I ran to my pantry after reading a report in Food Safety News (FSN) for which researchers tested more than 60 jars, jugs and plastic bears of honey to see which products contained pollen. The point? It’s the pollen in honey that makes it identifiable as honey…and it’s the pollen that is responsible for many of honey’s health benefits.
The label on my jar said clover honey and did not specify whether the product contained pollen. But it probably didn’t—because most don’t. In fact, among the “honeys” in the FSN report, 76% from grocery stores, 77% from big-box stores (such as Costco and Walmart) and 100% from drugstores did not contain pollen.
The no-pollen problem: I contacted honey expert Ronald Fessenden, MD, MPH, coauthor of The Honey Revolution: Restoring the Health of Future Generations, who told me, “The pollen contains numerous amino acids, antioxidants and other compounds that enhance the healthful qualities of honey. Without the pollen, you cannot definitively prove that honey is honey, nor can you identify its source.”
So why would sellers strip out the pollen? Because many consumers want “pretty” products, which in the case of honey means clear, light and smooth. Dr. Fessenden explained that unprocessed honey tends to crystallize within a month or so, becoming more solid, darker and cloudier. To prevent this, packagers use a microfiltering process. This involves heating honey to 160° or higher, blending multiple honeys (including imported products), then forcing the honey through a series of microfilters to remove all particulate matter—including the pollen—that could increase crystallization and reduce shelf life. Even organic honeys may be filtered this way (though many are not) because the organic label indicates only that the product meets organic labeling standards in its country of origin.
A more insidious reason for removing pollen is that this makes it impossible to track the honey’s source. So the super-clear honey you see at the store could come from a country with less strict food-safety standards—and may even contain illegal antibiotics or other contaminants, according to the FSN report.
How real honey boosts health: Much of the research on honey’s health effects has been done on raw, unprocessed honey. Eating honey can…
- Stabilize blood sugar levels. Due to the way honey is metabolized and stored in the liver as glycogen, it provides a primary energy source for the brain, kidneys and red blood cells at times when demands are high (such as during exercise) or blood glucose is low (for instance, during sleep). Also, because honey does not stimulate as rapid a release of insulin as other sugars do, it is the “sweetener of choice for people with diabetes,” said Dr. Fessenden.
- Improve sleep patterns and promote restorative sleep when consumed at bedtime. By preventing or reducing the release of stress hormones that occurs when liver glycogen stores are depleted, honey helps you sleep longer and more restfully. It also restores frequency and duration of the REM (dream-stage) sleep that typically diminishes with age, Dr. Fessenden explained.
- Reduce metabolic stress—which translates to a reduced risk for conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, thyroid disease, even Alzheimer’s disease.
- Enhance immune system function.
- Reduce gastrointestinal symptoms from ulcers and stomach acid problems.
- Increase antioxidant levels in the blood.
- Help control appetite due to its effects on appetite-regulating hormones.
Since I’m an allergy sufferer, I asked Dr. Fessenden whether the pollen in raw honey could worsen my hay fever. He said it was unlikely because the pollen in honey is heavy and sticky—the type that requires pollinators (such as honeybees) to disperse. In contrast, people with hay fever typically react to light, airborne pollens from grasses and trees, which are dispersed by wind. That is also why consuming local honey probably does not really “treat” allergies—though honey’s positive effects on the immune system may result in marked improvement in allergy symptoms.
For the healthiest honey: You can get raw honey from health-food stores or local farmers’ markets or beekeepers. Or check labels for the words “raw and unfiltered” or for information about the honey’s origin—the more info there is, the more likely that nothing has been removed. Dr. Fessenden noted that honey is still considered raw when heated to no more than 110° (about the maximum temperature of the beehive) and filtered just enough to remove bee parts and honeycomb bits, leaving the pollen mostly intact.
Store honey in a covered glass container at room temperature. “Honey lasts forever—it is one food that never spoils,” Dr. Fessenden said. If it crystallizes, you can place the jar in a “bath” of warm water until the crystals dissolve. Do not microwave honey.
To enjoy: Stir a spoonful of honey into yogurt or tea…use it to top toast or cereal…or savor a spoonful solo. At 64 calories per tablespoon, raw honey is slightly more caloric than white sugar (with 48 calories per tablespoon) but tastes much sweeter. If you’re watching your weight, limit yourself to one to three tablespoons of honey per day. Otherwise, Dr. Fessenden recommended three to five spoonfuls daily—in the morning with breakfast, before and/or after exercising and at bedtime. A pleasurable prescription, indeed!