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The Healing Benefits of Honey

Ancient and mysterious, honey has long held pole position as being a nectar of the gods—and essential food for any trip into the afterlife. Sadly, the honey bears on grocery store shelves today don’t always bear a lot of resemblance to the honey harvested thousands of years ago, since it’s often processed, blended and heated, stripping it of many of its vital nutrients. There’s a big movement happening in the food world, though, which puts prominence on the same single-origin, place-centric sourcing that’s become so essential in the world of wine and coffee, and one of the major players is Bee Local. We talked to Damian Magista (beekeeper and self-proclaimed honey geek), who founded the company back in 2011. In the last five years, Bee Local has grown from a handful of hives in Magista’s hometown of Portland into one of the most trusted producers of honey in the country, with beekeepers in cities from Oregon to Texas to New York. As part of the process, they create humane situations for bees, and transparency for consumers, serving as one antidote to the hive collapse that’s been noted around the country. (Meanwhile, didn’t know there was such a thing as honey laundering? Read on.)

A Q&A with Damian Magista

Q

We all know honey is delicious, but it’s also kind of a magic ingredient. Can you tell us some of its health benefits?

A

The health benefits of good honey are substantial. And when I say good honey I mean raw, unfiltered honey. Here are a few:

  1. Allergy Relief:

    Unlike the ultra-filtered, heated, blended honeys that you’ll find in the honey bears on every grocery market shelf, raw, lightly filtered honeys still have pollen in them. Many people believe that if you consume raw, local honey your body will build immunity to the pollen that causes allergies.

  2. All-Natural Energy Source:

    Out of all the sweetening agents that we use in western culture, honey is the healthiest of the bunch. It’s a sugar that our body recognizes with a low glycemic index.

  3. Cough Suppressant:

    Honey works just as well as Dextromethorphan as cough medicine.

  4. Burns:

    Honey can actually help treat burns and wounds due to its antibacterial, anti-fungal, and general antiseptic nature.

  5. Face Cleanser:

    Also related to its antiseptic nature, honey can actually be used as a face wash.

Q

So if raw, unfiltered honey is good honey, what about local honey? Is that also an important factor?

A

For us at Bee Local there are three elements that make up a true, healthy honey: raw, unblended, and unfiltered; humane treatment of bees; and local sourcing when possible. If the allergy benefits are what you’re looking for, then raw, local honey is the ticket specifically because local honey has local pollen, which helps your body build immunity towards it. However, if the honey is local yet highly-filtered, all of the pollen, propolis, and other hive goodies are excluded. That said, raw honey is really what matters when you look at honey’s health benefits in general. If you’re buying honey that isn’t raw the beneficial amino and chemical bonds have been destroyed by heat. At that point it’s a sterile sweetener—still natural and low-glycemic, but missing many benefits of raw honey.

Q

If eating raw honey is the only way to get all of its health benefits, is cooking with it, or adding it to hot beverages, inherently bad?

A

It’s not inherently bad whatsoever. There’s absolute beauty in a honey-glazed carrot, or a honey-marinated and roasted pork shoulder, or a honey, dill, and mustard sauce to top your cedar plank salmon. After all, honey has been used as an ingredient in cooking for thousands of years. The only thing you are losing is the full nutritive benefits of raw honey. It’s similar to a cooked carrot or a raw carrot. Both are good for you, but when you cook something, the chemical composition changes. One very simple way to enjoy and use honey is to have a variety of honey whose flavor and texture you prefer for cooking, while also having a jar of “finishing honey” that you can use at the end of the cooking process—topping things and keeping the honey raw.

Q

Is there such a thing as organic honey?

A

It probably exists, but it is very difficult to guarantee. A bee can fly up to five miles to visit a flower or water source. Therefore you would have to know for sure that nothing in that radius contains anything non-organic. Therein lies the dilemma. We’ve been trying to find American-made, certified-organic honey, but as of yet we have not come across other beekeepers who produce it. The majority of honey we see that is certified organic comes from Central and South America, which is not necessarily an encouraging fact when it comes to transparency.

Q

Assuming you’re referring to honey laundering, can you explain what that is?

A

Honey laundering in a nutshell: certain producers in China add sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup to honey, they use harsh in-hive chemicals, and they use harsh extraction practices. Because of these things, many of these honeys are made illegal for importation by the U.S. government. However, to get around this, these producers will heat, blend, and ultra-filter their honey—removing even the tiniest traces of pollen. Pollen is the fingerprint of honey, and by removing it you remove the ability to trace honey’s origin. From here, this illegal honey gets sent to co-packers and honey brokers where it is received, re-blended, cut with other sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, and illegally relabeled as honey from another source—in many cases from Central and South America. And partly as the result of there being no federally mandated definition for honey, these honeys will make it into the American market, and consumers will unknowingly pick up a jar on the grocery store shelves that they think is something healthy for them, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many large honey companies in the U.S. have been indicted for buying and selling illegal Chinese honey.

Q

To switch gears a bit, we keep hearing about colony collapse and the myriad theories behind what’s causing it. What do you think is the culprit?

A

The current paradigm in apiculture (beekeeping) is most definitely taking a massive toll on honeybee health. Specifically, the entire system of beekeeping in the U.S. is focused not on honey production, but on the pollination of massive monocrops around the country—the almond orchards in California being the biggest of these. This means beekeepers are locking bees up in hives and transporting them hundreds and thousands of miles to pollinate crops in small windows of time when the “pollen is flowing.”

When you break down this reality to the bare bones, it is very obvious to see what’s going wrong: take any animal or insect and transport it on the back of a truck in a stressful environment all around the country, bring it to a confined space with millions of its brethren, spray it with a bunch of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, feed it only high fructose corn syrup, and continually work to artificially change its genetics, and that animal or insect will become chronically sick and eventually die. Here’s an analogy: Imagine bringing thousands of people from around the country and overcrowding them into a New York subway. Ask them to live there together for two weeks. Subject those people to poisons and chemicals. And feed them really bad food. What do you think would happen to the overall health of those people in that scenario?

Q

What’s the solution?

A

We don’t like to directly blame beekeepers or farmers who practice this type of Big Agriculture. Unfortunately, it is the norm and it is a detrimental system that we have all taken part in. But bees and beekeepers have worked in symbiosis for literally thousands of years, and using bees to pollinate crops dates back to the beginnings of agriculture. The solution is for consumers and food businesses to work with companies like ours to fix the way the current system is built and contribute to a new beekeeping paradigm:

  1. Don’t transport bees thousands and thousands of miles. Try to keep them in one place as much as possible.

  2. Don’t supplement bees’ feed with high-fructose corn syrup. If you have to supplement feed, use inverted sugar or the like.

  3. Don’t use harsh in-hive chemicals. If you have to treat bees for illness there are lessers of many chemical evils that can be used.

  4. Don’t subject bees to the pesticides and herbicides and fungicides that are ubiquitous in Big Agriculture—farm organically or biodynamically.

  5. Treat bees with respect.

  6. Treat end consumers with respect and offer transparency.

Q

It sounds like Bee Local is one of the only guaranteed single-origin honey producers out there right now, and you seem to be expanding quickly. What’s the goal for the business?

A

We’re proud to both produce and source some of the first single-origin focused honeys in America. Mono-floral honey is beautiful when done right—and we source some incredible Oregon buckwheat and California orange blossom honeys. But there’s so much delicious nuance in honeys that come from bees in urban or non-mono-crop environments that we wanted to put our focus there—encouraging people to think of honey as an artisan ingredient as opposed to a sweetener.

We now have single-origin honeys from Oregon, Washington, and California, but our goal is to find and work with like-minded beekeepers throughout the U.S. (in places like Austin, Chicago, New York, etc.), as well as beekeepers around the world (in places like Ghana, South Africa, Republic of Georgia, Nicaragua), and offer the largest library of single-origin, place-based honeys in the world.

Q

This single-origin, place-based model seems to have worked for coffee and wine—do you think it will work for honey?

A

I absolutely think that the model will work for honey—just as it did for coffee and wine—because of the fascinating nature of honey. In fact, honey arguably has the ability to even more closely reflect the time and place where it was made. The flowers blooming in a specific region and environmental conditions in a certain year are all reflected in the flavor, viscosity, aromatics, and vibrant color of honey. And within these same regions all these sensory elements of honey can change subtly or drastically from year to year. And just like with wine and coffee, there’s something inherently fascinating about a substance that can uniquely capture a time and a place in a jar.

Q

What challenges are you facing?

A

As far as challenges go, the main things would be education and capital. Honey was a substance that was not only commoditized in the last century, but it was also replaced by sugar as the sweetener of choice in our culture’s recipe library. Our goal is to show that—just as a tomato in December bears no resemblance to that heirloom beauty in summer—good, raw, unblended, unfiltered honey bears no resemblance to the cheap, bland honey that’s ubiquitous on grocery store shelves across America, and it’s better for you than sugar. We hope that chefs, food processors and producers, and consumers increasingly reach for brands like ours on the shelf—knowing that they are not only getting a transparently produced, high-quality, artisan product, but that they are supporting sustainable beekeeping, the health of honeybees, and the pocketbooks of small to medium sized family beekeepers.

Q

As consumers, what can we do to help?

A

We encourage consumers to think about honey just like they would think about fine wine, organic produce, or single-origin coffee. Be discerning, buy honey from your local beekeepers, buy honey from larger brands like Bee Local who pride themselves on transparency and quality, substitute honey in recipes when you can, and help to re-elevate honey as a beautiful, respected, and essential element in your kitchen pantry. Honey was once a revered substance, and thanks to an increasing number of great producers, it’s time honey reclaimed its former glory as a special, non-commodity ingredient.

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