor, aroma and color is lost when honey is heated, filtered, blended and basically destroyed when it is processed into the ho-hum sweetener that you find in the grocery store. This may be sold legally as honey, but it’s not really honey any more; it’s a fructose/glucose syrup and its soul has been destroyed!
I just read a posting on a forum that made me smile – talking about the difference in aroma between raw honey and regular honey. The writer did a side-by-side test. She described the raw honey as smelling floral and heavenly, but the regular honey as rancid! She even checked several different brands of processed honey and found them all to be the same.
Storing Raw Honey
Your carefully chosen and cherished raw honey will keep very well for years, but most people say use within two years for the best taste. Make sure the honey is in a properly-sealed container so that air cannot get in and oxidize it, and so that water cannot get in which may cause the honey to ferment. Honey is best stored in a cool dark place. It’s also prone to take on aromas from other nearly foods, which is another reason to keep it in a sealed container and not in the open. By the way, the container needs to be something that won’t react with the honey, such as glass or a ceramic material. Metal is a really bad idea as this reacts with the honey and can lead to poisoning. Wooden containers are not a good idea either unless you happen to like the undertone of woodiness that they can impart to the honey.
Because there is no legal definition of what makes a raw honey, any honey can in theory be labeled as “raw” so it can only be regarded as an indication of the real thing. You then need to dig deeper and look for other clues. Look for “unheated”, “unpasteurized”; “unfiltered” – these are good indications of raw honey.
Pesticide-free honey: When buying honey, I also like to find out about the producer’s take on pesticides. Some raw honeys are certified as pesticide-free by independent labs, which has to be a good sign. This basically means that the bees have collected nectar only from flowers that are free of pesticides. The problem is that bees will be bees, and it’s no use telling them to keep away from those flowers with the nasty chemicals, so in practice you will only get pesticide-free honey if the bees are in very remote areas so that all the plants they can reach are not treated with pesticides. As you can imagine, this is a tall order for any honey producer, which makes truly pesticide-free raw honey a very rare and valuable commodity. Even honey that is produced in the U.S. and certified organic by a approved agency, an extreme rarity in itself, can in theory still contain some pesticides because of the wording of the organic guidelines which do not absolutely prevent this. So the bottom line on pesticides is that independent certification of pesticide-free status is your best bet if this is important to you.
Antibiotics: Some producers use antibiotics and chemicals in the beehive, to reduce the chances of disease and infection. Others use natural production methods in the beehive, which means never adding chemicals, artificial products or antibiotics to the hive. Look out for assurances on these points, but understand that honey that is produced naturally takes more labor so you need to accept that you will be paying a higher price. But the real thing is well worth the money several times over, believe me.
By the way, you’ll also see other labels like “Grade A” and “Grade 1″ which may indicate quality in a very broad sense but do not guarantee that you are getting raw honey. The word “pure” is even worse – totally meaningless for assessing honey and you should ignore it.
So, buying genuine raw honey needs a bit of care. Look for a reputable producer; look for assurances about pesticides and antibiotics; look for confirmation that the honey is unheated; look for those little grains of pollen in the jar – and above all, accept that producing raw honey is expensive, so a product that costs very little more than a supermarket brand is unlikely to be the real thing.
A sensible health warning: I just need to give you a little health warning before we finish. Some people are allergic to honey and will react badly when they eat it. If you are concerned about this, see your physician for an allergy test before you eat any. Some diabetics can eat raw honey it seems, without it adversely affecting their blood sugar levels – but if you are in this category PLEASE see your physician before eating honey so you can avoid any risk of harm. The same advice goes to those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Finally, general advice is not to give any honey to children under one year old, as any bacteria that might just be present can affect smaller bodies more seriously.
To finish, I just want to say that true raw honey is my favorite kind, because I know I am getting the best, with all the taste, aroma, vitamins and nutrients just as the bees left them.