Chemistry Of Honey

Honey belongs to the carbohydrate food group as does sugars and starches, and is a liquid solution in nearly equal proportions of two invert sugars, which are dextrose and levulose. The terms dextrose and levulose originated from the use of the two prefixes, dexter (right) and levis (left), because the former turns the polarized light to the right, and the latter to the left. These two invert sugars are natural or simple sugars, because they are readily absorbed by the bloodstream without requiring the assistance of the salivary, gastric or intestinal secretions to accomplish the process of inversion. Cane sugar, and some other artificial sugars must first be inverted into simple sugars before they are assimilated into the blood stream.

In addition to the two invert sugars, honey contains aromatic volatile oils, which give it its sweet rich flavor. Honey also has mineral elements (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorus, etc.), some protein, various enzymes, vitamins and coloring matter. With regard to the vitamin content of honey, there are considerable disputes about the subject among research workers. “Hoyle”, of the Lister Institute in London, Hawk, Smith and Bergheim allege that honey is deficient in vitamins. Dutcher thinks that there is a small vitamin content in honey but the amount is negligible. Faber believes that there is “probably” no antiscorbutic vitamin present in honey. French scientists, such as A. L. Clement, L. Iches, Laborde and others, however, found vitamins in honey, though in minute quantities; they are water-soluble B and C and fat-soluble A vitamins. Alin Caillas, the well-known agricultural chemist of France, remarks (Les tresors d’une goutte de miel, 1924) that plants contain vitamins and that honey, produced from fluids which circulate in their organic tissues under the beneficial influence of the sun, must contain vitamins though we are unable to determine exactly their presence. We might call the vitamins sparks which ignite food substances.

The main chemical components of honey (in percentages) are:

Invert sugars 73.31
Sucrose (cane-sugar) 2.63
Dextrin 2.89
Nitrogen substances 1.08
Water 18.96
Ash 0.24

These component parts will natural vary in different types of honeys. Honey is soluble in water, is of distinctly acid’ reaction and becomes vinous by fermentation. Its specific gravity is 1.40 to 1.45, that is, it is heavier than water. While a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds, a gallon of honey weighs 12 pounds. It is a rather perplexing problem to decide whether honey is a vegetable or animal product. Considering, however, the fact that the bees make honey also from white sugar (in which all vegetable components are destroyed) we ought to place honey in the latter group.

Of the two invert sugars, levulose is of greater importance. While dextrose is half as sweet as cane-sugar, levulose is twice as sweet. Levulose is an ideal sweet, the sweetest of all sugars in Nature and would be the sugar of the future if chemists could succeed in manufacturing it at a fair selling price. Today the price of chemically pure levulose is prohibitive (several dollars a pound) because it is difficult to produce in large quantities. Some chicories, dahlia bulbs and the Jerusalem artichoke (nothing to do with the Holy City, the name is merely corrupted from the French plant girasole) are rich in levulose (12-15%). Levulose is most soluble, delightful in flavor and is easily assimilated. It is the most valuable potential energy creator for the human system because it is an excellent glycogen (animal starch) producer. Glycogen is deposited in the muscles and especially in the liver, where it is available and may be changed into dextrose to furnish energy by oxidation. Levulose absorbs slowly and does not cause rise in blood sugar (hyperglycemia) which is the reason that it can be used by diabetic patients. The absorption of levulose is so tardy that it often reaches the large intestines, to which contingency some of the laxative effect of honey may be attributed.

Honey, as mentioned, is of acid reaction. Various authors believe that the bees inject or spray some venom (which is also of acid reaction) into each comb. This is supposed to impart an anti fermentative, antiseptic and conserving quality to honey. Many scientists differ on this point. Dr. Phillips, Professor of Apiculture, Cornell University, Ithaca, thinks that there is not a shred of truth in the statement that honey contains bee venom. He adds that “no acid is necessary to preserve honey, for it is such a concentrated solution of sugars that fermentation cannot occur if honey is fully ripened.” According to Dr. Phillips, honey contains yeasts of a peculiar sort, commonly called nectar yeasts or “sugar tolerant” yeasts which are able to grow only in certain concentrations of sugar. Honey is normally just above the limit of the sugar content under which these yeasts commence to sprout. The identical process takes place when honey granulates. The incoming nectar is thin, therefore the excess water must be eliminated to prevent fermentation. The United States Pure Food Law permits no more than 8% of sucrose in honey but most honey contains much less than that amount.

Returning to the subject of venom in honey, it is difficult, almost impossible to comprehend the intricacies of the complex biology and physiology of the bees and more so of their bewildering chemistry. Bee venom is not a digestive ferment like the venom of snakes. It must have some other purpose than that of punishing transgressors or even of curing arthritics. The remarkable and age-old curative effect of honey in external use cannot be attributed alone to its sugar content and hygroscopic power. It is more than a conjecture that bee venom may impart some advantages to honey (Alin Caillas). Needless to say, a minute quantity of venom would not make honey harmful as a food because our digestive ferments readily destroy even large quantities of bee venom. If it were not for that fact, the author would surmise that the presence of venom (though admittedly not chemically proven) might confer some benefits on honey when taken internally.

The acid reaction of honey may also be due to minute quantities (1/10 of 1 per cent) of lactic, succinic, citric and malic acids. Malic acid has a rather pleasant taste. It is found in some apples (from which it has derived its name) and in other plants and sour fruits. Currants contain an especially large quantity of malic acid. On the other hand, the statement that honey contains formic acid is based on a misconception, or rather, it is an error of chemistry. The age-old belief that bee venom contains formic acid is also a fallacy. It is remarkable that even the latest medical and chemical works have failed to correct this misstatement. Theodore Merl, in 1921, through carefully conducted chemical experiments proved that bee venom does not contain the slightest trace of formic acid, because the most sensitive tests were negative. Fiehe and Farnsteiner conducted numerous experiments which also proved, beyond any doubt, that the average honey does not contain formic acid. The former misconception was possibly due to the fact that silver nitrate reagents were used for the tests.

Reverting to the mineral constituents of honey, usually called ash, this is an extremely important consideration. Bones contain a considerable amount of calcium, and muscles, about 3 to 4% of mineral substances. During osmotic and oxidative processes many mineral elements are utilized which must be replaced and for this purpose honey is very useful.

Honey derives its greatest mineral content from plants; the ultimate mineral source of plants is, again, the soil in which they grow. In a word, the inorganic substances which honey contains are indirectly dependent on the soil, which is the reason the mineral constituents of honey greatly vary. A good fertilizer of the soil will also improve honey. It is an old English saying: “Where there is the best honey, there is also the best wool.”

Bees require mineral substances for their maintenance. Dried bees contain almost 5% ash. This explains the popularity of burned bees in ancient medicine. Of course, bees do not obtain all minerals from plants; hard water will also contribute its share. Bees fed on sugar-syrup lack minerals.

The mineral content of honey is not high; it is about one-fourth that of meat and a little less than that of milk. It seems, however, that the quality of the minerals makes honey valuable for dietetic use. Dark colored honey contains more minerals, mainly iron, copper and manganese which makes it especially fit for medicinal purposes. People who prefer light honey to dark make a great error. Heather honey is the richest in ash. Dark honey has a higher specific gravity; one “drop” of it will travel faster and also goes “further” in the organism.

The comparative analyses of ten samples of light and dark honeys in ash content, according to Schuette, in milligrams per kilogram, is the following:

Silica Iron Copper Manganese
Light honeys .065 2.4 .29 .06
Dark honeys .173 9.4 .56 .32

The consumption of dark honeys, which have a higher manganese content, possibly contribute to intensifying glorified maternal love. The experiments of Dr. Elmer V. McCollum of Johns Hopkins University prove that lack of manganese will cause mother rats and guinea pigs to refuse to cuddle or nurse their young. When these animals were fed an infinitesimal bit of manganese chloride the mother instinct was immediately awakened.

The following figures give the mineral constituents of thirty-four 100 gram samples of average honeys in milligrams. (Elser and Sundberg):

Phosphoric acid 56.93
Iron 1.80
Manganese .48
Chlorine 16.37
Calcium 15.86
Silicates 8.91
Magnesium 5.48
Potassium 149.40
Sodium 23.37

In establishing the relative difference of the sweetness of honey and other sugars, a tabulation of the comparative sweetness of various types of sugars, expressed in units, will be useful:

Levulose 173
Invert sugars 123
Cane-sugar 100
Glucose 74
Maltose 32
Galactose 23
Lactose 16

The hygroscopic quality of honey, as mentioned, is mainly due to levulose and to the colloidal substances which honey contains. Honey far excels molasses, commercial glucose and malt syrup in moisture-retaining power. Levulose is most hygroscopic among all sugars.