5 Reasons You Should NEVER Cook with Raw Honey
Just inside the door of our soda shop when we were in our local downtown area, was a sign where we routinely posted health tips. Hands down, the chalked message that brought on the most surprise and the most conversation was the one stating that "you should never cook honey because it becomes toxic". I think that a lot of people understand that raw honey is best. The problem is that prevailing honey wisdom is to take that raw honey home and COOK with it!! We have a lot of misinformation about honey and it starts with the idea that it is a healthier alternative to granulated sugar.
You may have been using honey in your baking for some time now because you were told that it was a better alternative to refined sugar. You happily began altering all your recipes noting how to prevent the excessive browning that can be typical with this type of sugar...
I have some good news and some bad news, and you might want to sit down before you read any further.
What I am about to share with you will not be popular with the various state honey boards. It goes against good beekeeper business, but nonetheless, here we are. In a time when bees are becoming scarce and the fruits of their labor are becoming less abundant, we hardly need to prop up inappropriate use of honey. Rather we should be using honey as a healing food in a respectful way that preserves all of its benefits.
Is Adding Honey to Tea Toxic?
Raw honey is universally seen as safe to use in hot tea or coffee. Evidence suggests that if you keep it below 104°F (60°C) you are generally ok. In practical terms this means that if your drink won't scald your tongue, it's safe to add honey.
Is It Okay to Eat Heated Honey?
Honey should NEVER be heated. It's important to understand all the stages at which honey is likely to be heated.
- When honey is harvested it must be "uncapped", this means that the wax caps must be removed from each individual hexagonal cell. Some beekeepers use a heated knife to do the cutting and you will have to decide if you are concerned about the chance of super heating each small amount of honey. We have always used an unheated knife to prevent this problem.
- Honey crystallizes after a time. At home you can safely re-liquify your jar by placing it in a pan of heated water that has been removed from the stove. I share more ideas for how to handle crystallized honey in my book, Sweet Remedies: Healing Herbal Honeys. In a beekeeping operation it is common to use a bucket or barrel heater. This is a thin strip like a belt that is placed around the center of a large container. It produces high temperatures in one spot and the honey warms out from the center. You end up with super-heated honey. We have always heated the room around our honey and allowed large containers to re-liquify by radiant heat. This is costly and inefficient- so not popular with large beekeepers- but it's worth it to us to ensure healthy honey for our customer.
- The American honey consumer has been taught to seek out crystal clear honey when shopping. Many beekeepers have adopted a practice of heating the honey before they filter it. Filtering is important because it takes out any wax chunks after harvesting, but to get anything smaller than the eye can see, you must heat it. We have always used a simple stainless steel strainer and unheated honey passes through it easily. To get honey through the very fine strainers needed to produce crystal clear honey (honey without small bits of pollen, wax and propolis) you must heat it.
- Pasteurization is still a popular process for many honey producers. You aren't as likely to find it at the farmer's market, but you certainly will at the gorcery store.
- You have to know where your line is. If you are comfortable with your honey being heated to temperatures just under pastuerization you can buy any raw honey. If you would like to be a bit more specific you will need to understand what your beekeeper's practices are before you buy.
Keeping honey raw is not only the beekeeper's responsibility, of course. If you buy raw honey because you know pasteurized honey is bad for you and then bring it home to bake into a loaf of fresh bread, guess what you've just made? Yep, you guessed it...when you cook honey you pasteurize it!
I'll let you think about that for a moment.
I never recommend cooking with our raw honey products and instead suggest creative applications so long as they are not actively heating or boiling.
What Happens if You Cook Honey?
- Nutrient Loss: Antioxidant content of raw honey is extremely variable, but the heat required for pasteurization (or baking) can reduce the amount by up to 1/3.
- Traditional Wisdom: Around the world most traditional medicine practices agree that heated honey has a negative affect on the human body. In the case of Ayurveda, it is believed that heated honey creates "ama". Ama is essentially the creation of sticky mucus. Mucus is your body's defense mechanism when inflammatory substances come into contact with our sensitive mucous membranes. You may have noticed that you clear your throat a lot after eating something like a candy bar or drinking a glass of pasteurized milk. That's it! In the case of "ama", the mucus that is created gets very sticky and adheres throughout the digestive tract- not a good situation. In Ayurvedic wisdom, ama created by eating heated honey is the most difficult to clear.
- Flavor: Honey that is heated becomes one-dimensional. It loses the subtle nuance of flavor that raw honey contains and becomes overly sweet and cloying.
- Glycemic Index: While the glycemic index of honey can vary depending on the type of nectar collected, it is in large part a low glycemic index food. There is some evidence to support my belief that when you cook honey it increases the glycemic index.
- Toxicity: I knew that centuries of cultural wisdom dictated that honey should not be heated. When I began to write about it for Sweet Remedies: Healing Herbal Honeys the historical wasn't enough, I wanted to know the science as well. What I found seems to point to a heat-formed contaminant called Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). HMF is a known carcinogen and it is highly toxic to bees. We don't really understand just how much of the stuff the human body can consume safely. Unfortunately, it forms any time we heat fructose (so, yeah... this is in quite a lot of things). Just like any other natural substance that "can" become toxic for us, the poison is really in the dose. When we put allll the things we tend to eat with heated fructose together with what we know about honey, it seems warranted to avoid heating this particular food item. Further, it seems as though the concentration of fructose in the substance heated matters and high fructose corn syrup and honey is particularly concerning. In my mind, the jury is out as to whether I am on the right track or not as it concerns HMF. It is definitely there, but I am trying to understand where the line of toxicity is crossed. There are many more questions to answer here. For now, it feels as though there is a symmetry to the traditional knowledge and a corresponding explanation in science that supports my belief that we should not cook honey.
So please, buy your honey from a beekeeper who NEVER applies heat to their honey.... take it home.... and use it RAW!
If you're looking for a natural sugar to use in your baking, I highly recommend maple syrup. That is what we use in our house when the recipe calls for a liquid or syrup sugar source. Maple syrup is rich in minerals and can stand high heat without changing its make-up.
What type of sugar do you like to cook with? Do you make recipes that call for you to cook honey?