Honey has many nutritional benefits. It’s antibacterial, contains antioxidants, and can help ease your seasonal allergies. Experts advise that you get “local, raw honey” to get the most out of it. But what does that mean?
Local is when the bees (and therefore the flowers they feed on) are close to where you live. This is related to the claim that “local honey helps with your allergies.” It can. The reason it does is because honey which is not over-filtered contains pollen grains — but not a lot. When you eat a little bit of honey with that pollen, you are giving yourself a very low dose of what you are allergic too. This is exposure therapy. By taking a tiny bit of that allergen, you are giving your immune system something to practice with, so when the flowers bloom and spew all that yellow powdery goodness all over everything, your sinuses don’t go into overdrive.
To train your immune system on the pollen which irritates you the most — the pollen from the flowers around your house — you want honey produced from those flowers, or whatever is the closest. That’s why you look for a beekeeper who lives near you. The farther you get from your backyard, the less likely the pollen blend will the right one to lessen your symptoms.
Now, the overall flora of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York are not as different as, say, comparing New Jersey flowers to Arizona flowers. So if you live in the Lehigh Valley and you get honey from Warren County, New Jersey, it’s certainly better than whatever imported stuff is in the grocery store. But the more local you can get to your house, the more effective it will be.
Raw means “not pasteurized.” Pasteurization is a process by which a liquid (honey, milk, orange juice, wine) is raised to around 160º F for a short time, just enough to kill any pathogens in it. It’s named for Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who developed the process.
This is great for milk. It’s terrible for honey. Heating it can destroy a lot of the good stuff in it — the enzymes, vitamins, antimicrobial properties, etc. (This doesn’t mean you can’t cook with honey, only that it will be “just a sweetener” rather than help your allergies.)
It’s also unnecessary. Honey which is properly capped by bees has only about 17% water in it, which means that bacteria don’t have anything to grow in. This is the reason honey never spoils.
Filtered or Strained
Raw has nothing to do with taking stuff out of honey with a sieve. Filtering and straining are the same thing, just different degrees of fineness. Straining means passing the honey through some kind of sieve (metal, cloth, plastic) to clean out debris, like dirt, ants, wax, and bee legs. The holes in a strainer, while small, are large enough that pollen can pass through, maintaining all the health (and flavor) benefits. Filtering usually requires heating the honey so it becomes very liquid, since the holes in a filter are extremely small, and filters can catch and remove pollen. The honey may be more shelf-stable, but it’s not going to help you with your allergies.
Most local beekeepers will strain out visible bits because you want a product which looks like something you’d be willing to eat! It’s like washing the fruit you pick off your backyard tree. You wouldn’t eat an apple with bird poop still on it, so why would you balk at picking out the dead beetles from a jar of honey? But the apple, and the honey, are still raw and fresh.
But What About the Thick Stuff?
That’s called crystallized honey. It means that what little water is in the honey is evaporating, leaving behind sugary crystals. The honey isn’t spoiled, and it’s not “more raw.” It’s just easier to spread on your toast.
Some beekeepers will deliberately crystallize their honey and then whip it up a bit, to create creamed honey. The whipping action makes sure the crystals stay small and adds a little air to the final product.
Why is crystallized or creamed honey marketed as “raw”? It’s just that: marketing. The company wants you to get excited about it. Unfiltered or unstrained honey will crystallize faster than filtered honey, but it isn’t “not raw” or even “over-filtered” if it’s still liquid.
Read the Label
When you buy honey from your local beekeeper or beekeeping club, it should say right on the label that it’s raw. The honey from name brands at the grocery store generally won’t. (If your grocery store is partnering with local beekeepers to sell local raw honey, awesome!) If the word “raw” doesn’t appear on the label, you should assume it may have been pasteurized, and spend your money accordingly.
“Heating Honey — Everything You Need to Know.” BeeKeep Club
“Creamed Honey.” Wikipedia
“What Is Raw Honey? Demystifying the Truth About Honey Labels.” KowalskiMountain
"Golden Blossom Raw Honey." Golden Blossom
"Pure Orange Blossom Honey." Target