Call it a honey trap, but there is something about the golden syrup that has enslaved us forever. The 100 percent pure and natural sweetener has been around for time immemorial, long before sugar took over the popularity chart a few centuries ago. The numerous uses of honey makes it best friends with sliced bread, compatible with a number of herbal teas, favourite doctor for skin, hair and respiratory ailments, an effective performance booster, soothing antiseptic and a weight watcher’s rescue ranger. The all-round personality of honey ensures that it remain ever-present on our kitchen-shelf ready for its next outing.

Reigning over the world with hundreds of mind-boggling variations, the colour, flavour and the scent of each variety of honey can be different depending on the flower it is sourced from. This makes it vastly difficult for us to figure which one works best for us. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to decide and the choice largely depends on taste preferences and the usage. Generally, the rule of thumb says that lighter-coloured honey tastes milder than darker toned, although there are exceptions.

HONEY LAUNDERING

Unfortunately, general consensus states that it is difficult to find this unadulterated form commercially — thanks to what is popularly dubbed as ‘honey laundering’. One of the biggest differences between the two is the removal of pollen grains and propolis (bee glue) from the filtered and pasteurised version available in the market. Pollen and propolis found in raw honey are actually plant extracts that carry huge health and medicinal value, and removing them robs the honey of its many nutrients. Compared to raw honey which is powered with antioxidants, antifungal and antiviral properties, the regular honey may contain antibodies. While raw honey can be shelved for centuries even, filtered honey is artificially preserved to extend shelf life.

What’s the best way to pick the right honey?

RAW VS PURE HONEY

Another confusion that people often face is the difference between raw honey and pure honey. There is but a fine line between raw and the pure form and that is primarily to do with texture rather than temperature as is often supposed. While raw is just that — raw with bits of ground up honeycomb, pollen and even parts of bees in honey, the pure form is the strained and meshed version where most grits are removed, resulting in a much cleaner, clearer golden syrup. However, since it is not heated beyond the point of pasteurisation, many nutrients remain intact.

Noor Khan, a beekeeper from Gilgit-Baltistan, explains that raw honey is unheated, unpasteurised and unprocessed honey. It is the most original form of honey. “We collect raw honey directly from bee frames, and use a special, old-fashioned bottler to pour the thick honey into sterilised glass jars,” he says. “It is also called ‘raw and cold extracted honey’ as no heat is applied during extraction, preserving all natural vitamins, living enzymes and nutrients.”

With its strong and distinct woody flavour, honeydew or forest honey is yet another notable addition to the family. Unlike honey made out of blossom nectar, forest honey comes from sugary tree sap and various grasses and is excreted by plant-sucking insects such as aphids. In appearance, it is available in darker tones, although at times it is tinted with greenish, brownish or bluish shades. While in nature, it does tend to have similar characteristics as its cousins, in taste it differs slightly with a warm, woody, aromatic flavour that may take a little getting used to.

Raw honey crystallises fairly quickly because it contains tiny particles of bee pollen, propolis and honeycomb. Sugar molecules present in honey are attracted to these foreign bodies and form granules. “Though raw honey appears cloudier and flows slowly, it is rich in amino acids and minerals, contains approximately 5,000 enzymes, and has an extremely high level of antioxidants,” Khan adds.

Nevertheless, some suppliers pasteurise honey (up to 70 degrees celsius) to make it flow faster through their honey-processing machines and into the bottles.

Also, heat keeps the honey from crystallising soon (consumers prefer clear and liquid form of honey). Although pasteurised honey appears clearer and smoother, little do the consumers know that the translucent honeys kept on the shelves in supermarkets have actually lost most of their active vitamins, minerals, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties

Wait! You might be thinking that pasteurisation is important to kill bacteria present in honey. This is a misconception! The truth is that bacteria cannot reproduce in honey due to its low water content and acidic pH value. Therefore, pasteurisation is absolutely unnecessary; it is rather a marketing requirement, since buyers tend to think that clear honey looks healthier and deem it to be pure.

There is no doubt that Pakistan produces some of the world’s finest and sweetest honeys like Acacia Modesta, Acacia Nilotika, Apple Blossom, Peach Blossom, Sidr (Beri), Robinia (from Black Locust Tree), Orega (sperkai) and Juniper Forest honey. Apiculture (beekeeping) bloomed significantly in Pakistan during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979, when Afghan refugees came and settled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They were facilitated by United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in establishing their respective beekeeping businesses.

“Bee boxes were donated, and bees were imported from Australia and Italy so that these refugees could earn a respectable living,” explained Shehroze Ramay, an online honey marketplace owner, who works with a large team of beekeepers from across Pakistan. “Gradually, their businesses grew and today approximately 80 percent of honey businesses are owned by the Afghan refugees settled in and around Peshawar.”

EXTRACTION

Professionally, honey can be extracted either through cold extraction method, where the wax is sliced off using an uncapping knife followed by a capping scratcher before it goes into the extractor. The other way to peel off wax is by using a hot knife which does a much neater job, but at the same time exposes the honey to some heat. Yet another way to shave off wax is by using a heated electric shaver. Generally, companies and brands like to stress on the cold old-fashioned extraction method in order to ensure that the nutrients in the honey remain intact.

Areas like Upper Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and some regions of Punjab have become extremely famous for supplying raw, organic and cold extracted honey nationwide and abroad. Honeys from these areas are exported and revenue of over millions of dollars is generated. “Saudia Arabia and the UAE are the most lucrative markets for our organic honey,” Ramsay adds.

However, numerous brands of adulterated honeys are also abundantly available in market. They appear quite clear and runny, are sold in neat packaging and carry convincing information so that distinctions between pure and impure have become almost impossible.

ARE WE BUYING THE RIGHT KIND?

Regardless of the flavour and colour, what’s important when choosing the right honey is the quality. Obviously, the best way to eat honey is raw, and for that checking out small local markets is a good option. You can also find vendors who supply honey straight from the farm.

However, just to be on the safe side there are certain ways to identify raw/pure honey from adulterated one. For one thing, look for honey that is not very clear; you will find tiny bits and pieces of pollen and other debris that ensures the honey is in its purest, unprocessed form. There is a good chance that it will be crystallised even in the jar. Then there is the spoon test: take a small amount of honey and let it drip on a flat surface. If it’s too runny, it could be impure since raw honey is quite thick in texture even if the debris has been meshed. Try the water test as well: pure honey and water do not mix.

Some brands and suppliers sell jars of honey with intact honeycomb, which also make it a smart choice since the honey is absorbing the nutrition from the comb.

Farmers, on the citrus belt of Pakistan (from Sargodha to Bhalwal, Punjab), use pesticides excessively, due to which their honey doesn’t stay 100 percent organic. Also, there has been a 50 percent decline in the bee population in the region.

“We doubt if mustard honey produced in central and northern Punjab is actually organic as the crops there are sprayed with harmful insecticides. At times, sand is mixed in the honey to give it a cloudy and raw appearance,” Ramay says. “Canned honey which is abundantly available from Balakot to Naran Kaghan, aren’t organic at all because beekeepers are forced to feed glucose to their bees. There are no flowers throughout the belt.”

Though distinction is difficult, you can observe various characteristics of pure honey given in the chart to find out whether you’ve bought real or fake honey.

At the end of the day, choosing the right honey is not as simple as picking up a jar from the shelf. It might help to read the labels and watch out for words like fructose and corn syrup, which means the honey has been tampered with. Stating that honey is pure does not mean much, because it may be pure, but it could be devoid of all its nutrition since it was exposed to high heat. Eventually, it is simply a matter of preference and trial-and-error before we settle on a brand, quality and flavour that appeal to our taste buds. But irrespective of what we choose, there’s no denying that this molten gold remains one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

Real honey

  • Causes a mild burning sensation in the throat

  • Does not separate in layers

  • When spread on a bread, it hardens in minutes

  • Has natural impurities like bee pollen, propolis, particles of honey comb and wax

  • Quite thick and flows slowly

Fake honey

  • Does not cause burning sensation in the throat

  • Separates into layers

  • Makes bread slightly soggy when spread on it due to moisture content

  • No impurities; it is clear and smooth

  • Slightly runny

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 28th, 2017