What is honey?

Have you ever wondered what honey really is? How many times have you stopped and thought: "Gosh, I am not really sure what this is, even though I've been consuming this since forever!". Well, that has happened to me many times...

I've been lucky to grow up in a house where we ate honey. Not a lot of honey, but, as far as I remember, we always had a jar in the kitchen. I still remember being at school one day when a biology teacher gave us a class on bees and explained to us what honey really is. I was amazed...the only food produced by insects!

For us at Bee Seasonal it is very important to share with you what we know about this amazing - or should I say: these amazing - foods.

Here we go!

Honey is a viscous, sweet substance produced by bees and other insects, mainly from the nectar of flowers and plants. For bees, honey is a source of energy. In cold weather or when other food sources are scarce, adult and baby bees use stored honey as food. 

Forager bee - What's Raw Honey?Bee foraging for nectar and pollen.

Forager bees collect sugar-rich nectar from plants and store it in their "honey stomachs". In this specialized stomach, bee's digestive enzymes, along with gastric acid, break complex sugars into the simple sugars glucose and fructose. When the forager bee arrives back at the hive it passes this pre-digested nectar to another worker bee. This process is repeated until honey reaches storage quality. Bees place the honey in honeycomb cells which are left unsealed. They then flutter their wings constantly to circulate air and evaporate water from the honey to a content around 17-18%, raising the sugar concentration, and preventing spoilage. The bees then cap the cells with wax to seal them.

 Bee Seasonal Honeycomb

Bees feeding on honey. Note the uncapped and capped cells. Both contain honey.

What is in Raw Honey?

Honey's main components are fructose, glucose, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, organic acids, hormones, esters and so on), polysaccharides and water.

 

Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)

 

Energy 1,272 kJ (304 kcal)
82.4 g
Sugars 82.12 g
Dietary fiber 0.2 g
0 g
0.3 g
Vitamins
Riboflavin (B2)
0.038 mg   (3%)
Niacin (B3)
0.121 mg  (1%)
Pantothenic acid (B5)
0.068 mg   (1%)
Vitamin B6
0.024 mg   (2%)
Folate (B9)
2 μg   (1%)
Vitamin C
0.5 mg   (1%)
Minerals
Calcium
6 mg   (1%)
Iron
0.42 mg   (3%)
Magnesium
2 mg   (1%)
Phosphorus
4 mg   (1%)
Potassium
52 mg   (1%)
Sodium
4 mg   (0%)
Zinc
0.22 mg   (2%)
Other constituents

Water

17.10 g

Main components in honey. Values are approximate. Source: USDA Database Entry.

 

Fructose and glucose (also called dextrose) are simple sugars and fast sources of energy that are absorbed easily and used immediately. Some of the polysaccharides found are maltose and sucrose.

The most common micronutrients found in honey are a small proportion of proteins and their essential building blocks, the amino acids; minerals and trace elements such as iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Even vitamins like vitamin C, B1, B2 and niacin occur in small quantities.

Honey also contains some other substances which impair taste and aroma. These are polyphenols, esters, organic acids, aldehydes and other volatile compounds. We can also find active enzymes which add nutritional value to this amazing food. 

 Bee Seasonal Raw Honey

 

Why do some honeys crystallize?

As we said before, honey is a very concentrated sugar solution. Over time, the sugars will "precipitate out" of the solution. What happens here is that water and sugar naturally separate from each other and the sugars takes a crystal form.

These first crystals then further accelerate the formation of more crystals in a chain reaction called crystallization. 

The speed in which this process occurs depends on a few factors: water content, storage temperature, presence of small particles like beeswax or pollen, processing methods, and the ratio between the sugars present in the honey.

Let me further explain these points:

  • Water Content: The more water you have, the less "saturated" a solution is, which increases crystallization times;
  • Storage Temperature: Crystallization is accelerated in lower temperatures. Keep it at room temperature 25 ˚C (77 ˚F) if you want to avoid crystallization.
  • Presence of small particles: These particles work as "nucleation" sites, triggering the chain reaction and starting the crystallization.
  • Processing methods: Many mass-consumption honeys are heated to 63˚C (145 ˚F) for thirty minutes, or 71 ˚C (160 ˚F) for one minute or so (flash heat) and then quickly cooled at 49- 52 ˚C(120-125 ˚F) for minimization of heat damage. This high temperature keeps honey from crystallizing on the market self for a long period of time. The resulting honey contains very little of the nutritional value of minimally processed or raw honey including amino acids, minerals, vitamins, live enzymes, and antioxidants that are considered essential for good health.
  • Ratio between the sugars: The nectars collected by bees contains different sugars, depending on the plant. Some nectars contain more glucose, some others contain more fructose. The rule is: the higher the glucose to fructose ratio, the faster a honey will crystallize. 
Different Raw Honeys crystallize at different speeds. Not all Raw Honey crystallize. And not all Crystallized Honey is Raw.
If different honeys have different sugars, it is expected that they would crystallize at different speeds. Take a look at the table below with some examples:
Honey Varietal Crystallization Speed
European Acacia Very Slow
Bee Seasonal's Angico Very Slow
Bee Seasonal's Silvestre Very Slow
Bee Seasonal's Aroeira Very Slow
Forest Honey (Pine, Fir and others) Very Slow
Sage Very Slow
Tupelo Very Slow
Basswood Slow
Bell Heather Slow
Buckwheat Slow
Chestnut Slow
Eucalyptus Slow
Bee Seasonal Marmeleiro Slow
Rosemary Slow
Sourwood Slow
Thyme Slow
Alfalfa Rapid
Canola Rapid
Clover Rapid
Lavender Rapid
Mesquite Rapid
Raspberry Rapid
Sunflower Rapid
The reality is, it is very difficult to tell a raw honey from a processed honey only looking at the crystallization. Why? Because even an ultra processed honey which has been over heated, filtered, and has no nutritional value anymore, can be crystallized by force! This is done adding a seed honey, which is an already crystallized honey used to trigger the chain reaction (remember we talked about this "triggering thing" above?)
As consumers we should educate ourselves not only about the natural characteristics of the raw products we consume and the methods used by the industry, but also to identify marketing strategies used to name the finished products. How often have you read labels saying things like: "enzymatic" and "superfood"? What those even mean?
Unfortunately, there is no way on knowing what is the truth just by the label. We need to ask questions and investigate. Let's educate ourselves about the products we like and find out who is behind them.

Honey is Unique

Honey is a wonderful food. It is the most diverse natural sweetener in the world. Think about it, no other natural sweetener can offer as much variety in flavors, colors and aromas like honey..and all of that without adding anything to it!

We are crazy about honey, and we think you should be too!

What do you think?

 

#everyhoneytellsastory

 

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