What's the best honey to buy?
By Hattie Ellis
Not all honeys are equal. Some come with extra health benefits, others are better for the environment and the bees themselves. There are also big price differences. So how can you get the most from honey and what should you look out for when buying it?
Honey is treasured around the world. The colour, texture and taste of honey varies widely according to the nectar sources, with each pot offering a unique taste of a time and place. Look out for specialist honeys sold online and by independents, such as Tasmanian leatherwood and minty lime-tree blossom honeys for a sense of how different it can taste.
There are two main types of honey: Multifloral honeys come from a mixture of blossoms growing in one place, such as wildflower honey, or Greek mountainside honey. Monofloral honeys are largely from a single type of flower. Some of the most widely available are fragrant orange blossom and lavender honeys, tangy eucalyptus, aromatically bitter chestnut, and medicinal manuka from New Zealand.
Generally speaking the mass market honeys will be more affordable and honeycomb and specialist honeys can sometimes be costly – however there are bargains to be found, it's just a case of looking around!
Is honey good for you?
There are a lot of health claims made about honey – including it being good for hayfever (which unfortunately doesn’t come with much scientific support).
However there can be no doubt it does come with some health benefits. Honey has been used for healing for at least 8,000 years. Its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties are best found in honey that hasn’t been heated too much (such as raw honeys).
Researchers at Oxford University have found that honey does indeed relieve the symptoms of coughs and colds. A few monofloral honeys have been tested and found to be especially beneficial, in particular, manuka (though that does tend to come at a high price). There’s even medical-grade honey which has been approved for wound-care by the NHS.
Of course honey is sugar, and best enjoyed in small quantities. But unlike table sugar it also contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and beneficial enzymes. Darker honeys are generally slightly more nutritious and tend to be the ones favoured traditionally for healing, for example buckwheat and manuka.
Professor Monique Simmonds of Kew Gardens, who researches traditional and economic uses of plants around the world, says honey in traditional medicines works partly because the sugar manages to enter the cell wall of plants which in turn makes them more effective. It seems a spoonful of honey really does help the medicine go down, as well as making bitter compounds taste more palatable. Just a small drop in a cup of herbal tea works in the same way and enhances the flavour.
However be aware that the NHS advises babies under one year shouldn’t consume honey due to the risk of infant botulism.
The more particular the information on the label, the more likely it is you are buying good honey. For example, some jars will mention a particular beekeeper or a small company with its own hives in a particular region. A named place and type of flower, or type of flora, such as forest honey, spells good news!
Conversely, if the label says ‘product of more than one country’ then the honey has been blended from a number of sources and is less distinctive than pots that come from one hive and its surroundings.
Raw or unpasteurised honey has been lightly treated, simply spun out of the honeycomb and not fine-filtered. It may be slightly hazy from the pollen inside and it will probably crystallize at a quicker rate than processed honey.
Beware of what is known in the trade as ‘funny honey’, for example honey adulterated with sugar syrup. If you open a jar and there’s no fragrance and a boiled sweet taste then you’re not getting the full joy, taste and benefits you want from honey.
What's the difference between set and runny honey?
When it comes to texture, some honeys start off thick, such as the gel of heather honey, and many thicken naturally over time. Other honeys remain runny for longer, such as acacia (another common type).
You may find your once-runny honey has thickened up in your kitchen cupboard, to make it runny again, surround the jar in just-boiled water in a bowl and leave for five to 15 minutes, or very briefly heat what you need in a pan or microwave.
In addition, producers can seed a honey with a little crystallised honey to make a more spreadable texture known as ‘set’ or ‘creamed’ honey. At the other end of the texture scale, mass-market honeys can be heated and fine-filtered, so they won’t thicken and are easier to pour, although this also removes some of the aromatic and beneficial qualities of the honey.
The purest form is honeycomb, which sits in the beeswax cells. After a delightful chew, you then remove or swallow the little ball of leftover wax. More expensive and harder to find, it’s an unusual treat and looks beautiful on a plate with a piece of cheese and some fruit.
Humans, insects and plants rely on each other to survive and thrive. Bees gather nectar from some two million flowers to make a single 450g/1lb pot of honey, each one making about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in a lifetime. Four-fifths of the world’s plants rely on pollination to reproduce, and at least one-third of the world’s food crops. We need bees – all types, not only honeybees – to buzz through the air and stitch together the fabric of the living world.
Most honey is produced in countries with warm climates that makes for a plentiful and consistent nectar flow, and monofloral honeys often come as a by-product of farming. Bees are affected by the chemicals used in agriculture and gardening; finding honey from untreated sources, such as heather honey and multiflorals such as forest, mountainside and wildflower honeys, and organic honey from farms that don’t use pesticides, is a way of supporting beekeepers who help to keep ecosystems alive.
One of the advantages of seeking out local honey or buying directly from a beekeeper – urban as much as rural – is that you can find out where their bees are gathering nectar. There is excellent UK honey that has less far to travel (and so reduces honey’s carbon footprint), including wildflower multifloral honey and heather honey from the moorlands of Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, Northumbria and Devon.
People who follow a plant-free/vegan diet and are concerned about negative associations linked to honey – for example honey’s carbon footprint or unethical practices linked to the welfare of honey bees, will find there are now vegan sweeteners that emulate the flavour of honey available.
Versatile and beautiful, honey transforms savoury as well as sweet dishes like a classic honey cake. Its distinctive taste means you just need a small spoonful to let it work its magic. If you first dip your spoon into just-boiled water, the honey will slide off it easily – the same happens if you first use the spoon to measure out oil, for example in a salad dressing.
Fruit, cheese, spices, herbs and nuts are all best friends with honey, and it also brings out the sweetness in roast root vegetables such as honey roast carrots.
Use the sweetness of honey in a mix of sweet and sour, and in the combinations of hot, sweet, sour and salty which are commonly found in southeast Asian and Chinese dishes including stir-fries.
One tip from Moroccan kitchens is to add a little honey to cooked tomatoes, for example in a sauce or a tagine, to balance and enhance their sweet-sourness.
Alternatively, enter the land of milk and honey by drizzling runny honey over cheese – its good with tangy blue cheese, goat’s cheese and aged cheeses such as Parmesan and Pecorino.
Honey adds another flavour dimension to sweet dishes. You could use it to replace a sugar-glaze on a yoghurt cake, or make it part of the syrup in a fruit salad. In honey cakes and bakes, it combines well with light brown sugar. Keep the temperature lower (about 25°C) than usual though because honey burns more easily than sugar.
You often see recipes refer to ‘clear’ or ‘runny’ honey. It’s useful to have a clear, light and less expensive runny honey for everyday use and recipes that use heat, though all honeys will melt and become runny when lightly heated. Use more unique ones to add a special finishing touch such as drizzling over cheese – or indeed for drizzling over yoghurt and spreading on toast.
Hattie Ellis is the author of Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee and Spoonfuls of Honey
Published June 2022