Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the benefits of raw honey: it’s great for your immune system, it can help with allergies, it’s chock full of vitamins. But I wasn’t sure exactly what raw honey was, or what the difference was between raw honey and the honey you buy at the grocery store. So, armed with my curiosity, my sweet tooth and a boyfriend with terrible fall allergies, I learned more about raw honey and why it’s so good for your health.
Generally speaking, the basic difference between raw honey and “regular” honey is the way it’s processed. Raw honey has not been heated to high temperatures in order to achieve the golden, syrupy look we’re used to. Some people think that this heating, also called pasteurization, is necessary to make the honey fit for human consumption, as it kills bacteria and filters out bits of pollen and other debris.
But proponents of raw honey disagree that pasteurization is necessary, or even helpful. Some raw honey is filtered, too, but usually minimally. Margaux J. Rathbun, a Certified Nutritional Therapy practitioner, explained why raw honey is so great for our bodies:
Just like most foods that are processed or pasteurized, liquid honey loses a lot of its beneficial nutrients when it undergoes a heating process. Raw honey is loaded with nutrients like energizing B vitamins and immune-boosting vitamin C. It contains antibacterial and antioxidant properties, helping fight off free radicals in your body and keeping your immune system strong.
Raw honey can also reportedly help with burns, wound healing, and respiratory problems. Dr. Peter Molan, a professor of biochemistry at Waikato University in New Zealand, said, “The remarkable ability of honey to reduce inflammation and mop up free radicals should halt the progress of skin damage like it does in burns, as well as protecting from infection setting in…there are very good grounds for using honey as a therapeutic agent of first choice.”
The anecdotal evidence from raw honey devotees is overwhelming. In fact, even some vegans have decided to use it (technically it’s an animal product, so it shouldn’t be included in a vegan diet). Vicki Chelf, the creator of Vicki’s Vegan Kitchen, says the health benefits of raw honey are worth compromising her vegan diet: she eats honey every day in her soy latte.
Almost everyone I spoke to discussed the reported benefits of eating local honey as a way to combat allergies, too. Holistic nutritionist Andrea Palen commented:
The idea behind eating honey as a remedy for allergies is kind of like gradually vaccinating the body against pollen allergens, a process called immunotherapy. Honey contains a variety of the same spores that give allergy sufferers so much trouble when the seasons change. Introducing these spores into the body in small amounts by eating honey might make the body more accustomed to their presence and decrease the chance of an allergic immune response.
And if raw honey contains a higher amount of the pollen used by the bees to make the honey, it might be a better bet to help you stop sneezing up a storm. Expert beekeeper and the volunteer mentor-in-chief of NYC Beekeeping Jim Fischer says, “The good news is that a jar of honey is the cheapest thing one could buy for one’s allergies, and it certainly can’t hurt. ”
If you want to buy raw honey, how can you recognize it? Palen told me:
“Raw honey is characterized by fine textured crystals and has a milkier look to it. It is solid at room temperature and might contain particles of bee pollen, propolis and honeycomb. You should be suspicious if a honey that is marketed as “raw” is clear and runny – it’s likely that this honey has been heated and filtered and is not truly raw.”
Not all raw honey looks milky or cloudy, though; there are a range of different filtering practices for beekeepers and honey producers. But Fischer emphasizes that lots of beekeepers claim their honey is “raw,” when the use and definition of that term hasn’t been widely agreed upon in the national community of beekeepers. He cautions, “The easiest one-step way to make sure that one is buying good honey is to get to know your local beekeepers, and buy only from local beekeepers. But ”raw” is a term that is reluctantly used by ethical beekeepers.” You can check the label for the word raw, but it’s also good to ask whoever is behind the counter if they have any more information on the honey’s source.
It’s likely that raw honey isn’t sold at your local grocery store; in fact, a 2011 study found that many brands of honey sold in conventional stores don’t even contain any pollen. If you want to go raw, look for honey at your local health foods store, at a farm stand, or at a farmer’s market.
Photo: My own