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Summer Food Series: Honey

I love talking about the history and origin stories of the foods I write about in this space, and honey probably has the richest history of any food I’ll cover.

Every current major religion, in addition to that of the ancient Greeks, features honey in its origin story somewhere along the way. It was said to be the preferred food and the primary nourishment of Zeus himself.

It’s unknown how far back honey collection and consumption dates, but cave paintings in Spain dating back over 8,000 years clearly depict the activity. The ancient Egyptians, who were ahead of their time in many ways, used honey both as a sweetener and as an embalming agent. Beekeeping was so prevalent in ancient Greece that Athens had to keep laws to regulate the practice.

Honey pops up in countless aspects of cultures worldwide. To give just one example, if you know anyone named “Melissa,” their name comes from the Greek word for “bee,” which comes from the Hittite word for “honey” (the Hittites lived around 4,000 years ago).

If we’re going to discuss honey, it’s probably necessary to touch on beekeeping. Without beekeeping, our access to honey would be limited to finding and pillaging wild hives, a bad idea for numerous reasons. There are many types of bees, but only honey bees produce surplus honey that we can access and harvest; so, when we talk about beekeeping, it’s honey bees that we’re referencing. A thriving honey bee hive can produce up to 100 pounds of honey annually. Bees can be kept by anyone from backyard hobbyists all the way up to more industrial operations. The challenges of beekeeping, however, are numerous, and there are many threats to the ongoing existence of honey bees and other pollinators. Another blog post – actually, probably an entire website – could easily be devoted to beekeeping, pollination, and environmental considerations, but I’ll keep my focus on the honey for now.

Bees produce honey by harvesting nectar from flowers and storing it in the wax comb of the hive. The source of the nectar for a particular type of honey can often be identified by the flavor. Clover honey is common, but the variations are endless. Depending on the nectar source, honey can vary greatly in color and flavor intensity.

Can people make honey? Kind of, but it lacks certain characteristics of true honey and requires time and energy that is unrealistic in comparison to the efficiency (and flavor) of naturally produced honey from honey bees.

The nutritional properties of honey are pretty simple, although they’re likely to vary slightly depending on the nectar source for the honey. Honey is, for the most part, sugar, although it is even a bit sweeter than table sugar. It does differ from table sugar in that it’s likely to contain some amount of trace minerals such as manganese. Honey and sugar affect blood sugars similarly, despite some rumors that honey is advantageous in this regard.

There’s lots of “buzz” (pun intended) about the non-nutritive properties of honey as they relate to things like allergies and cold-like illnesses. Although it may be possible for locally sourced honey to improve seasonal allergy symptoms, research thus far has been inconclusive on the matter. The connection between honey consumption and cold-like illnesses is similar, although it may perform better than antibiotics in these cases. Honey does appear to have a significant antibacterial effect, without the issues of antibiotic resistance that occur with long-term antibiotic use.

Honey is almost always safe to eat. If stored and sealed properly, it can last for years, if not decades (and some would argue centuries). That being said, two years is a safe amount of time to ensure store-bought and conventionally stored honey has not lost the potency of its flavor. If honey hardens or crystallizes, it’s still good to use! It can easily be rejuvenated by bathing the container in warm water for 10-20 minutes.

Honey is a risky food for one group – infants. Children younger than one year old should not be given honey, as they are more susceptible to botulism-producing bacteria that may be found in honey. That means no honey on pacifiers! Anyone older than one year of age is unlikely to be affected by this.

Honey is an incredibly versatile ingredient in the kitchen. There are plenty of options for adding it to everyday items, like pairing it with peanut butter on toast or mixing it into a cup of hot tea, but there are also lots of creative ways to incorporate honey into dishes both sweet and savory. Check out the recipes below for some new ways to use honey on your dinner table.

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