Honey: The Raw Truth

At our recent trip to the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., I spoke with John Smart, a representative of Airborne Honey, one of the longest standing honey producers in New Zealand.  

In the business since 1910, the company has a wonderful line of honeys, ranging from lighter types such as Rata, a saltier, fast crystallizing honey, that taste like jasmine in a jar, to Rewarewa which is a darker, malty honey that crystallizes slowly.

They also have a unique way of verifying the authenticity of the honey type and activity, which includes lab testing to verify pollen count and other factors.

So why be concerned with pollen count? It’s quite simple actually. The unique health benefits of honey are well known and many people are willing to pay a premium for honey because of its purported health properties. But many manufacturers are using ultra-filtering and heating techniques on the honey that they sell. These processes produce a product that is clearer and less susceptible to crystallizing. This appeals to consumers from a visual standpoint, but also results in a poorer quality honey, with a loss of health benefits. The ultra-filtration process also removes the pollen resulting in the inability to trace the honey to its origin.

Airborne Honey’s commitment to “Honest, Undamaged, and Traceable” honey allows it to set itself apart from the competition. As consumers we want to know that the jar label matches the contents, so honest labeling is crucial.  By verifying the amount of HMF (hydroxylmethyfurfural), they can confirm the amount of heat damage. HMF is produced as fructose dehydrates, so the lower the number, the better. Heat damage destroys crucial nutrients in honey, so you may think you are purchasing honey for its health benefits, yet getting an inferior product.  In addition, the batch number is included on each jar of Airborne honey. This means that the honey can be traced back to the apiary it was produced in.

Pretty interesting stuff, I think.  The only way to do them one better would be to start barcode scanning the bees! But I guess that would be another blog entirely!  I really like the idea of the traceability of my honey though, and think that this trend is going to continue to evolve in the foodservice industry.

One of the most interesting products that Airborne produces is AAH Manuka honey, which stands for “Airborne Active Honey”. The antibacterial activity that Airborne Active Honey focuses on is Hydrogen Peroxide, which is considered to be safer for ingestion than methylglyoxal.  Methyglyoxal is the antibacterial compound in NPA rated honeys, and should be used as a topical application. Manuka honey has recently been touted in the media as an effective way to treat staph and MRSA infections.  In studies by The University of Waikato in New Zealand, Manuka honey, with catalase added, was compared to a honey with normal antibacterial activity (peroxide activity, or PA), in inhibiting the affects of wound-infecting bacteria. The catalase was added to the Manuka honey to inhibit its natural hydrogen peroxide producing capabilities. Most honeys do have a natural amount of peroxide activity, so by removing the peroxide-producing component in Manuka, it is then possible to test the antibacterial rating of methylglyoxal from species of Leptospermum Manuka honey was found to be as effective as a topical bactericide with its peroxide-producing properties removed as conventional honey, due to its methylglyoxal component. It could then be assumed that once the peroxide-producing component is activated in Manuka honey, it would be nearly twice as effective as conventional honey in its topical antibacterial properties.

Manuka’s activity is listed as the UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) number, which designates its methylglyoxal antibacterial properties. An activity of 10+ is the minimum to be considered effective in treating bacterial infections. This designation is given by the Active Manuka Honey Industry of New Zealand. Manuka’s activity  listed as the AAH (Airborne Active Honey) number on the Airborne Honey Jar, designates its Hydrogen Peroxide antibacterial properties. Not all Manuka honeys are created equal, and may contain varying methylglyoxal antibacterial activity, so this number is crucial in designating those honeys with the special antibacterial properties.

Of course, we know that honey has been considered to have medicinal properties since ancient times. It was only with the advent of the use of sulfa drugs that it fell out of favor as a wound dressing. Fortunately for us, it is a making a comeback, in treating anything from ulcers, psoriasis, and cuts and burns, to heartburn and acid reflux.  

It really comes down to understanding the unique properties of honey, and deciding on the correct activity level. If you have stomach problems, look for high PA, but if you are looking to treat skin maladies, look for UMF or AAH honeys. And if you are just looking for a sweet fix, well, that’s another column entirely.


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