Honey has long been acknowledged for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, with evidence of its harvesting depicted on rock paintings dating back 8000 years. It's the only insect-derived natural product with industrial, nutritional and therapeutic values.
But what does science say about its ability to improve health?
Honey is a combination of nectar and bee regurgitation. It contains at least 181 components, including small amounts of vitamin C and carotenoids, making it one of the best alternative treatments for wound healing, beauty remedies and throat infections, as well as containing nutritious supplements. Depending on the flower nectar where the bees visit, there are more than 300 types of honey in the world. It can be smoky, spicy, fruity or floral, and even as dark as coal.
The Asian rock bees (Apis dorsata) can produce large amounts of honey in comparison to other honey bees. These bees are found mainly in Asia, and are typically 17-20mm long. When they build their hives on tualang trees, located in the northwestern region of Peninsular Malaysia, tualang honey is produced.
Manuka and gelam honey are high in calcium, and may, therefore, be useful in those with osteoporosis [porous bones].
Research has found tualang honey contains anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. Nevertheless, due to the rampant chopping down of tualang trees for development, research on tualang honey is not sustainable, making many researchers turn to other types of honey.
Cinnamon honey contains cinnamaldehyde – a natural chemical that can increase the production of progesterone (female hormone), and decrease the production of testosterone. Therefore, it's most suitable for women undergoing pre-menopausal symptoms. The honey is collected from plantations that grow cinnamon trees.
Manuka honey has become increasingly popular in recent years. Though it's quite expensive, many have splurged on this honey, which is viscous and has a distinctive flavour. The honey is made by bees that forage on the flowers of the manuka bush in New Zealand and some parts of Australia, including Tasmania, and contains a unique ingredient, methylglyoxal, which has specific antimicrobial properties, which is why it's commonly referred to as the "healing honey".
Professor Gan Siew Hua is the head of the School of Pharmacy at Monash University Malaysia. Her team investigated and compared the quality of eight different Malaysian honey types (tualang, sourwood, rubber tree, Borneo, longan, gelam, pineapple and acacia) with Manuka honey.
Manuka honey had the lowest moisture content, indicating its resistance to microbial growth, and a longer shelf-life. Sourwood honey had the most moderate sugar content, making it ideal for people with diabetes.
"Research indicated that sourwood and tualang honey contained the highest concentrations of phenolics and flavonoids, making them the best source of antioxidants,” she said. “Manuka and gelam honey are high in calcium, and may, therefore, be useful in those with osteoporosis [porous bones],” she said.
“Rubber tree honey is rich in iron, making it more suitable for anaemics. Besides, rubber tree honey contains high amounts of zinc, which may be useful for wound healing, acne or eczema, and prostate health.
Honey is a staple in many kitchens, and if appropriately stored, is the only food that will never rot.
"A report stated that honey collected beside highways and railway tracks contains high lead [Pb] levels, suggesting honey can be a good indicator of environmental pollution. Fortunately, none of the investigated Malaysian honey samples contained heavy metals in high amounts, or were contaminated with pesticide residues.”
A substance known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) is an important parameter when measuring honey's purity and freshness. It's released during overheating, poor storage and in old honey.
In Professor Gan’s study, honey samples that were stored for more than 12 months indicated a higher level of HMF than the recommended value. For this reason, it can be stable for decades, and even centuries.
Honey is a staple in many kitchens, and if appropriately stored, is the only food that will never rot. It's best stored in glass jars.
"If stored in plastic containers, the container can leach chemicals [plasticisers] into the honey, which can be detected in minute concentrations.”
The benefits of beekeeping
As much as honey is loved, and even though we have intricately weaved our survival with bees, it's still common to be afraid of them. Bee stings can sometimes be life-threatening, but despite this, beekeeping has become a hobby for many individuals, who later grow their passion into full-time businesses.
Research conducted on beekeepers showed that they tend to have longer telomeres – the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protects our chromosomes from deterioration – which could be the result of constant exposure to bee stings. Telomere length is associated with life expectancy.
A report has also shown that continuous consumption of bee products for at least a year increased telomere lengths by about 0.258kb. Besides promoting longevity, "bee stings contain a substance called melittin, which can lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels", said Professor Gan.
"Bee glue, better known as propolis, is produced by honey bees from substances collected from parts of buds, plants and exudates. It can improve memory, has anti-cancer properties, and is useful in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Overall, while further research is required, it's safe to say that honey and its products show vast unexplored potential," Professor Gan said.
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