We all like honey. Many of us eat it on pancakes, in tea, or on ice cream at every opportunity, but is it real honey?
Mankind has been eating honey since the early Egyptians and probably for some time before that. It could be called the most natural of foods, and one of the more simple foods. Honey consists only of sugar and water with most of the sugar being fructose and glucose. There are traces of enzymes, pollen, acids and antioxidants. Most important is that honey contains minute traces of the flavor of the flower nectar. It is this flavor that attracted the bee to the flower in the first place. Now more concentrated, these flavor molecules are what gives honey its distinctive taste. Honey will not ferment or spoil, and is resistant to mold.
Bees collect nectar from flowers for food. The field bees feed it to other bees including the queen, but bees are frugal. They intentionally collect more nectar than they need for food. Excess nectar goes into a second stomach. There enzymes convert the sugars to fructose. The bee regurgitates this processed nectar into the honey comb. Other bees stand over the open honey comb cells and fan the liquid with their wings to evaporate off excess water. Once it has evaporated to the correct concentration, worker bees seal the cell with a wax cap. It is the high concentration of sugars that keeps bacteria and molds from growing in Honey.
As many of you know, I keep bees. I started two years ago when my garden suffered from insufficient pollination. Last year I purchased a centrifuge and began selling my honey. There are two ways to extract honey from the comb. One can mash up the comb and filter out the honey. That is a lot of work, and very messy. A much more practical way is to use a centrifuge. Most beekeepers fill their hives with frames that encourage the bees to build the comb in the frame and then fill it with honey. The beekeeper only has to cut or scratch off the caps from the honey comb cells and centrifuge the frame. The centrifuge spins the frame so that centrifugal force draws the honey out of the cells.
The first time I used my centrifuge, I harvested about ten pounds of honey, and in the process, made quite a mess. I could not resist licking my honey covered fingers. Yum. Tastes great. Since then I have improved my technique so that more of the honey goes into the jars for sale, but that first time gave me plenty of opportunity to taste the wares as I worked.
That day, my wife had gone on a retreat with the women of our church. As the sun started to set, I busied myself with cleaning up the equipment. When I finished I drove over to my favorite New Mexican Restaurant. Here in New Mexico, all New Mexican meals are served with sopapillas as desert. A sopapilla is a batter made of flour and baking powder that is deep fried. The carbon dioxide from the leavening inflates the food as it cooks. What makes a sopaiba good is that is is served with honey. I picked the honey container off the table and squirted on some honey. I took a bite, and yuck! Sure it tasted sweet, but the honey certainly was not as tasty as what I had licked off my fingers that afternoon.
I began to congratulate myself for great tasting honey. Then I realized that the problem was with the honey on the table. It just did not taste like honey. That stimulated me to read labels and do other research. It turns out that much of the honey we consume has been diluted with other sugar solutions. Most commonly, honey is diluted with high fructose corn syrup, but often molasses, regular corn syrup and even concentrated sugar (sucrose) water can be used. Some, but not all, honey bottles will list any adulterant on the label. Most simply label it honey and allow the consumer to believe they are eating the real thing. On a different night my wife and I were eating at a restaurant that serves the honey in little pouches. I noticed the pouch did not even say honey. Instead, the label read “Sopapilla Syrup”. The ingredients listed high fructose corn syrup before it listed honey.
As a producer of honey, I am biased, but the taste tells all. Honey flavors vary with the types of flowers the bees visit, but all pure honeys have a much more robust flavor than the “counterfeit” honeys. Corn syrups and concentrated sugar solutions are sweet, but have no “nectar flavor”. Nor do they have the traces materials mentioned above. I label my honey as “Local Honey” with my geographic location and zip code. I also attach a nutrition label for pure honey.
Some beekeepers label their honey “Pure Honey”. Both local honey and pure honey consist of honey straight from the centrifuge. There is no processing except that it has been strained to remove pieces of wax. You can’t get much better than that. The difference between local and pure is that pure honey may come from any location while local honey comes from a specific geographic location.
In a later post, I will discuss local honey. Many people use it as a treatment of their allergies. Others prefer the local honey for taste. For example, my hives are within half a mile of the open range where sage brush grows. My bees return to the hive with pollen baskets full of dark orange pollen characteristic of sage pollen. This contributes to the flavor of the honey my bees produce.
If you want the best of flavor, buy either pure honey or local honey. It may cost a little more, but the taste alone is worth it. If you really want to be sure, buy it from a beekeeper or from a market that sells honey from one or more local beekeepers. Most independent beekeepers will label their products with their name or at least with their geographic location.
(Reynold Conger is an author. Please visit his author page, ReynoldConger.com.)