You’ve probably had an experience something like this: you realize you don’t have all the ingredients you need for a recipe, so you run to the store to pick up some sugar and honey.
You grab the cheapest bag of sugar you can find, and then do the same thing for the honey. (Or maybe you grab that cute honey bear that your mother always kept in the pantry.)
Good decision on the sugar – but a very bad one on the honey. Granulated sugar is a commodity; almost all brands of table sugar are the same.
The types and varieties of honey you can purchase, however, are virtually unlimited. And almost every type of honey varies in its taste, texture and potential health benefits.
That honey bear from the supermarket will do in a pinch. But if you want to enjoy honey to its fullest, it’s worth taking a little time to understand the differences between different types of honey.
Why Supermarket Honey Usually Isn’t the Best Choice
You may have seen a product labeled “raw, unfiltered honey” at a farmer’s market, or at a store like Whole Foods that specializes in natural and organic products. If you just figured that it was just an expensive alternative aimed at crunchy-granola types, or a marketing slogan used to justify higher prices, you were wrong.
Raw, unfiltered honey is a very different – and much better – product than the honey sold at your local supermarket. To understand why, let’s take a quick look at how honey makes it to the shelf.
- Honey bees collect flower nectar and bring it back to their hive.
- The pollen is passed, by mouth, from worker bee to worker bee, with each one adding important enzymes that break down the nectar and add anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
- It’s then stored as simple sugars (primarily fructose and glucose) in the honeycomb, where worker bees fan it with their wings. The air circulation and natural heat cause most of the water in the compound to evaporate, the substance becomes comb honey, and the bees cover it with beeswax.
- Beekeepers or processors extract the honey, and lightly strain it to remove any pieces of beeswax or contaminants (including any insect parts).
Here’s where the details of honey production become extremely important.
- Some producers then take the honey, bottle it, and either sell it themselves or ship it to vendors for sale. This product is raw, unfiltered honey.
- Most producers, though, pasteurize the honey to destroy the yeast it contains, making it smoother and giving it a longer shelf life. They then filter the honey to remove air bubbles and smaller debris not removed during straining; this makes the honey clearer and more attractive to customers, and it helps prevent crystallization on the store’s or the customer’s shelves. This product is the processed honey you see in most stores.However, pasteurization and filtration often remove bee pollen from the honey as well – and since the pollen is responsible for most of honey’s health benefits, those benefits are lost when honey isn’t raw and unfiltered.
- Many producers take the whole process a step further and use what’s called “ultrafiltration,” which makes the honey even smoother, while removing just about all of the pollen and the honey’s nutrients. Unethical companies may even add high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, to increase their yield and reduce their costs. This product may be labeled honey, but it’s really just a honey-flavored sweetener.
So most honey sold in the United States isn’t really what you think it is. Food Safety News did a study of honey sold across the country, and found that 76% of honey from grocery stores contained no pollen at all. Where did they find the “good stuff?” Almost all of it was sold at farmer’s markets, natural food stores and food co-ops. (1)
One more thing: you may be wondering: “What about organic honey?” In truth, it’s almost impossible for any honey producer to guarantee that their honey is organic, because bees – as you probably know – fly. The beekeeper may have a farm full of organically-raised flowers and plants, but there’s no way to know if his bees strayed across his property line to gather nectar from a non-organic plant. There’s nothing wrong with buying organic honey, and its quality is probably better than any honey you’d buy off the shelf. Just don’t be overly impressed by the word “organic” on the label.
That answers our first big question: the type of honey that’s best for you is raw, unfiltered honey.
Differentiating between more than 300 honey varieties, though, requires more information. Read on.
The Many Varieties of Honey
Honey varieties are primarily classified by the type of flower the nectar was collected from. When you see a jar labeled as “eucalyptus honey” or “alfalfa honey,” for instance, that means the nectar source was the flower of the same name. Honey that comes from just one source is called a “unifloral” or “varietal” honey, while it’s known as “multifloral” honey if it’s been produced from the nectar of more than one type of flower.
The texture, sweetness and medicinal/healing properties of honey depend largely on its flower sources. Some honeys have a mild flavor, while others are quite strong. Some are perfect for baked goods, while others are the most delicious varieties to eat straight from the jar. Some are best for wound healing or fighting infection, while others are more useful to treat high blood pressure or sore throats.
The only way to know which is which – is to dive right in.
Clover honey is the most popular variety in America, even though it originally came from New Zealand and Canada. It is floral and sweet, with a bit of a sour aftertaste. Clover honey is now harvested in many areas of the world, and its properties vary somewhat depending on its source; for that reason, some clover honey will be amber in color, while it can also be water white. This honey is delicious for baking, sauces and dressings.
Clover honey has strong antioxidant properties, and contains high amounts of flavonols (believed to support lung and heart function) and phenolic acids (said to support the nervous system).
This all-American honey is produced in a number of Northern states, including New York and Ohio. Its dark brown color tips you off to the fact that it’s strong and full-bodied, making it a popular honey among connoisseurs. It’s a good choice for marinades that have to stand up to flavorful meats, and it’s one of the best honeys for making mead.
Buckwheat honey is very high in antioxidants and is known for its antibacterial power, with some Canadian strains said to be effective against some of the most difficult to treat infections like MRSA. It’s also an excellent choice to treat coughs and sore throats, it’s said to help lower cholesterol levels, and it’s one of the varieties most often used for wound and skin care.
When you picture a perfect jar of honey, acacia honey may come to mind. Its light amber color telegraphs exactly what you’ll experience; it’s very sweet with floral accents and a pure honey flavor that doesn’t alter the taste of tea or oatmeal. One other reason acacia is a popular honey: it is high in fructose and low in glucose, so it’s slow to crystallize on the shelf and one of the few honeys that most diabetics can enjoy without issue.
Acacia honey is another variety that’s high in flavonoids, the antioxidants believed to help fight heart disease and even some forms of cancer. It’s also believed to be effective against a number of resistant bacteria because its ingredients slowly release hydrogen peroxide, an acid that breaks down the bacteria’s cell walls. Some people also use acacia honey as a treatment or preventative for acne and other skin conditions, because of its antibacterial power.
(One note: acacia honey doesn’t actually come from the acacia trees native to Australia and Africa, which produce little or no honey nectar. The honey we call acacia is actually sourced from the black locust tree, sometimes called the “false acacia” tree, a different member of the same plant family. And we’re on the subject of misnomers, be aware that honeydew honey isn’t made from nectar at all; it’s made from the waste products of sap-sucking insects.)
Speaking of antibacterial agents, manuka honey is revered for its power in that area. This rare, dark-colored honey, produced in New Zealand from the flowers of the Tea Tree bush, is favored more for its health benefits than its medicine-y flavor (although some say it’s an acquired taste).
Studies have shown that makuna honey is an extremely effective treatment for wounds, and the FDA has actually approved its use for that purpose. (2) The honey is often used to promote the healing of burns and even diabetic ulcers, because of its antibacterial properties and its ability to maintain a moist, acidic environment conducive to healing while promoting the formation of new cells. Other uses for manuka honey include the reduction of inflammation in IBS and ulcerative colitis patients, those with acne, and potentially, patients with cystic fibrosis. The honey is commonly suggested by naturopathic heaters to treat sore throats and to maintain good oral health.
This is the first multifloral entry on our list, since it can be made from the nectar of many different types of wildflowers. Its color, taste and intensity can vary considerably depending on nectar sources which vary with the seasons, but it’s most often fruity and light.
The health benefits of this variety can also vary, but are primarily the basic antioxidant and cough suppressant effects associated with most types of honey. There is one benefit specific to wildflower honey, though; many believe that consuming it is a good way to fight localized, seasonal allergies often triggered by the wildflowers from which the honey is sourced.
Van Morrison’s popular song from the 1970s (and the album of the same name) alludes to the sweetness of tupelo honey, which may be the sweetest variety you’ll ever taste. It’s also one of the mildest and most expensive honeys in the world. Tupelo is produced in Florida’s and Georgia’s remote swamps, where harvesting it during its brief season of availability requires special equipment and a lot of labor, leading to its high cost. Tupelo honey has a distinctive light amber color with green undertones, and the high fructose content that makes it so sweet and buttery also gives it a very long shelf life before crystallizing. It is a favorite for barbeque sauces, and delicious just drizzled over ice cream.
As with wildflower honey, tupelo honey’s associated benefits are basically the antibacterial and antioxidant effects gained from consuming any type of raw, unfiltered honey.
This popular variety of honey is widely available, originating in Spain and Mexico but now produced in warmer climates like those in Southern California, Texas and Florida. It’s a light, mild honey with a citrus-y taste and fruity aroma – but be careful. Many unscrupulous manufacturers add artificial scents and flavors to orange blossom honey; if it smells too much like perfume when you open it, it’s probably been doctored.
Orange blossom honey is high in a number of natural antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, which also support the body’s immune system. It’s a good addition to any healthy diet, to protect against the free radical damage that can cause chronic illnesses.
Sourwood honey isn’t named after its taste. It takes its name from its source, the sourwood trees of the Southeast and Midwestern United States. This honey actually has a sweet, buttery, slightly spicy taste that’s reminiscent of caramel and a pleasant aftertaste, with a beautiful amber color. It’s delicious as a spread on toast or English muffins.
The health benefits of sourwood honey are similar to other varieties without specific healing properties: it’s a good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that can help maintain overall well-being. And like wildflower honey, it’s believed to help fight allergy symptoms.
Linden honey is primarily produced in Europe, where it’s also known as lime honey; in America it’s also known as basswood honey. No matter what you call it, though, this light-yellow honey is delicate and delicious, with a hint of herbs in its aroma. Linden honey has become rarer over the years, since the tree it comes from is rapidly being harvested for home building. It’s often suggested by naturopaths for colds and bronchitis, and to calm and detoxify the body. It also has some sedative qualities that make it an ideal companion for a cup of before-bed herbal tea.
Most sage honey comes from California, but it’s widely available everywhere. It’s a light-to-moderate colored, mild honey that crystallizes very slowly, so commercial bottlers often blend it with other varieties to prevent those other types of honey from solidifying too quickly. It is believed to be good for digestion, in addition to its natural antioxidant properties.
Originally from Australia but now produced extensively in California, eucalyptus honey smells and tastes just like you’d expect: distinctively herbal and somewhat medicinal, with a hint of menthol. Its color can vary depending on the tree or shrub from which the honey is harvested. It’s a good choice to fight inflammation, help heal wounds – and just as pungent eucalyptus cough drops help with congestion and coughs, it’s a good choice for those fighting colds or the flu.
First of all, avocado honey doesn’t taste like avocados, even though it’s made from the nectar of avocado blossoms. Its texture is somewhat like mashed avocado, but the honey is dark amber in color with a buttery, rich taste that’s great for baking. Avocado honey is a strong antibacterial, and is often used as a skin moisturizer in combination with other ingredients. It’s also used at times to help those with anemia.
This is a great choice for daily consumption at your breakfast table, because it’s a light amber honey with a pleasant, slightly tangy flavor and a bit of a blueberry aftertaste. It’s has good antibiotic properties, and some studies have shown it to be effective in treatment of chronic illnesses.
After trying dandelion honey straight from the jar, you may decide to make it a regular healthy snack – it’s that delicious. This golden honey turns dark amber as it starts to form crystals; it’s fairly strong with some tang to it, with a delightful aroma of spring flowers. You won’t find dandelion honey in many stores, because not much of it is harvested; it’s one of the first honeys produced each year, so many beekeepers leave it in the hive for the bees to feed on. It also crystallizes quickly. Dandelion honey is known for boosting the immune system, as well as helping with bowel and gastrointestinal tract health.
Nearly-clear fireweed honey has become quite popular as an ingredient for grilling and baking, as well as being a great standalone spread because of its complex yet sweet taste. It’s produced in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and is widely available. Its health benefits are similar to many of the other varieties we’ve mentioned, with noteworthy antibacterial properties.