Honey

During my workshops I often hear fascinating discussions around certain foods. Usually as a result of a recent expose, show or book. As is the norm, the information is often conflicting. This either creates debate or, in most cases, leaves everyone a little confused. 

Hot topic

A recurring subject is honey and these discussions aren’t even bound to the workshops. During a recent road trip we stopped at a popular coffeehouse to stretch our legs and have a little snack. I ordered rooibos tea and the waiter brought over a bottle of honey with it. At the same time they were delivering waffles to the next table with a honey bottle. 

Is it real?

My first instinct was to read the label which happened to have the tiniest writing on it. Needless to say I was concentrating very hard and this must have perked everyone’s interest around me. As I suspected it was not pure honey. The front of the bottle said it was irradiated and the back showed its place of origin was very vague.

Product of South Africa and/or China and/or India and/or Zambia.

Mmmm, definitely going to give that a pass. As I put the bottle down I heard the ‘waffle table’ ask “And? Is it real honey?”. The couple 2 tables from them also wanted to know and so a cross-restaurant-discussion about honey began. The debate usually narrows down to these areas:

  • if sugar is bad – does that mean honey is bad?
  • is honey vegan or not?
  • is beekeeping a humane practice?
  • what happens if all the bees die?

Yup, just some light-hearted coffeehouse talk I suppose. But, I’m not here to debate the heavy stuff. What I will do is share some interesting information about honey and let you decide.

Honey is a big topic

Honey is a very big topic and not even 2 blogs will do it justice. I have collected what I believe to be the most salient information and divided it into two sections.
Part 1 I cover some overall information about honey
Part 2 I will focus on the health factors and using it in the kitchen

I do recommend you take this further and do extra research or contact your local apiary community. The more you know the better – it counts!

A Bit of History

It appears honey has been around for longer than mankind. Just recently Science Daily published an article about a 100 million year old bee found fossilized in amber[i].  Honey is also deeply entrenched in our language. Think – honeymoon, such a honey, be a honey. Or look to the bible for the ‘land of milk and honey’. There is little doubt it has been around for a long time. And, as the terrain of humankind evolved so too did honey. Like with most of our food that comes from mother nature, it used to be a wild resource. As man developed so did the procurement and production all the way to the point where we have industrialized apiaries. 

FUN FACT: Antarctica – the only continent that has no bees[ii]

The Nectar To Honey Conversion

Stretching your memory back to school science you may recall that bees are attracted to the nectar and pollen of plants. They fly very long distances to find and collect it. They collect the nectar in their honey sac (fancy word for second stomach). Then, they haul it back to the hive where it’s passed (regurgitated and fed) to the house bees. This seems pretty gross but the enzymes in that second stomach and the passing over phase are part of the magic that will eventually be honey.

Here Be Gold!

The enzymatically rich nectar is then deposited into the honeycomb, where there is an evaporation process. Bees do this by fanning their wings and keeping the hive at 28-35°C. (Remember this part – it’s important). When just over 80% of the water has evaporated it has become honey.

What We Get

Bees make extra honey for their winter stores or times of scarcity. It’s this excess honey that beekeepers will harvest. In times or scarcity or winter the queen and about 10 000 drones will stay in the hive and evict the rest. Effectively causing them to starve as they no longer have access to the honey and various other food sources. Beekeepers are aware of this and implement a number of strategies to ensure the survival of colonies and honey production. This may include moving the hives to more abundant or warmer areas.

Now all this may seem pretty straightforward, the beekeepers set up a few hives, the bees do their thing and we all live happily together, right? Not so much. What started as a few doomsayers saying we need to pay closer attention to the worlds bee population has now become a legitimate concern.

Bees and Food Security

In May 2019 The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) during its observation of World Bee Day stressed that:

“Declining bee populations pose threat to global food security and nutrition”[iii].

If that statement doesn’t make you stop and think then I am not sure what will. (I urge you to read the article in full). The FAO’s Director-General went on to say the following:

“Bees are under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticides use, biodiversity loss and pollution,”… “The absence of bees and other pollinators would wipe out coffee, apples, almonds, tomatoes and cocoa to name just a few of the crops that rely on pollination. Countries need to shift to more pollinator-friendly and sustainable food policies and systems.”

To get the full picture listen to his talk here:

What Can We Do?

You wont have to do too many Google searches to also realize that about two thirds of the food crops we rely on are dependent on bee pollination. But while we wait for Big Food, Big Politics and Big Commerce to make their glacial paced changes, we as the everyday person can make a difference. If you decide you can’t do without out your honey fix or if you just want to do your bit to help the bee population, then here are some suggestions on how to help:

  • Start with your home
    If you are able, grow bee friendly plants. Avoid using pesticides, insecticides or any -cides that may harm the bees. Incorporate areas where they are able to get water. If your municipality allows for it, install some small bee hotels. This may seem a little scary. Generally our first instinct is to run and hide, but once you get to know them – they are actually pretty cool.
  • Look at what and where you buy from
    Support your local apiaries that practice organic and humane beekeeping. Yes I said humane. If you are going to mess with nature and trick it into producing more for profit you need to fiddle with genetics, breeding, quality, chemicals and a host of other things. These are very seldom friendly to the species you are manipulating. This is an area you need to be diligent in and find out as much as you can – beekeeping is not for everyone and if you have somebody locally passionate enough to help the bee population – then support them!
  • Buy organic food
    So what does buying an organic apple have to do with bees? Many of the foods we see in our grocery stores are industrially grown. They require chemicals that kills not just bees, but many other pollinators. So, indirectly you are supporting one of the key sources of the declining bee population.

Whoa! I know that’s a bit harsh to say, but it is unfortunately true. There aren’t very many nice ways to say this, so I mays as well say it straight up. Not all of us have access to organically grown foods or can afford it, and we can only work with what we have. What we can do, is go to our providers and start asking or demanding. And, if the opportunity arises you absolutely choose organic. If that is all you are able to do – honestly, it is better than nothing!

  • Rather say no
    Honey is everywhere and it will remain everywhere as long as we drizzle it over our waffles, plonk it in our teas or support its use in our food chain. Personally, I avoid any product that has honey where I am unable to establish its source and method. That may mean you pass on the honey baked dessert with your friends or have your beverage minus the sugar but it goes back to the twig analogy:

A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong – Tecumseh

HONEY (part 2 of 2)

Like with all things in life there is the dark and the light side, and you can consider this the dark side, in the next instalment about honey we will look at the light side. The amazing side to honey that has kept it in our homes for all of mankind’s time here on earth.

REFERENCES:

A question I get asked often is whether vitamin supplements are nothing other than expensive Vitamin Pee? It’s a good question but, unfortunately does not have a simple yes or no answer. It was also a question I struggled with for many years. 

There was a documentary/movie a few years back that looked at the role, use and sources of vitamins and supplements. It had a profound effect on me and further validated that what we eat is key to our health. At the time I was also questioning the use of supplements and how we seem to use them to bypass a less than ideal diet and lifestyle (the ‘health in a bottle’ principle). 

Supplements can be misunderstood or misused and lull us into a false sense of security if we are not being responsible about their use. So what are some of the things we should know about vitamins? (The documentary/movie was Vitamania in case you are interested).  

Supplements as a necessity 

Persons with diagnosed medical deficiencies, illnesses or conditions that prohibit nutrient absorption and persons taking certain medication that cause nutrient malabsorption may require very specific and deliberate supplementation. Their lives may very well depend on it and working with a qualified medical professional/s is essential. However, this is a very specific group of people. 

Supplements as a booster 

The bulk of the supplement market is aimed at the average person with the intent of ‘boosting’ your health status or dealing with ‘possible minor’ deficiencies. These words are in quotes on purpose as there is often no medical diagnosis or confirmation for their need or deficiencies. It is also mostly self-regulated. As for boosting, our immune system is something that is running 24-7-365 days a year. It fluctuates according to many factors such as state of mind, diet, lifestyle choices, geographical and environmental influences. Boosting implies that you are elevating your immune system to a newer, better level when in fact your efforts are at best temporary and massively dependent on the combined efforts you make both on and off your plate. 

The fire metaphor 

The fire metaphor is usually reserved for metabolism, think of your immune system as the fireplace in your home running constantly and keeping the house warm. Maybe it’s burning a bit low and you add an extra piece of wood. The fire flares up for a moment and then settles down again.

However, if the windows are all open, there is a blizzard outside and all you are doing is throwing more wood on the fire – the result will be temporary and require more and more fuel. This isn’t an ideal situation. We all have different life challenges but for some the blizzard could be a stressful job or financial issues or (insert major stressor in life).

The windows are your ability to regulate the effect the storm has on you and could include quiet time, a weekend away or a walk on the beach to help you down regulate that stress response. The wood could be your diet and in this case supplement regime. Exercise is exercise – carrying wood is a physical job no metaphor required. 

Phew – that is a long metaphor, but I think you get the point. 

Vitamins from nature 

Most of us with access to a decent food supply should be able to meet our daily vitamin intake with diet and only require supplements as the name intends – as a supplement. 

Eating a healthy balanced diet of whole natural foods is key to getting sufficient vitamins and nutrients. Some diets require a little more effort to obtain the right amounts and may need supplementation. If you have doubts or are unsure there are several professionals you could get to help you, depending on how in-depth you want to go.  

Natural sources are and should always be your first point of call. Our bodies respond well to good quality food and barring any medical conditions know how to optimize its use. 

Here are some basic pointers to get you started. 

How many vitamins are there? 

There are 13.  

Yup, that was a bit of a shocker for me when I first found that out. Somehow, I always associated vitamins with the periodic table. Not sure where that association comes from, but I’m guessing it’s probably from seeing rows and rows of bottles on the vitamin shelves.  

How many classes of vitamins are there? 

There are 2. 

Vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble.  

Fat soluble vitamins hang around in your fat cells and liver and are much slower to be eliminated from your body (up to 6 months for some). They can also build up and potentially cause toxicity when you are taking mega doses of supplements.  

Water soluble vitamins are flushed out of systems a lot quicker and need to be replenished often. You will sometimes hear the expression – just making expensive urine (vitamin P). Basically, you can take a whole lot of a water-soluble vitamin, your body will just use what it needs and the rest… expensive urine. 

How many vitamins are essential? 

There 11. 

Whenever a nutrient is referred to as essential it means we need to get it from an external source or ingest it. Non-essential nutrients are made by the body. Vitamin K and Vitamin B7 (aka Biotin) are made by the bacteria in the gut. The rest we need from diet. 

What are they and where do we find them? 

Now let’s move on to what they are and where we can get these life-giving vitamins in nature. (This is just a basic breakdown to help you see how a whole food natural diet can be such a – dare I say – boost to your immune system). The importance of vitamins to our overall health is vast and complex. The list below does not even begin to scratch the surface. 

Vitamin A 

Type: Fat Soluble 
Essential: Yes
Also known as:  Retinol from animal source, beta-carotene from plant source and converted in the body to vitamin A. identifiable as red or orange pigment in food
Source: liver, fish, butter, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
Functions: antioxidant, immune health, skin health, sight 

Vitamin C 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Powerful antioxidant
Source: berries, peppers, citrus, cabbage, cauliflower
Functions: used to make collagen, wound healing, skin health, keeping white blood cells active, helps body absorb folic acid and iron effectively  

Vitamin D 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: sunshine vitamin
Source: mushrooms, cod liver oil, pilchards, sardines, the sun
Functions: bone health (controls calcium absorption), dental health, cardiovascular health
CAUTION: not to be given to children unless under strict medical supervision 

Vitamin E 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Tocopherol
Source: sunflower seeds, almonds, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocado
Functions: protection against free radicals, skin health, fertility, anticoagulant, helps control body temperature (mitigates hot flushes)  

Vitamin K 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: No
Also known as:  Phylloquinone or phytomenadione from plant source, menaquinone from bacteria in gut, menadione from synthetic source
Source: fermented foods, leafy green vegetables, egg yolks, green tea, oats
Functions: assist with blood clotting, bone health  

 The vitamin B complex make up the remaining vitamin range: 

Vitamin B1 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Thiamin
Source: Brewer’s yeast, brown rice, organ meats, egg yolk 
Functions: essential for energy production, carbohydrate metabolism and nerve cell function  

Vitamin B2  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Riboflavin
Source: Brewer’s yeast, liver, almonds, mushrooms, millet
Functions: converts food to energy, immune health, skin health 

Vitamin B3  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes (disputed by some as the body is able to make its own)
Also known as: Niacin
Sources: Lean meats, poultry & fish, eggs, peanuts, sesame seeds
Functions: extracts energy from glucose, mental health, cardiovascular health  

Vitamin B5  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Pantothenic Acid
Sources: Liver, peanuts, mushrooms, pecans
Functions: extracts energy from fats and carbohydrates, aids in manufacturing adrenal hormones and red blood cells  

Vitamin B6  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Pyridoxine
Sources: Sunflower seeds, walnuts, lentils, salmon, pistachio nuts
Functions: nervous system, maintaining hormonal balance  

Vitamin B7  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: No
Also known as: Biotin, Vitamin H, Co-enzyme R
Sources: peanuts, almonds, egg yolks, liver, unpolished rice, brewer’s yeast, sardines, legumes
Functions: skin health, metabolism  

Vitamin B9 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Folic Acid
Sources: brewer’s yeast, black-eyed peas, liver, spinach, broccoli
Functions: cell division, critical to nervous system development of fetus,  

Vitamin B12  

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Cobalamin
Sources: organ meats, oysters, sardines, eggs. Small amounts can be found in nori seaweed and tempeh
Functions: nervous system, prevents anemia, promotes growth