Honey Information

Definition of Honey

“Honey is the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of blossoms or from the secretion of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which honeybees collect, transform and combine with specific substances of their own, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature.”

This is the general definition of honey in the Codex Alimentarius (1989)

The history of the use of honey is parallel to the history of man and in virtually every culture evidence can be found of its use as a food source. Until very recently, honey was the only concentrated form of sugar available to man in most parts of the world.

Resources for honey are nectar and honeydew.

Physical characteristics of honey

Freshly extracted honey is a viscous liquid. Raising the temperature of honey lowers its viscosity, a phenomenon widely exploited during industrial honey processing.

Honey density, expressed as specific gravity, is greater than water density, but it also depends on the water content of the honey. Roughly, honey is 1.5x heavier than water, meaning: a 16oz water container holds 24 oz of honey.

The strongly hygroscopic character of honey is important both in processing and for final use. Normal honey with a water content of 18.3 % or less will absorb moisture from the air at a relative humidity of above 60%.

It is the low surface tension of honey that makes it an excellent humectant in cosmetic products. Together with high viscosity, it is responsible for the foaming characteristics of honey.

Color in liquid honey varies from clear and colorless (like water) to dark amber or black. Color varies with botanical origin, age and storage conditions, but transparency or clarity depends on the amount of suspended particles such as pollen.

The most important aspect of honey color lies in its value for marketing and determination of its end use. Next to general quality determinations, color is the single most important factor determining import and wholesale prices.

In temperate climates most honeys crystallize at normal storage temperatures. This is due to the fact that honey is an oversaturated sugar solution, i.e. it contains more sugar than can remain in solution. Many consumers still think that if honey has crystallized it has gone bad or has been adulterated with sugar. The lower the water and the higher the glucose content of honey, the faster the crystallization. Temperature is important, since above 25 ° and below 5 °C virtually no crystallization occurs. Around 14°C is the optimum temperature for fast crystallization, but also the presence of solid particles (e.g. pollen grains) and slow stirring result in quicker crystallization.

Uniformly crystallized honey is attractive both visually and for its convenience of use. It is also less likely to ferment than badly crystallized or semi-crystallized honeys.

Composition of honey

Sugars account for 95 to 99% of honey dry matter. The majority of these are the simple sugars fructose and glucose which represent 85-95% of total sugars. Generally, fructose is more abundant than glucose. This predominance of simple sugars and particularly the high percentage of fructose are responsible for most of the physical and nutritional characteristics of honey.

Water is quantitatively the second most important component of honey. Its content is critical, since it affects the storage of honey. Only honeys with less than 18% water can be stored with little to no risk of fermentation. The final water content depends on a number of environmental factors during production such as weather and humidity inside the hive, but also on nectar conditions and treatment of honey during extraction and storage. It can be reduced before or after extraction by special techniques.

Among the minor constituents organic acids are the most important and of these gluconic acid, which is a by-product of enzymatic digestion of glucose, predominates. The organic acids are responsible for the acidity of honey and contribute largely to its characteristic taste.

Minerals are present in very small quantities, potassium being the most abundant. Dark honeys, particularly honeydew honeys, are the richest in minerals.

Other trace elements include nitrogenous compounds among which the enzymes originate from salivary secretions of the worker honeybees. They have an important role in the formation of the honey. The main enzymes in honey are invertase (saccharase), diastase (amylase), and glucose oxidase.

Traces of other proteins, enzymes or amino acids as well as water soluble vitamins are thought to result from pollen presence in honey.

Average composition of U.S honeys and ranges of values (White, et al., 1962)


(% except pH and diastase value) Average Standard deviation Range

Water <>17.2 1.5 13.4 – 22.9

Fructose 38.2 2.1 27.2 – 44.3

Glucose 31.3 3.0 22.0 – 40.7

Sucrose 1.3 0.9 0.2 – 7.6

Maltose (reducing disaccharides calculated as maltose) 7.3 2.1 2.7 – 16.0

Higher sugars 1.5 1.0 0.1 – 8.5

Free acids (as gluconic acid) 0.43 0.16 0.13 – 092

Lactone (as glucolactone) 0.14 0.07 0.0 – 0.37

Total acid (as gluconic acid) 0.57 0.20 0.17 – 1.17

Ash 0.169 0.15 0.020 – 1.028

Nitrogen 0.041 0.026 0.000 – 0.133

pH 3.91 – 3.42 – 6.10

Diastase value 20.8 9.8 2.1 – 61.2

Physiological effects of honey

Nutritional benefits

Honey is said to facilitate better physical performance and resistance to fatigue, particularly for repeated effort; it also promotes higher mental efficiency. It is therefore used by both the healthy and the sick for any kind of weakness, particularly in the case of digestive or assimilative problems. Improved calcium fixation in bones and curing anaemia and anorexia may all be attributed to some nutritional benefit or stimulation from eating honey.

Benefits to the digestive apparatus

Honey is said to improve food assimilation and to be useful for chronic and infective intestinal problems. Cases of successful treatment of various gastrointestinal disorders have been reported.

Benefits to the respiratory system

In temperate climates and places with considerable temperature fluctuations, honey is a well known remedy for colds and mouth, throat or bronchial irritations and infections. The benefits, apart from antibacterial effects, are assumed to relate to the soothing and relaxing effect of fructose.

Benefits to skin and wound healing

Honey is used in moisturizing and nourishing cosmetic creams, but also in pharmaceutical preparations applied directly on open wounds, sores, bed sores, ulcers, varicose ulcers and burns. It helps against infections, promotes tissue regeneration, and reduces scarring also in its pure, unprocessed form.

If applied immediately, honey reduces blistering of burns and speeds regeneration of new tissue. Many case histories are reported in the literature for human as well as veterinary medicine (sores, open wounds and teat lesions in cows).

Medicine-like benefit

Frequently, specific benefits of unifloral honeys are reported, based on the traditional assumption that honey made from the nectar of a medicinal plant has the same or similar beneficial activity as the one recognized for the whole plant or some parts of it. Even if no transfer of active ingredients is involved, mechanisms similar to homeopathic potentiation are possible. Empirically effective therapies such as Bach flower therapy and aroma-therapy suggest that there can be much more to the medicinal value of honey than chemical analysis and quantification reveals.

Ayurvedic medicine

Traditional, but well-studied medicinal systems as the ayurvedic medicine of India, use honey predominantly as a vehicle for faster absorption of various drugs such as herbal extracts. Secondarily, it is also thought to support the treatment of several more specific ailments, particularly those related to respiratory irritations and infections, mouth sores and eye cataracts.

Other benefits

Honey is said to normalize kidney function, reduce fevers and help insomnia. It is also supposed to help recovery from alcohol intoxication and protect the liver; effects also ascribed to fructose syrups.

Biological Activity

Antibacterial activity

Antibacterial activity is the easiest to test and is probably the most studied biological activity of honey. In normal honey it is attributed to high sugar concentration and acidity (pH range 3.5 to 5.0). Yet, since also diluted honey has shown antibacterial activity, the active ingredient was attributed to an elusive substance generically termed “inhibin”. Much of this activity was later attributed to hydrogen peroxide (H202) an enzymatic by-product during the formation of gluconic acid from glucose. The responsible enzyme, glucose oxidase is basically inactive in concentrated normal honey. Thus, in honey solutions (diluted honey) with the right pH, antibacterial activity is largely due to the presence of hydrogen peroxide. The biological significance of such a mechanism arises from the requirement to protect immature honey (with high moisture content) inside the colony until higher sugar concentrations are achieved.

Both mechanisms can partially explain the sterilizing effect of honey on wounds and some of its efficacy against cold infections, but it does not explain its beneficial effect on burn wounds and faster wound healing with less scarred tissue.

Antibacterial activity varies greatly between different types of honey. In addition to glucose oxidase, honey seems to contain other mostly unknown substances with antibacterial effects, among which are polyphenols. However, it has been well demonstrated that most of the antibacterial activities of honey are lost after heating or prolonged exposure to sunlight (Dustmann, 1979).

Information sources on honey therapy

The American Apitherapy Society collects case histories and scientific information on all therapeutic uses of bee products. There are several articles on honey therapy in Apimondia (1976).


Main Source of information with all the references quoted above: