The Story of Raw Honey
It comes perhaps as no surprise that our human species has an innate sweet tooth. Although not everyone seeks out the delectable taste of sweet flavors, most of us do fall into this category with some very obvious eating habits.
Having an attraction for sweet flavors, and thus sugars, has been an evolutionary benefit for thousands of years but a huge disadvantage to our population over the past century. As sugar processing became more advanced, and sugar became a cheap commodity, it seemed that it was added to almost every processed food in one or more ways.
We saw health concerns rise, and we know today that high sugar consumption can be related to other health issues like unhealthy weight management, metabolic health, heart health and immune system health. Therefore anyone who becomes health conscious naturally searches for other options. One option is to minimize or eliminate the consumption of processed sugars. The second option is making sure that any isolated sugars consumed come from more natural, beneficial and nutritious sweeteners. This is where raw honey takes the center stage.
What Is Raw Honey?
Raw honey is honey (nectar from flowers) that is pure, unheated, unpasteurized and unprocessed. This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics and health benefits of the final product, as it preserves all the natural vitamins, enzymes, phytonutrients and other nutritional elements. True raw honey is quite different from processed, commercial honey for these main reasons.
Raw honey has been used by humans for at least 10,000 years, and has played a vital role in health, healing, religious and cultural traditions.
Characteristics of Raw Honey
Raw honey can be in liquid or solid (creamed) form when you purchase it. If you purchase raw honey that is in the liquid form, it may crystallize or solidify over time. It can be clear, or opaque, or milky. Its color can vary from white, to various shades of yellow, and even brown. All of these characteristics will depend on the type of flower that the bees retrieved the nectar for the honey from. It is not possible to tell whether a honey is raw or pasteurized based on color, taste or form (liquid or solid) alone. Some honey experts believe that they can detect a pure, raw honey by taste alone, but this will not be the case for most of us.
To be sure that your honey is raw, it must say so on the label. Currently there is no widespread, uniform regulation or certification for raw honey. Words like "untreated" or "unpasteurized" can help, but may still not be indicative of a truly raw product. And it goes without saying that any honey labelled as "pasteurized" is not raw. Additionally, terms like "natural" or "pure" normally have little significance when it comes to knowing if it is actually "raw" honey. Some beekeepers may not necessarily pasteurize their honey, but they may still heat it to some degree. Therefore if we want a truly "raw" product we need to inquire about it specifically. You can for example call the company whose honey you are interested in to learn how they prepare their honey. But better yet, find a local farm or beekeeper whom you can trust when it comes to knowing exactly where the honey comes from and how it is prepared.
In fact, it is most optimal for our health to consume honey from our local area anyway, rather than honey that came from the plants of another area. While non-local, raw honey won't hurt us, local, raw honey will have more benefits for us. There is a growing belief amongst the natural health experts and community that raw honey from local sources is beneficial for helping to treat some health concerns, including immune system health.
It is always best to source out raw, organic honey, but whether your raw honey will be organic or not will greatly vary depending on its source as well. Some experts believe that there is no such thing as truly organic honey, however organic honey certification is available. Beekeepers have to meet stringent production standards and conditions to be certified organic. Raw, organic honey cannot contain any pesticide residues or environmental pollutants. Organic hives also cannot use non-organic honey, sugar, or any antibiotics or pesticides for their bees.
Depending on your source, it is normal for raw honey to contain particles of bee pollen, honeycomb bits and propolis. These in themselves have health benefits which make raw honey sought out for even more health reasons.
Natural Health Benefits of Raw Honey
First and foremost, being a sugar, raw honey most obviously offers a quick source of energy. While this came in very handy to early humans that used this food source, it is more of a drawback to us today, living in a culture of abundant calories.
The main health benefits for which we revere raw honey today come from the unique blend of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other health components that it possesses. The two key beneficial components of truly raw honey are bee pollen and propolis.
Bee pollen in Raw Honey
Bee pollen is a super nutritious compound, containing all the nutrients required by the human body. It is a source of proteins, vitamins, minerals, beneficial fatty acids, carotenoids and bioflavonoids which are helpful to cardiovascular health.
Propolis in Raw Honey
The health benefits and uses—both internal and external—of propolis are too numerous to list here. This, along with some of its other characteristics, makes honey highly sought after. Some benefits of raw honey include supporting immune system health, healthy blood sugar levels already within the normal range, healthy cholesterol levels already within the normal range and more. Raw honey does not ferment in the stomach and can actually be used in supporting digestive system health. Unlike most sugars, raw honey is not known to aggravate a sensitive digestive tract.
Additionally, raw honey is alkaline forming unlike processed honey which is acid forming. For best natural health, our daily food supply should be higher in alkaline forming foods, rather than acid forming foods.
Drawbacks to Raw Honey
It would truly be a sweet thing if there were no disadvantages to purchasing and consuming raw honey, however there are a few that every health- and planet-conscious individual should be aware of:
- Extra Calories – Honey is a fast way to add calories to a meal. 1 tablespoon on average yields 60 calories. Thus, if you are interested in losing weight, or not gaining excess pounds, you have to be careful how much honey you use, and how often. Normally, due to honey’s intensely sweet flavor, it is hard to consume a lot of it at once.
- High Sugar Content – Honey is about 40% fructose and 30% glucose, with the remaining carbohydrates including maltose, sucrose, and other complex carbohydrates. Even though raw honey has been studied in actually aiding insulin regulation, regular or high consumption of any sugar can cause various imbalances.
- Bacterial Contamination – Due to the fact that honey is very low in water content and very high in sugar content, this makes it undesirable for microbial growth. However, in rare cases endospores of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that can cause botulism) have been found. This is normally never a problem for an adult digestive system, but the reason why honey should not be given to infants.
- Animal Welfare – Depending on how the honey bees are housed and maintained, beekeeping can become a controversial animal welfare issue. Some beekeepers have been known to burn or starve the colonies at the end of the season to avoid costs of maintenance out of season. Hence, buying honey from local beekeepers whom you know or companies who practice humane treatment is key when purchasing raw honey.
- Disappearing Bees – Scientific reports show that bee numbers are on a sharp decline and this is naturally troublesome for our future food forecasts. We must remember that bees are responsible for the pollination of most of our plant food crops and without them, we face serious problems. Thus lowering a demand for honey has been proposed as a way to let bees thrive in their own natural habitat. Various chemicals, climate change and electromagnetic radiation are also being investigated in the issue of declining bee numbers.
Is it Safe to Eat Raw Honey?
In the end, raw honey can be both beneficial and damaging to our health and environment. Hence, it all depends on its source and how it is used.
I do not believe in the “everything in moderation” paradigm, so I will not tell you to enjoy it in moderation, but rather to listen to your body and its needs. If you feel that raw honey is something that can benefit your health as a natural health option, search for the right variety to cause minimal environmental damage and get maximum organic foods benefits.
If on the other hand, you can pass on this sweet substance, don’t forget that the beneficial compounds like bee pollen and propolis are available as all natural health supplements as well. Just search your favorite natural health store (like swansonvitamins.com) to find raw honey or the equivalent health supplements online.
Evita Ochel is consciousness expansion teacher and natural health educator. Her diverse passions and talents include being a holistic nutritionist, web TV host, speaker and author of the book “Healing & Prevention Through Nutrition.” Her health oriented teaching and writing focuses on natural, wholesome, plant-based and organic nutrition to achieve optimal health and longevity. Evita is also the founder and editor of several online publications - EvolvingBeings.com and EvolvingWellness.com, as well as the founder of Healthytarian.com - a lifestyle for the well-being of the mind, body and soul. To learn more about her work, visit EvitaOchel.com.
This post was originally published in 2013. It has since been updated and republished.