Should we pay more for raw honey?
An extreme interpretation of raw honey is honey straight from the hive that is kept as close as possible to the way the bees made it so it is unprocessed, unfiltered, unheated, unstrained, crystallised. The most important point to note is that there is no universal standard for raw honey so what you get can vary considerably depending on the brand you chose. At Natural South we needed to know more. With confusing information out there and the extra expense associated with raw honey we wanted to get to the bottom what does raw really means, what is really best for us, and should we be taken in by the claims behind raw honey? We took a journey to understand more and have brought you our findings to help you make a better choice.
What is raw honey?
Bees make honey from nectar that is produced by flowers to attract and tempt bees. Bees gather the nectar from the flowers and whilst they are collecting they get covered in pollen which they then transport from plant to plant. This passing around of pollen enables plants to reproduce and it is a good food source for bees. Pollen is found in honey and tests will identify the floral source of the honey and the geographical location of the hive.
Next, bees take the nectar (about 80% water and 20% sucrose) back to the hive where it is converted to raw honey (about 80% sugar and 20% water) by adding an enzyme and leaving it to dehydrate. Raw honey is stored in honeycomb which is made from beeswax. Raw honeycomb is then simply removed from the hive.
From here things start to vary considerable when it comes to purchasing raw honey.
Mass produced honey brands are often pasteurised, filtered and blended. This is often known as table honey and it is the other extreme to raw honey. Table honey is basically highly processed so it becomes just a natural form of sugar with all the goodness stripped out. This is an option if you are looking for a low cost food sweetener but it is no good if you are looking a food with more nutritional value.
The degree of heat and filtration are two of the many factors contributing to the differences in quality between the various brands, whether it is claiming to be raw or processed to some degree.
Honey like milk can be pasteurised which means bacteria and other microorganisms are destroyed by subjecting the honey to high temperatures for a sustained amount of time. However, versus milk, honey is antibacterial and does not go off. So why is it done? The main reason is to stop the it crystallising which is caused by the honeys yeast content. Yeast is destroyed with pasteurisation leading to a clear, liquid honey. However, the down side is that pasteurisation can destroy the enzyme that is responsible for producing Hydrogen Peroxide in honey which is the main component that gives its antibacterial properties.
Honey is naturally a crystallised product and so in order to just pack it into jars it needs to be liquefied. When carried out by an adept supplier this can be done safely and effectively to retain the flavour and benefits of the honey. To put it in perspective, honey production in the hives takes place in summer and so a good manufacture will ensure the heating temperatures will not reach much above the natural summer time temperatures reached in the hive anyway.
Some brands will filter their product to remove impurities such as dead bees, bee legs and wax particles. As long as the process of filtration retains the pollen levels and only removes the impurities the honey remains intact. Avoid fine filtration products but don’t be scared to avoid filtration all together.
So is raw honey better for you?
The benefits of raw honey is that retains more of its flavour and natural properties – anti bacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic and also retains pollen and phytonutrients from the plants. The health benefits associated with honey are lost to, to varying degrees, during processing.
However, from this article we hope that we have demonstrated that a label of ‘raw honey’ can vary considerably as there is no standard for this product. Therefore, raw honey does not necessarily mean quality. Instead of relying on the label of ‘raw honey’ the best advice we can offer is to make sure you know how the honey is processed by a brand before buying. Ensure the processes used have not caused heat damaged and any filtration has retained pollen so that the floral source can be validated. UMF is New Zealand is a good indicator of quality that exists today. Check out our article on the top 10 manuka honey brands here.