Honey is the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar or secretions of plants, which the bees collect and transform by combining them with specific substances of their own. The bees subsequently deposit, dehydrate, store and leave the honey to ripen and mature in the honeycombs. The result is “blossom honey or nectar honey”. Bees can also produce honey from the excretion of plant-sucking insects; in this case the product is called “honeydew honey”.
For millennia, honey was the only natural sugary food available to ancient peoples, starting with the Hittites, from whom the term “melit” perhaps derives. A food that the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans considered extremely important for their well-being. Ayurvedic medicine was aware of its properties three thousand years ago, while the Ancient Egyptians were skilled beekeepers. Proof of this can be found in the bas-reliefs and wall paintings depicting men working with bees in numerous temples in the Nile valley. For the Egyptians honey wasn’t just a simple food, but the “food of the gods”. In Ancient Greece, Pythagoras suggested his followers eat honey because it would guarantee a long and healthy life, while the Romans imported large quantities of it from Cyprus, Spain and Malta. Like the Egyptians, the Ancient Romans used it many different ways: to sweeten food, to make honey wine (the famous hydromium), as a food preservative, and in numerous sweet and sour sauces. However, the most widespread use was for medicinal purposes, to cure, but also to prevent diseases. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Charlemagne forced every single peasant in his empire to raise bees: this is the moment in which human’s became beekeepers. With the discovery of the Americas, cane sugar arrived in Europe in large quantities, putting the honey industry in difficulty. It was only thanks to the curiosity of scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries that the “nectar of the gods” was not completely erased from the face of the Earth, and beekeepers slowly returned to producing it.
It is commonplace to say that honey is made by bees, but this is only partly true because – while recognising the essential role played by bees – honey’s organoleptic properties are actually characterised by its botanical origin. In nature there are numerous varieties of honey, which differ in appearance, smell and flavour depending on the different characteristics of the various nectar plants. In practice there are two types of honey: monofloral honey, which comes from a single flower source (e.g. acacia, citrus, chestnut) and multifloral honey, also called wildflower honey, which is produced from countless combinations of flowers. Honey crystallization is a natural phenomenon that only alters its appearance and not the quality. It occurs in many honeys, with some exceptions (acacia, chestnut, honeydew honey).
Honey is among the food products that are subject to specific European legislation. In fact, Council Directive 2001/110/EC defines the product that the term “honey” can be applied to, in particular providing for the obligation to respect a large number of compositional characteristics. The main varieties of honey are defined according to their botanical origin or their production method and/or appearance. Furthermore, the directive establishes that the origin of the honey must be included in the labelling. In Italy, the European directive was implemented with Legislative Decree no.179 of 21 May 2004, which, regards to indicating the geographical origin of the product, requires that the country of origin is indicated for all honeys packaged in Italy. This obligation also applies to honey mixtures, unlike that which is provided for by European legislation.
NUTRITIONAL VALUES / HEALTH BENEFITS
Honey is considered a healthy food with nutritional, natural and healthy properties. Honey is mainly composed (78% - 80%) of simple sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose), water (about 18%), while the remaining part – which determines the beneficial properties – is represented by organic acids, proteins and free amino acids, mineral salts, vitamins, enzymes and other microelements. Honey has higher sweetening power than table sugar and less calories per gramme. Being a single ingredient product, it is optional for producers to include the nutritional table on the labels of their honey.