Try posting anything on social media in which honey is either heated or added to a hot beverage. 3, 2, 1…and you will have hordes of angry people buzzing in your comments section on how you have just manufactured poison. There is no truth to this myth. That said, heat can have detrimental effects on the nutritional value of honey, destroying its enzymes, antibacterial and antioxidant compounds, according to John Skinner at the University of Tennessee, US, so you still want to avoid overheating it if you are paying a pretty penny for your fancy honey. But let’s get this straight—heating honey will not produce poison.
But why do a lot of Indians continue to believe that heating honey makes it poisonous? As always, it is based on something that is partially true but is then taken out of context to create this myth. The internet warriors on the side of Team “Heating Honey Makes it Poisonous” use “Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF)” as their weapon of choice. HMF is produced when sugars in any food are caramelised, or during the Maillard reaction. It is not exclusive to honey. HMF is also formed in toasted bread, roasted coffee beans, dried fruit and many foods. At this point, what we know is that HMF has been shown to be carcinogenic at very high doses in rats. For the overly concerned, there are studies that quote acceptable levels of exposure to HMF and it is worthwhile to compare that with the actual daily exposure, as the toxicity of any substance is entirely dependent on dosage.
Adding a spoonful of honey to hot water, tea, or to sweeten a gravy, will not take the temperature above 100 degrees Celsius at any rate to cause the Maillard or caramelisation reactions that produce HMF in the first place. And finally, it’s also worth considering—how much of those beneficial compounds are actually present in a teaspoon of honey in the first place for us to worry about destroying them by heating?
Now let’s address raw honey. This trending product in the health food scene is a term for honey straight from the beehive to the bottle, without filtration, heating or pasteurisation. Raw honey has a richer aroma, enzymes, pollen, and possible impurities. No heating means no loss of nutrients. Beekeepers extract the honey at room temperature, let it settle overnight and then bottle it. This honey is prone to developing a granular texture and it is not an indicator of adulteration with sugar syrup. Honey in its natural state is a mix of supersaturated sugars which do tend to crystallise and it is perfectly good for consumption. Keep the (glass) bottle in warm water or in the sun for a bit and it is ready to be used.
Fresh raw honey has no HMF and if you are paying good money to buy it, then use it only at room temperature because adding it to hot foods will undo all that you have paid a premium for.
Now that we have discussed the controversial bits, let’s move to the fun parts. Bees symbolise hard work and industriousness, for all good reasons. They collectively fan their wings to evaporate water from the nectar (70% moisture) they collect from flowers and turn it into honey (17% moisture). In case you assumed that the queen bee is one lazy royal being attended to by thousands of labouring worker bees and drones, she is not. She lays 2,500 eggs every day. Compare that to the most productive hen that lays less than one egg per day. The worker bees fly up to 88,500km and visit two million flowers to produce around half a kilogram of honey.
Speaking of flowers, the flavour profile of each honey varies, depending on the variety of flowers the bees visit and extract nectar from. Eucalyptus honey will mildly remind you of toothpaste (because of the menthol in it) while buckwheat honey is darker and spicier. This Diwali, a friend gifted us a quintet of honey collected from the Sundarbans forests—Mangrove, Litchi, Mustard, Coriander and Eucalyptus. On the days I need some extra self-love, I ask myself, “What’s special for breakfast, honey?”, and proceed to enjoy my buttered toast with a drizzle of one of these special honeys.
Honey yogurt sauce
Makes 1 cup
This sauce ticks all the boxes of tangy, sweet, spicy and salty.
1 cup thick yogurt or Greek yogurt
1 tbsp honey
Half tsp salt
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp red chilli flakes
Whisk together yogurt, honey, salt and parsley. Spread it in a shallow bowl. Lightly warm the extra virgin olive oil and chilli flakes. Pour it all over the honey yogurt sauce.
How to use: Serve as a dip along with veggie sticks or crackers or as part of a cheese board.
Make a bed of this sauce and top with roasted vegetables like eggplant, broccoli, zucchini and bell peppers for a cracking side dish.
Thin with lemon juice and use as a salad dressing.
Ginger Lemon Honey Soother
Makes 1 cup
1 tbsp grated ginger
A pinch of turmeric powder
A pinch of black pepper powder
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp honey
1 cup warm water
Squeeze the grated ginger well through a sieve, a muslin cloth square or your hand to extract all the juice. Take ginger juice, turmeric, black pepper, lemon juice and honey in a mug and whisk well with a fork until thoroughly mixed. Top with warm water and stir well.
Optional: Add a splash of dark rum or whisky to the mug for a comforting nightcap.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Instagram and Twitter.
Also read | The myriad ways to use cherry tomatoes