We’re sure you’ve heard of buckwheat. There’s a good chance you’ve had buckwheat pancakes, too.
But do you have any idea what buckwheat is?
Don’t feel bad if you guessed that it was a grain. Most people don’t have any clue that even though buckwheat has “wheat” in its name, it’s nothing like wheat. It’s really a fruit seed that grows on a plant, and is usually just eaten as a grain.
Buckwheat is a “pseudocereal,” one of a group of unrelated foods that includes quinoa and chia. Their name comes from the fact that they can used as cereals, or be ground and used as flour. In truth, the buckwheat plant is related to rhubarb and sorrel.
That’s all interesting, but none of it really matters when it comes to buckwheat honey. What’s important is that the honey that’s produced from the nectar of the buckwheat plant is very distinctive, quite delicious and good for your health.
What Makes Buckwheat Honey Special
When you pick up a jar of honey, you probably expect it to be sweet-tasting and light amber in color. That certainly doesn’t describe buckwheat honey, because it’s one of the darker honeys produced and it has a strong flavor, looking and tasting nothing like more-common varietals like wildflower honey or orange blossom honey.
In fact, many have compared this dark honey to molasses or even a dark roast coffee – somewhat sweet, but with an earthy, nutty and robust punch. (Some describe the taste as malty or caramel-like rather than earthy, but it’s still very different than the flavor delivered by the light types of honey.) Depending on where it’s sourced it can also have a bitter taste and a grassy or musty aftertaste, but most jars of this honey simply taste clean and strong.
You’ll sometimes see dark amber buckwheat honey with a red tinge, but more often it has a color that’s anywhere from black to dark purple. That’s because most buckwheat flowers are dark-colored, making their nectar and the honey produced from it similarly dark. Buckwheat flourishes in northern climates which are moist and cool, found naturally in countries like Russia, China, and a number of European nations and Canadian provinces. In the United States, it’s cultivated primarily by beekeepers in New York, Ohio and Minnesota.
Buckwheat honey certainly isn’t rare, but it isn’t produced in the same large quantities as honey varieties like clover because of buckwheat’s shorter flowering season, as well as the fact that the plant’s small flowers lead to a smaller yield of nectar and honey.
In short, this is a connoisseur’s honey – not necessarily for everyone, but highly-valued for its strong nutty flavor, and its many health benefits. We’ll check out those benefits shortly.
Buckwheat Honey in the Kitchen and in the Diet
If you give it a try, you’ll find that buckwheat honey marries extremely well with many foods. Its taste and thick texture make it an ideal substitute for maple syrup, perfect for drizzling over pancakes and French toast. It’s wonderful in marinades and barbecue sauces. It provides a tangy counterpoint when topping sweet desserts like ice cream or frozen yogurt, it adds an entirely new dimension to biscuits, breads, and can stand up to the flavors of strong cheeses like goat or blue cheese. It’s even used by many brewers when making beer or mead.
As with most honeys, there’s little nutritional value in buckwheat honey; while it’s gluten-free, it’s also carb-heavy thanks to all of its natural sugars (more fructose than glucose, which means it’s slower to crystallize than lighter varieties). On the bright side, it does contain more iron, magnesium, zinc and copper than most honey varietals. Buckwheat honey is a “healthier” replacement for sugar, but contains enough carbs and calories that it should be consumed in moderation.
It brings a unique flavor to foods and quite a few people enjoy it straight from the jar, but the real benefits of buckwheat honey are health-related. We’ll take a deeper look at that next.
Health Benefits of Buckwheat Honey
When you have a bad cough, you usually reach for the cough medicine. Studies show, however, that you might be better off reaching for a jar of buckwheat honey.
Research (and widespread experience) documents the fact that this honey is particularly effective in treating coughs in children under the age of 18. One study compared the results of treating children with dextromethorphan cough syrups and treating them with buckwheat honey, and the honey vastly outperformed the cough medicines in reducing the severity and frequency of coughs, allowing the children to sleep peacefully. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends buckwheat honey as a first-line treatment for coughs in children. (1)
There’s a good reason for the honey’s effectiveness in treating coughs and sore throats. Dark honeys like buckwheat and manuka have been scientifically shown to contain more antioxidant compounds than light varieties, and buckwheat is the best of the bunch with more antioxidants and macronutrients than any other varietal. Some experts even claim there are as many antioxidants in buckwheat honey as there are in many vegetables and fruits celebrated for their antioxidant properties. (2)
High levels of polyphenols, in particular, make it a good weapon against high cholesterol and high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and anemia. And the antioxidants work to fight the damage that free radicals do to the body over time by boosting the immune system. That makes buckwheat honey a regularly-used treatment for gastric distress, infections, and (believe it or not) even radiation sickness.
Another use for this honey is in the treatment of wounds and burns, as study results and anecdotal evidence show that buckwheat honey (like other dark honeys) stops the growth of bacteria and fungus in wounds by absorbing excess water on the skin. That’s the same reason that buckwheat honey shows promise as a skin care treatment.
There’s one important caveat to add. Almost all of the health benefits of buckwheat and other honeys are dependent on using unfiltered, raw honey and not the highly-processed versions found in grocery stores. When raw honey is pasteurized and heavily filtered, it has a longer shelf life and crystallizes more slowly – but most of the important components in the honey are lost. Pollen and propolis (the “bee glue” produced by honeybees during the beekeeping and honey making process) are naturally contained in raw honey, and they’re responsible for the medical benefits of honey. Filter them out, and you’re removing the health reasons to consume honey.
(One other reason not to buy processed buckwheat honey: some unscrupulous producers add artificial sweeteners like corn syrup to their honey, simply to bulk up their output and make more money.)
When shopping for buckwheat honey, look for products that specify “raw, unfiltered buckwheat honey.” You can find some on Amazon, but you’ll do better shopping at your local farmers’ markets or organic health food stores.