We all know bees make honey, but you may be surprised to learn that honey harvesting dates back 8,000 years and, over the millennia, honey has been used as everything from an antimicrobial and wound healer to a much-loved sweetener.

Busy bees

Honey starts as flower nectar collected by bees, and it is stored as simple sugars inside the honeycomb. The design of the honeycomb and constant fanning of the bees’ wings evaporate moisture. On average, a hive produces about 65 harvested pounds of honey each year. Beekeepers harvest it by collecting the honeycomb frames and scraping off the wax cap that bees make to seal off honey in each cell. Once the caps are removed, a centrifuge spins the frames, forcing honey out of the comb.

Sweet options

The color and flavor of honey depend on the source of the nectar. Honey made from orange blossom nectar might be light in color, whereas honey from wildflowers might have a dark amber color, and they will have different flavors and aromas. There are more than 300 unique types of honey in the U.S., plus several forms of each. Liquid honey in a bottle is most common, but honey can also come in the honeycomb, whipped, spun, churned and crystallized.

Whatever the form, the nutrient content of honey remains the same. Honey provides 17 grams of carbohydrate (fructose and glucose) per tablespoon. While honey also provides small amounts of several vitamins, none are present in large enough amounts to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label. Honey also contains small amounts of antioxidants, which are linked back to the nectar.

Research suggests that not only might honey act as an antimicrobial, but it may have protective effects against diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Because the makeup of natural honey is not consistent, its health effects can vary greatly. However, there are medicinal grade honeys, such as manuka honey, produced specifically for its healing properties, which have more consistently proven benefits.

Is it real?

Tests have shown that most honey has gone through ultrafiltration to remove the pollen and provide a clearer liquid product. Whether the pollen has any health benefits isn’t clear, but the only way to be sure you’re getting pure honey without the pollen filtered out is to buy honey from a local beekeeper. There have been cases in the past of honey adulterated with sweeteners. However, the Food and Drug Administration has since defined “honey,” so whether it’s sold in glass or plastic, or purchased at the grocery store or farmers’ market, if the ingredient label says “pure honey,” nothing was added.

Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D.