Beyond artificial sweeteners most people think about only one option when they want to sweeten their coffee or dessert: table sugar. Learning a bit from the Romans provides a healthier alternative.
While Romans were aware of the existence of crystallized sugar – the Roman geographer Strabo described a “reed in India that brings honey without the help of bees” – they preferred honey and used it to sweeten wine (“mulsum”) and added it to cakes (“libum”) as well as various other sweets (“dulcia”).
And right they were: While, just like table sugar, honey mainly consists of two simple carbohydrates, fructose and glucose, and has the same caloric worth, it also comes with added health benefits that table sugar can’t provide.
What Makes Honey Healthy
Honey is created through bees collecting nectar from flowers, which they turn into honey with the help of enzymes in their saliva. These enzymes, together with the minerals and phytonutrients that were in the nectar, have various health benefits that range from clearing infections in wounds to aiding the immune system in the form of antioxidants.
As long as honey is kept in a closed jar and isn’t exposed to moisture, it can be stored for decades, if not centuries. It may crystalize after a while, but this actually can be an indicator for a honey of good quality – some manufacturers will heat honey during production, which keeps it liquid for longer, but this can destroy the enzymes contained in it, making the honey less healthy. In the worst case you might be left with nothing more than sugar that looks like honey.
If your honey has crystallized, all that has to be done to liquify it again is putting the closed jar into warm water for a while – don’t use a microwave, as the same would happen as to industrially heated honey.
Honey and Babies
While its health benefits indeed are numerous, honey should not be fed to children younger than one year, as it can contain botulinum spores, which are bacteria that can cause paralyzation. In older children and adults these spores are destroyed by their more developed digestive systems.
Try It Out
If you are now ready to give it a try, start your experiment with a cup of coffee and roughly the same amount of honey as you would use of sugar, while also keeping an eye on the quality of honey you are using. Beyond being heated, cheaper honeys also sometimes have molasses, corn or sugar syrup added, which deteriorates a honey’s quality further. Usually you find the best and least processed honeys on farmer’s markets, where you can also talk with the producer in person.
To test a freshly bought honey for purity, try the following: At room temperature dip a knife into the jar and let the honey flow down from it. If it does so without breaking into separate drops and forms layers that quickly disappear, your honey should be of high quality.
Keep in mind that honey will taste a bit different than sugar when used as a sweetener. If you want to minimize this effect, stay with lighter colored honeys, as their flavor isn’t as strong as the one found in darker honeys. Generally speaking, the darker a honey is, the stronger its taste.
Picture courtesy of US Department of Agriculture.