I never thought much about honey growing up. It was always just there in our panty, sitting sweetly in its bear-shaped bottle. I had no concept of what it meant for honey to be “raw,” or the array of health and wellness benefits that went along with it. To be totally honest, I didn’t really even like honey. But just as my eyes were opened to the beauty of chardonnay when I finally tasted a decent one, dipping into locally made honey in its purest form completely leveled up both my taste and my wellness game.
Honey isn’t just a sweet substance that won’t leave you with a sugar hangover–it’s practically medicinal in its antibacterial, healing nature. It’s a complex, sensory treat that might even be able to cure your acne.
With my eyes finally opened to the wonders of pure, raw honey, I suddenly had a million questions about how to buy it, what to do with it, and how to support a creature that’s, frankly, in a bit of trouble. I tapped two experts, Maya Feller, a registered dietician and nutritionist, and Carla Marina Marchese, founder of the American Honey Tasting Society and co-author of The Honey Connoisseur, to cover everything from honey skincare and reading labels to whether or not manuka honey is worth the price (spoiler: it totally is). And for a little extra sweetness, we rounded up some must-make honey recipes, so you can enjoy the good stuff in all its forms.
Breaking Down Honey’s Natural Wellness Benefits For…
Honey is prebiotic which essentially feeds the good bacteria (or probiotics) in your gut. And a healthy, balanced gut is a happy gut.
Honey’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory powers make it the perfect ingredient for a DIY face mask or facial cleanser. “Raw honey has been used for centuries as an aid in wound healing. The antimicrobial and antiseptic properties found in honey support the healing process,” Feller says.
Although honey is made of sugar, there’s a fairly even amount of glucose (which is already found in your body) and fructose (naturally found in fruit). Your body digests honey’s sugar combination far more slowly than refined white sugar, which helps you avoid a sugar crash. “And the thing is, when you really start tasting honey, sugar is only sweet,” Marchese says. “Honey has flavor—it’s sour, it’s bitter, it’s woody. It’s so much more complex.”
For instant allergy relief, nothing does the trick quite like a teaspoon of honey. “It coats your throat. It’s like a hug for your throat. There’s not really any scientific on why it helps, but it feels really good,” Marchese says. “It doesn’t eliminate or cure anything, but there’s something about honey that really makes you feel better with allergies.”
General Antibacterial Needs
Now for a little science lesson: Marchese points to the chemical composition of honey (essentially sugar, water, and the healthy enzymes bees put into it) for its antibacterial powers. The better the honey quality, the more potent the benefits. “Honey is very acidic and has a low PH. If there are bacteria in your throat, and you coat your throat with honey, a certain amount of it will die,” Marchese says. “Honey is also supersaturated, and it soaks up a lot of the moisture from the air. If you put honey on a wound, it will suck up the water and suffocate any bacteria.”
How to Buy the Real, Raw Deal
The demand for honey far outweighs what’s currently able to be produced in the United States. (Marchese estimates that we’re only able to make about 1/3 of what we need.) To make up for this, a lot of honey is imported, which means a good deal of it is pasteurized—a heating process that can filter out the pollen and healthy enzymes.
The easiest way to find good-quality honey is to stop by a farmer’s market or visit a local beekeeper. That way you know it was bottled close to the source and has never been tampered with.
Read Your Labels
Much like greenwashing in skincare, using the words “raw” and “organic” on food labels is a deeply unregulated practice. The most beautiful, thoughtful-looking packaging sadly doesn’t always guarantee you’re getting the best sweet stuff. A good plan of action, as we mentioned above, is to check where your honey is made.
“The country of origin must be stated on the label. Ideally, you want it to be made in the U.S.,” Marchese says. “Even better: find honey made in a small town by a family or local beekeeper. That stuff is the best.”
Honey from more commercial brands may also be cut with other ingredients or synthetic sweeteners. Check to make sure the ingredient is simply “honey.”
All About the Bottle
Ideally, honey would all be bottled in glass containers, but that can be expensive. And since so many U.S. beekeepers are hobbyists, investing in glass isn’t always an option.
“I know a lot of beekeepers are making really good honey, but they put it in plastic,” Marchese says. “You can buy great honey in plastic, but just don’t leave it in your pantry for over a year.”
Location, Location, Location
We know that checking where your honey was made is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting the good stuff, but what location is bottling the best stuff? “I would go with Italy,” Marchese says. “People always comment on how wonderful the tomatoes, and the wine, or the bread is in Italy, and it’s because they take care of their environment. They take care of the soil and don’t spray banned chemicals. We have good honey here, but European countries like Italy, Spain, and France may have the best.”
Other Tips for Helping the Bees
Perhaps you don’t have time (or space, or fearlessness) to become an ethical beekeeper. Fair enough! How else you can help? “Support your local beekeepers. A lot of them do this as a hobby on the side because they genuinely like bees and want to help the environment,” Marchese says. “Supporting them rewards their general love of taking care of an animal.”
Honey Brands to Check Out
Now, you should be armed with the knowledge to shop for the good stuff wherever you are, but it’s always nice to have a nutritionist’s recommendation. In addition to honey she finds at her local farmers’ market, Feller recommends the following brands:
Wee Bee Naturally Raw Honey
Bee Flower & Sun Honey Co.
Y.S. Eco Bee Farms.
Is Manuka Honey All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
When I think of Manuka honey, I think of startling price points at Whole Foods and one of my favorite scenes from Broad City. But is it really worth it? “Manuka honey is very powerful honey—it really is medicine. It’s made from the nectar of a tea tree called Leptospermum. It’s great for people with ulcers,” Marchese says of honey’s antimicrobial properties. “Manuka is produced almost exclusively in New Zealand, and a bit in Australia. It’s very expensive because only a certain amount is produced.”
Like raw honey, some products labeled “manuka” aren’t always the real deal. (Sigh.) Check to see exactly where it was bottled (if it is real, it’s most likely from New Zealand).
Manuka honey is typically packaged in a dark container and can often be found crystalized evenly throughout. Homogenous crystallization is always a good sign that honey hasn’t been tampered with.
Must-Try Honey Recipes:
Hot Honey from A Couple of Cooks
Reasons this recipe rules: “hot” means “spicy” and you can make it in one minute. Sold.
The versatile breakfast recipe includes gluten- and nut-free versions, but it’s the quick-and-easy nature that hooked us.
Want to dial the powers of honey all the way up? Add ground turmeric and a dose of apple cider vinegar for a quick wellness shot.
If you prefer your cookies crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, these chewy confections courtesy of Cupcake Project will curb your honey cravings.
Recommended to be made with full-fat Greek yogurt, these fresh frozen treats will help you level up your popsicle game this summer.