Honey is a popular sweetener made by bees. This sweet substance is a common ingredient in many foods. But, honey is a unique product that is available in several variations. Pure, raw, regular – what does it all mean? In this guide, we explore the distinctions between raw honey and regular honey and consider the potential advantages of each.
If you thought that buying a jar of honey was a simple process, the truth may come as a surprise. First, there are several different types of honey to buy. Then, you must wade through all the marketing terms and decide what they really mean.
What is Raw Honey?
Raw honey is an unadulterated, unprocessed product straight from the hive that has undergone minimal handling. This is honey in it’s purest form just as it is used by our bees.
Unlike some commercially processed products, it has not undergone extreme filtering. It retains its inherent enzymes, nutrients and antioxidants.
To understand the basics of this gift from bees, we need to investigate the processing methods of how it gets from the hive to the jar.
The story of raw honey begins in the field. Thousands of industrious worker bees gather plant nectar and bring it back to the hive in a special organ called a “honey stomach. (No digestion takes place here – honey is not bee vomit.)
Back at the hive, bees make honey from nectar by adding enzymes and reducing the water content. This gives them a food source that is stable for a long time.
Processing of Raw Honey
A healthy colony is able to produce much more food in a season than they need. This gives the beekeepers an opportunity to collect or harvest honey the excess.
What distinguishes raw honey from others is the minimal human interference during extraction, packaging and even during the bottling of honey.
It is neither heated, micro-filtered or pasteurized and retains its natural composition. This includes any pollen, bee propolis or enzymes that may be present.
Regular Store-Bought Honey
Regular honey that is readily available in the stores begins it’s journey in the hive. However, it undergoes a series of processing steps before it reaches the grocery shelves.
The time between it leaving the hive and reaching you can be several months – or more. That’s okay. If stored properly, honey lasts for a very long time – but it can grow crystals or become a semi-solid.
However, consumers prefer a liquid product that pours well. How can packers keep it in a liquid form for a longer time? Ultra-filtration and pasteurization is often the answer.
As honey is extracted from the comb (separating liquid from wax) and moved through the commercial bottling process it is subjected to intense filtration.
The goal is to remove bits of beeswax, pollen and other particles that would seem unsightly to the consumer. But, cold honey is thick and does not flow well through machinery and filters.
It is often heated to facilitate the process. However, some natural enzymes found in raw honey are sensitive to heat and may be damaged by high temperatures.
Forcing the heated honey through fine mesh filters removes small particles of pollen, wax etc. This helps prevent crystallization of stored jars over time.
The use of heat during processing is a major difference between raw honey and regular honey. Some commercial honey is even pasteurized.
The heat used during pasteurization kills naturally occurring yeasts and other substances that might contribute to spoilage and crystallization.
The downside of pasteurization and ultra-filtering is that the process which kills the bad things – also kills some of the good yeast cells and damages some of the nutrients.
The end result is a jar of honey that will look nice on the shelf for a long time. Regular store-bought honey is designed for mass appeal. With a longer shelf life and more uniform appearance, it is convenient and widely accessible.
Key Differences Between Raw Honey & Regular
Raw honey is different from regular honey in several ways.
- exposure to heat
- color and taste
Raw Honey: Beekeepers who sell honey only perform minimal processing or filtration. Honey flows from the honey extractor by gravity flow through a nylon cloth strainer (or similar) that removes large pieces of wax.
Regular Honey: Those jars on the shelf that are not labeled as raw are usually subjected to intense filtration. This removes pollen particles, bits of wax, propolis and other naturally occurring substances.
Exposure to Heat
Raw Honey: Not exposed to any heat or temperature above that commonly found in the hive, heat sensitive enzymes and nutrients are protected.
Regular Honey: It is common for regular honey to pasteurized using heat. This process helps prevent crystallization and produce a smoother end product for the shelf.
Color & Taste
Raw Honey: When you shop for honey, you will notice a wide range of honey colors and tastes.
This reflects the many different floral sources used by the bees to make it. In general, light colored honey has a milder taste while the darker varieties are more bold.
Regular Honey: Commercial honey is often presented with a more uniform color and flavor. Larger amounts of collected honey are blended together to give a product that consumers expect from any particular brand.
Possible Benefits of Raw Honey
The nutritional value of raw honey is a topic often debated. While it is certainly a wonderful natural sugar, not all researchers agree on its contribution to good human nutrition.
However, with minimal processing, it retains all the enzymes, amino acids, trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and other naturally occurring compounds.
The uses for honey are too numerous to list. But, it is commonly used as a home remedy for seasonal allergies, indigestion and even wound care.
While unprocessed honey is more likely to crystallize, if your jar does turn solid – it is easy to decrystallize honey without harming it.
Potential Risk of Consuming Raw Honey
If raw is likely more nutritious, why would you buy something else? While raw food is safe for most people to consume, it may not be safe for babies or adults with compromised immune systems.
There is always a risk (botulism) of any raw food containing substances (i.e. Clostridium botulinum)-that can be dangerous in certain situations. Consult your doctor when in doubt.
The bottom line for the consumer is that most people are able to consume this product safely. Even some members of the vegan community consume honey.
Making an Informed Choice
A trip to the grocery store will reveal a multitude of labels for honey. This is a common marketing ploy in food products. Honey vs raw honey vs organic vs pure – what does it all mean?
Pure and raw are not the same thing. Pure honey should contain no added substances but may not necessarily be raw.
The ingredient label should contain only one word – honey. There should be no mention of corn syrup, added sugars or other sweeteners. There are a couple of ways to check for pure honey – but first, read the label.
This is true even with unusual colors such as purple honey – make sure you know what you are buying. Also, check for the country of origin if buying only American honey matters to you.
However, both regular store-bought honey and raw honey are wonderful natural sweeteners. They all taste good and are suitable to use on the table or in your favorite honey recipes.
Organic Honey Certification
Organic honey is an official label that must be applied for. It refers to factors involved in production and processing. No chemicals are used in the beehives and they only forage on chemical free plants.
The USDA regulates this certification of organic livestock practices. The certification process is rather expensive – often too much of a cost for small producers. Most beekeepers do not make a lot of money or profit on their hobby.
Also, honey bees can travel several miles to forage for nectar. I’m not sure how organic producers tell the bees where to go.
This is an unrealistic expectation for most beekeepers who do not own enough acreage to ensure the bees stay on their property.
The main difference between raw honey and regular is the amount of filtration and heat it is exposed too. Raw honey has minimal handling during processing.
Raw honey is often considered a more nutritional alternative due to natural enzymes and antioxidants – as well as pollen grains. However, this is a topic often debated in medical circles.
Yes, with a few exceptions, raw honey will crystallize over time. Some will change form in a few weeks while other varieties of honey make take years to become semi-solid.
Pasteurization is employed in some commercial honey to prevent crystallization, improve shelf stability, and create a uniform product.
Yes, both regular and raw honey can be used in baking and other food recipes.
While raw honey retains all of its natural properties, it is not necessarily better than regular honey on your grocery shelf. It is a matter of personal preference. Both can be used as a natural sweetener.
Buy a jar of raw honey if you want to enjoy this product from honey bees in its most natural form. You can also enjoy eating raw honeycomb in a variety of ways – an interesting way to experience a natural product. Whether you choose to keep a large jar of honey on hand, or desire the portability of homemade honey straws – you are sure to have a sweet experience.