Loving Liquid Gold: Your Ultimate Guide to Honey

Called “the nectar of the Gods” by ancient Greeks, honey is one of those surprising staples in your pantry that promises not just the elixir of beauty (from facial masks to soothing scars), but is a sweetly delicious, healing food.  In my opinion, the magnificent alchemy that occurs as bees take nectar from flowers and (through interaction with enzymes in the bees saliva and digestion), transform it into honey is one of the sacred acts of nature.
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Ranging from colorless to a deep shade of caramel, from mild to richly complex in taste, think of honey like a fine wine; its color, flavor and aroma are uniquely dependent on the nectar of the flowers the bees visited, connecting you with a taste of a region. And with growing science behind its health benefits (research suggests raw honey helps kill h.pylori bacteria that cause ulcers, for instance) and the growing interest in foods plucked straight from nature, handcrafted honey is a refreshingly straightforward sweetener: Honey is a 100% natural, one ingredient, right-from-the-earth food: from hive to table, if you will.
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Here’s the lowdown on “liquid gold” and what you need to know:
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HoneycombHoneycomb

Yes, you can it eat! This is as pure as it gets. Dubbed by honey enthusiasts as “nature’s perfect package” most people are surprised to learn that these gorgeous, golden bees’ wax combs are cut straight from the hive, and are in fact completely edible. (When I was in college in Vermont, I remember “old timers” taking a knife, cutting a comb, and slathering both the comb and honey onto a piece of toast). While it may seem a bit waxy to some (in which case you can just chew on it until the flavor is gone, and then discard the rest), the comb has an intense honey flavor that is delicious; look for it at your farmers market or favorite natural foods store. A word of advice- just be sure to put it on a plate, as once it’s cut, the comb will start oozing honey.
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Raw Honey

Many naturopaths and nutrition experts (myself included) suggest choosing raw honey for optimal health and beauty benefits. Raw honey is never strained, filtered or  heated, and research suggests it’s loaded with many trace minerals, organic enzymes, antioxidants, plus antibacterial and ant-fungal properties that make it a powerful package of health. Plus, it’s rich origins means it’s loaded with more interesting taste and flavor.
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Raw honey is a shining example of “food as medicine”: Your grandmother’s home remedy of dosing you with a bit of honey for your cough, for instance, seems to have some science behind it: Honey has promising evidence as a cough suppressant, not to mention a favorite alternative topical remedy for cuts and scrapes, even as a home facial ingredient.
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Look for honey labeled “Raw Honey” in your favorite grocery store or on your next trip to the farmer’s market. If it crystalizes in your pantry over time, you can certainly enjoy it that way (it just means the glucose in the honey has precipitated out of the liquid), but if you prefer a more liquid honey, simply place the jar into a warm water bath and stir gently until the crystals dissolve.
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Caution: The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children age 1 and under are not given and honey whatsoever, as it can potentially carry spores of the toxin Clostridium botulinum, raising the risk of infantile botulism. 
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Manuka Honey

There’s been intriguing research looking more closely at one type in  particular: Manuka honey. To be labeled Manuka, this darker, stronger flavored honey is harvested from bees who gather nectar in areas populated with (you guessed it) the Manuka bush, a type of shrub which grows in New Zealand.  Manuka honey seems to hold particular promise in helping to treat burns, ulcers, gingivitis, as an anti-bacterial treatment, and has been the subject of several human trials. However, it is sometimes promoted to cancer patients as having miraculous anti-cancer properties; if that’s the case, proceed with caution and absolutely talk with your doctor before adding anything to your regimen.
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Royal Jelly

Consumed as a heath food around the world, this prized milky-white cream is rich in an array of nutrients, including B vitamins, amino acids, sugars, minerals and fatty acids. Royal jelly is actually a food secretion made by worker bees and is the exclusive nourishment of queen bees throughout their life.
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With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see why it’s seen as one of the most prized elements to come out of any hive, and how it’s a logical leap to assume if it’s the “bees knees”, we should be eating it, too.  So should you? Here’s my opinion: given its role in nature as a uniquely nourishing powerhouse for the bee kingdom it may indeed be a safe, nutrient rich addition to your diet if you choose-and if you like the results you see (if you see any, that is) when you start using it.  Royal jelly has also spawned an robust online and supplement industry filled with inflated claims ranging from curing sexual impotence to balancing hormones, so proceed with caution.
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While there’s certainly some encouraging science (one of the strongest areas being in the promise of possibly lowering cholesterol) and many in the beauty industry claim it can stimulate collagen and be used topically or ingested to see numerous skin boosting benefits, remember that a diet rich in darkly colored fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains is a proven path to supercharged health. So take the approach of “healthy diet plus royal jelly” rather than “drive thru plus royal jelly” as your strategy to success.
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Women should also note that because Royal Jelly may have possible estrogenic effects, (some research has suggested it may have an effect on fertility and menopausal symptoms), women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer should not consume royal jelly without first consulting their doctor.  Also, if you have a history of bee allergies you may want to avoid.
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How Much Honey is Healthy?

With all the buzz around sugars these days (are some healthier than others? Does natural or artificial make a difference? how much is too much?), it’s important to remember that like any sweetener, honey should be savored in small amounts: the American Heart Association recommends that no more than 10% of your total calories should come from added sugars, which for the average American woman translates into about 100 calories a day, or just under 5 teaspoons of honey. For contrast, consider the average American currently consumes roughly 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day-more than 4 times as much!
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But honey does have some unique appeal: for one thing, this golden liquid is significantly sweeter than table sugar (about 25% sweeter), meaning you’re satisfied with less. This can shave calories off of your morning cup of tea, your drizzle on your oatmeal, or even the amount you need in a recipe when baking.
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Another plus? Honey has long been loved by athletes as a source of lower glycemic carbohydrate, which means it enters your bloodstream more slowly than other refined sugars, giving you sustained energy to power your performance. In ancient Greece, athletes feasted on honey and figs prior to the Olympic competitions; today my colleague Mitzi Dulan, RD, sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals, has her pro ballplayers eat honey sandwiches (with all natural peanut butter and whole wheat bread) for sustained energy prior to a game. And my four year old? Well, he just eats it cause he loves it.
Written with assistance from Lindsey Toth, MS, RD