Irish heather honey hit the news recently after researchers found it has similar health benefits to the manuka variety. So, this week we’re taking a closer look at heather honey, as well as lifting the lid (so to speak) on the average jar from your local supermarket. Is it the real thing and is it actually good for you?
The researchers at TCD and DCU found that Irish heather honey contains high levels of phenolic compounds. In plain English that means it contains lots of good stuff to keep you healthy and prevent or repair cell damage. Basically it has healing and anti-aging properties. But how easy is it to find Irish heather honey, and can you still get some health benefits from your average supermarket brand?
A number of Irish producers sell heather honey, a jar of which will set you back between €10 and €20. There are good reasons why it’s so expensive. The average yield per year per hive in Ireland is just 40lbs. That’s not a lot to start off with, but there are particular challenges when it comes to heather.
Finding a good heather site can be difficult. A site in the hills will yield purer honey, but weather and access can pose problems. A lowland site is easier to manage but the end product won’t be as pure because the bees will be getting some of their nectar elsewhere. Added to that, heather isn’t always reliable and may not yield nectar at all.
Harvest time is mid to late September so get onto some local suppliers to put your order in. You can contact leahy beekeeping, olly’s farm or leinster honey to buy delicious heather honey direct from the source. Or you could try your local farmer’s market.
Raw or Processed?
When you buy honey from a local producer you’re not just getting the best in Irish honey, you’re also getting it pure, raw and unfiltered. What’s so great about that, you might ask? Well, it’s complicated. Basically, while most supermarket honeys are processed, raw honey is not. Claims that processing removes the pollen, and some of the nutrients that give honey its health benefits, are rejected by counterclaims that processing doesn’t cause damage and is necessary to remove impurities.
So, which is it? Turns out it’s not that simple. Lots of research studies look at how processing affects honey, but most of these test specific varieties. And their health benefits vary depending on the plant source. One study tested clover and buckwheat honeys and found that while processing didn’t reduce the clover honey’s health benefits it did affect the buckwheat honey, lowering its antioxidant levels by one third.
More damaging, however, was the amount of storage time. After six months in storage, antioxidant levels in both the processed and raw clover honey decreased by 30%. In the processed buckwheat honey it decreased by 24% and for the raw buckwheat the decrease was 49%. This meant that after storage the amount of antioxidants was similar in both the processed and raw products.
So if you’re eating honey for its health benefits it might be best to hedge your bets. Buying it raw directly from source will ensure you’re getting all of the healthy stuff intact. Plus you can check with the supplier when it was harvested.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Honey
Another issue when it comes to honey is adulteration – that’s when real thing is mixed with a cheaper syrup to increase profit margins. The Netflix documentary series Rotten has an entire episode dedicated to the honey industry, and it’s enlightening. It highlights the fact that more honey is being consumed worldwide than is produced. Honey adulteration is a big industry.
There are purity tests, but the cheats are constantly coming up with new ways to beat the tests. Some years ago, Chinese producers discovered that while the tests picked up on syrups made from corn and cane sugar, they didn’t detect rice syrup. These producers began using it to produce huge quantities of honey which they exported to the US at very low prices, undercutting US producers. When US officials reacted by placing a high import tariff on Chinese honey, the Chinese producers began illegally moving their product through other countries to escape these tariffs.
However, the documentary focused on the US market. What about Europe – are we getting real honey? In 2015 the European Commission organised an EU-wide assessment of 2,000 honey samples from its twenty-eight member states along with Norway and Switzerland. Tests to assess the prevalence of honey adulterated with cheap syrups revealed that 14% of the samples contained added sugar.
There are simple home tests that claim to test the purity of honey. The glass of water test works on the principle that impure honey will dissolve faster in a glass of water. The crystallisation test advises that real honey will crystallise in the jar.
Unfortunately, no foolproof home test exists – honey crystallises or not depending on temperature and texture, how quickly it dissolves in water also depends on the type of honey. Even the experts in lab coats have difficulty weeding out the fake from the real honey at times. Perhaps your best bet is to buy it as close to the source as you can.