I love honey. The kind that is worth relishing. Bursting with caramel notes or honey which has dark, smoky overtones and even the one with a floral finish. The flavours are heavenly more like a sweet boon. But you may not feel the same way, if you've been picking up the ordinary jar of honey that lines grocery shelves. Such a pity.
The buzz about bees
Honey is nature's most interesting sweetener and true honey will always surprise you with its scent, taste and colour which reflect the flora from where the bees collect their nectar. The beauty of it is that the result is always up to nature and more so, when bees are allowed to express the uniqueness of their surroundings in honey. For instance, the flavour of honey collected from bee boxes on a mustard plantation will be very different from the robust wild forest honey extracted from natural hives. But a lot of the flavour and quality of honey depends on how carefully it is handled after being procured.
Raw honey is the most original sweet liquid you will find. It is collected fresh after being produced by honeybees with the nectar they sip from flower blossoms. It is unheated, unpasteurized and unprocessed. This is not too difficult to understand as the word 'raw' clearly indicates being 'uncooked'. Sonia Sharma, Certified Nutritionist and Founder of Nature Organic who sources raw honey from the Himalayan foothills tells me that honey in its raw state still has the essential prana or life force which is found in every other raw food.
What is so special about raw honey?
"According to Ayurveda, it is this energy that gives raw honey its intense flavour. It is the purest form of nectar that has come out of the flowers and is just so potent. You'll know the difference when you taste it. It leaves a slight tingle in your throat unlike regular honey which has no flavour or texture and is plain sweet. In the Charaka Samhita, an ancient text on Ayurveda, it has been written that raw honey which has been aged for a year has amazing therapeutic and detoxifying properties. The natural nutrients are known to rejuvenate the cells in the body. A lot of scientific studies have shown that applying heat to raw foods changes their molecular structure and in the process they may lose this life force," she explains.
In its pure form, raw honey contains all the enzymes, antioxidants and minerals most of which are destroyed on being treated with heat and more often than not, replaced with synthetic material to undertake mass production and give it a shelf life. Many of the beautiful, golden bottles sitting on supermarket shelves contain commercial honey that has been pasteurized (heated at about 70 degree Celsius followed by rapid cooling). This makes it easy to filter, handle and package and gives the liquid a cleaner and smoother finish but a lot is lost in the process. Honey is made up of more than 70% sugars, less than 20% water and trace minerals. Think about it - Honey travels from the farms to the middlemen to one factory for processing and then another factory for packaging and by the time it reaches the stores all that is left are glucose and fructose plus added preservatives and stabilizers. The same old story of big business interests making it hard to maintain quality may leave a bad taste in the mouth.
“It was about four years ago that a person from Noida shared with me that he sells low-quality honey for Rs. 15 per kg to certain brands that use it to mix with their product to increase the volume and reduce the price. Thereafter, I visited the forests in Uttaranchal where a family of farmers have been involved in bee-keeping for generations and witnessed how real honey is made. You are not allowed inside the forest to prevent any form of contamination, but I have been told by the farmers that they place the bee hive in a spinning container and while it spins the honey falls off the comb and sticks to the walls from where it is scooped and delivered to us,” shares Manav Chaddha, Co-Founder, Organica.
The thing about honest, real honey is that it not really ‘pure' literally. “The raw honey that we source from the forest is filtered manually and no machinery or heat is used at any step. This is why you may find bee pollen or some fibers still in our honey but they don't really pose a problem to your health and also the colour or texture may be slightly different every time because honey is obtained through a natural process that we cannot control. We add nothing to it – no artificial flavours or synthetic sugar. In fact, the farmers having been eating unfiltered honey for years now but that is little understood by the public. Sadly, the only qualities of honey that we refer to is that it should be smooth, shiny and sweet. But, that's not the case and when commercial honey looks and tastes the same each time, it raises doubts because it is far from what raw, natural honey would be,” says Manav.
Unfiltered raw honey, which you get directly from the bee farm, does contain fine crystals and flecks of bee pollen, honeycomb bits and even broken bee wing fragments since it is extracted and cleaned by hand. It is cloudier, has high levels of antioxidants and crystallizes to a thick consistency very soon. Raw honey is alkaline in nature (unlike processed honey) which simply means that it does not ferment in the stomach and can be used neutralize acid indigestion.
Back in the 1800s, honey came in a comb packed in a wooden box. Honey stored in the honeycomb was the purest, rawest form of honey. And there was no other alternative. As time went by, several things changed. Food safety laws were tightened and the natural honey that people had been eating for so many years was not considered safe anymore. Unfortunately, we lost a real treat. Today, suppliers of raw honey, keeping the needs and health of the consumers in mind, may only warm it slightly to allow the honey to flow for bottling and filter it to remove the unwanted particles.
Crystallization is a good thing
The crystallization of honey is actually a trait of pure, natural honey. During crystallization the glucose sugar in honey separates from the water and turns into white crystals because it is an over-saturated sugar solution. The process of crystallization is known to preserve certain characteristics of your honey like flavour and quality. “People believe that crystallized honey has gone bad but honey never expires. If it is stored in a cool and dry place, it will naturally crystallize in a few months. Just place the jar in hot water for a few minutes and it will regain its original texture. The one that doesn't may have chemicals to increase its shelf life or the one that crystallizes partially at the bottom may be adulterated,' adds Manav.
The recent controversies are a reflection of how food-safety procedures unfold in India and that adulteration is common. Honey can be easily adulterated with glucose solution or high-fructose corn syrup and ingredients you may never know. It's best to do your due diligence before buying and not always trust what you see. A simple trick that I use to check the quality of honey is to put some in a glass of water. Pure honey should remain solid and not dissolve when submerged in water.
Well-known raw food guru David Wolfe, in his book – ‘Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future', talks about raw honey being ‘nature's richest source of live healing enzymes and that it increases reflexes, mental alertness and even IQ!' He suggests that all honeys should be eaten raw as cooked honey has no enzymes and wherever possible select organic honey packaged in glass.