FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A TASTE OF HONEY
To make honey, bees collect nectar from nearby flowering plants; transform it by combining it with specific substances of their own; and deposit it, dehydrate it, store it and leave it in honeycombs to ripen and mature. That’s where we come in. Ancient rock art in Spain shows our forebears braving wild bees to steal their honeycomb; Éric Valli’s photos document Nepal’s Gurung tribesmen harnessed to cliff-hugging bamboo ladders to relieve Himalayan cliff bees of their honeycomb; and on YouTube, there are numerous videos depicting Hadza men following a honeyguide bird to a hive then smoking out the stinging bees before helping themselves to the honeycomb. The take-home: honey has long been highly desirable and Homo sapiens goes to great lengths to get it.
What’s in honey? Honey, which provided our ancestors with a tasty source of calories from carbohydrates (all sugars), also has traces of bee larvae which add some fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals to the nutritional mix. Today, we know that honey also contains antioxidants.
The sweetness comes mostly from fructose, glucose and sucrose, plus small amounts of maltose, trehalose, turanose (varies depending on nectar source). Most honeys have more fructose than glucose – typically 38 per cent fructose to 30 percent glucose – but that’s not set in stone. It all depends on where the bees have been buzzing, which is also why sweetness can vary: some are equal in sweetness to regular granulated sugar; others are up to 50 per cent sweeter. To achieve consistent sweetness and flavour, most commercial honeys are blended from a mixture of honeys derived from different hives and different floral sources.
What about GI? We are often asked whether honey is a better sweetener choice than regular sugar when it comes to blood glucose levels. Again, it depends very much on what blossom the bees were buzzing around, gathering nectar. While most commercial blended varieties have an effect greater than or equal to that of sugar, some honeys have a low glycemic index. The range of glycemic-index values from all the honeys that have been tested over the years runs from GI 32 up to GI 87 and you can check them out on the database at www.glycemicindex.com. When the University of Sydney Glycemic Index Research Service tested pure wildflower (single floral) honeys—red gum, yellow box, ironbark, and others—produced by allowing bees access only to some types of gum trees (eucalypts), they found that these honeys all have a low glycemic index (GI 35 to 53). We would like to think it’s possible that all pure wildflower honeys have only modest glycemic effects, but there hasn’t been sufficient testing around the world. We do know that Romanian locust honey appears to have the lowest glycemic index value of all the honeys tested to date (GI 32).
Why all the differences in glycemic impact from one honey to another? To maintain a consistent flavor in commercial honeys, some of the more pungent components are removed. We suspect that these removed components are physiologically active and work to slow down absorption into the small intestine. For example, Australian wildflower honeys might contain alpha-glucosidase inhibitors that bees have extracted from the eucalypt flowers. We know that these potent inhibitors exist in many plants, and, indeed, some diabetic medications (e.g., acarbose) are based on pure forms of these inhibitors.
In addition, it appears that the higher the fructose content, the lower the glycemic index is. Five German honeys with fructose content ranging from 38.5 to 43.5 per cent not only had a low glycemic index, but also had a low insulin index – this is a relative ranking of the effect of 240 calories/1000 kilojoules of food on blood insulin concentrations over a two-hour period.
- The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners (The Experiment Publishing)
- www.glycemicindex.com (searchable GI database)
- Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees (Basic Books)
- Éric Valli’s honey hunters
- PHOTO: Drake Eatery, Bondi Beach: Toasted crumpet, honey, ricotta, banana, walnuts (East Coast Forest Honey – pure, raw, natural honey) – Kai Leishman