Disappearing is exactly what bees are doing. We should all be alarmed, not just because honeybees and bumblebees are rather lovely, as is the honey they produce, but because our entire food chain depends on their pollination skills – they pollinate around 90% of our plants and an estimated third of our food crops.
We would also be bereft without honey, truly the food of gods. That might surprise you, coming from me – indeed people often ask me if honey is ok to eat, from a health perspective. After all, it is mainly sugar – over 95% sugar in fact, and I am constantly warning people away from sweet foods. The principal sugar in honey is fructose, also known as fruit sugar. But there is more to honey than sugar – it also contains around 25 different oligosaccharides, prebiotic sugars which feed the essential friendly bacteria in your gut. It also contains small amounts of nutrients, enzymes and polyphenols, important antioxidants. The darker the honey, the more polyphenols it contains.
It is these polyphenols which are believed responsible for honey’s quite remarkable medicinal properties. It has been shown to have anti-bacterial properties, and to inhibit the bacteria which cause gastric ulcers and gastritis, Helicobacter pylori. It also has anti-viral, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour and anti-fungal properties. That’s a lot of properties.
But, what about the sugar, I hear you cry. Well, despite its natural sweetness, most honeys have a low or even very low glycemic index value – they don’t cause fluctuations in blood sugar. That is because the main sugar in honey is fructose, which is first processed by the liver before entering the blood. Ah – but isn’t fructose bad for you? I hear you add. After all, soft drinks sweetened with fructose are known to increase risk of heart disease and increase body fat. Whilst that is true, it is also true that there is a world of difference between a whole food, such as fruit and honey, and something processed and refined, with concentrated fructose added to it. Honey and fruit do not have these negative health effects, and studies have confirmed this. In fact honey has been found to increase HDL cholesterol – often referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol – and lower blood fat levels.
But there is honey, and then there is honey. And if you want to get the health benefits, and save the poor bee (and us) from extinction, here’s what you need to do. First, buy raw, unprocessed honey. Raw honey means it has not been pasteurised, heated or processed, like other commercially produced honey. When honey is pasteurised, pollen is removed and the natural enzymes are destroyed. Second, buy organic honey, or honey from producers you can be sure have not treated the area where their hives are positioned with pesticides. It is these pesticides – specifically, neonicotinoids, which we now know to be responsible for the rapid decline of bee numbers, or colony collapse disorder as it’s known. This pesticide affects the central nervous system of both honeybees and bumblebees and is responsible for an 85% drop in the number of queen bees.
We would all be so much the poorer without the bee – at worst extinct, and at best bereft of this most glorious food.
Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R. & Gallmann, P. (2008) Honey for nutrition and health: A review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 27(6):677-689.
Bahrami, M., Ataie-Jafari, A. & Hosseini, S. et al (2009) Effects of natural honey consumption in diabetic patients: an 8-week randomized clinical trial. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 60(7):618-626.
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