Honey, a universe to discover

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Honey

Honey is one of the most differentiated natural foods in relation to ecosystems and biodiversity, traditions and cultures, beneficial properties. A universe to discover, for well-being and health.

1) Types of honey. Monoflora, pluriflora and honeydew

The honeys they are mainly divided into three macro-categories:

– monoflora, i.e. mainly made up of a single botanical species,

– polyflora, that is, made up of two or more botanical species, without there being a specific prevalence (e.g. wildflower),

– honeydew honey. It’s the ‘honey obtained mainly from substances secreted by sucking insects (Hemiptera) found on living parts of plants or from secretions coming from living parts of plants‘. (1)

The composition and distribution of botanical species in plurifloral honey varies significantly, in relation to the geographical contexts of origin. However, smaller variations are also found in monoflora honeys, even when produced in different areas of the same country.

2) Identity, purity and quality

Honey Directive 2001/110/EC – now under review, as we have seen (2) – establishes in Annex I the purity and quality requirements of honey, defined as

the natural sweet substance that bees (Apis mellifera) produce from the nectar of plants or from the secretions coming from living parts of plants or from the substances secreted by sucking insects found on living parts of plants which they forage, transform, combining them with their own specific substances, deposit, they dehydrate, store and leave to ripen in the hive honeycombs.’ (3)

3) Honey label, optional information

The only ‘honey’ – not even ‘filtered honey’ nor ‘honey for industrial use’ – may include the following optional information on the label:

– floral or vegetal origin, if the product is entirely or mainly obtained from the indicated plant and possesses its organoleptic, physicochemical and microscopic characteristics,

– the regional, territorial or topographical origin, if the product comes entirely from the indicated origin,

– specific quality criteria. Such as, for example, in the EU. organic honey and/or Geographical Indications (i.e. DOP or AOP or PDO, IGP or PGI). (4)

4) Health-promoting properties

The scientific bibliography confirmed the knowledge consolidated over millennia on the correlations between the consumption of various types of honey, including honeydew honeys, and a wide range of health benefits. (5) Among these, the following properties stand out:

– antimicrobial and antiviral, of potential importance (Kunat-Budzyńska et al., 2023) also for the treatment of resistant pathogens, (6)

– anti-inflammatory and soothing,

– chemopreventive,

– modulation of the intestinal microbiota, as well as the immune system. (7)

Over 200 bioactive substances naturally make up honey. Among these, in the current state of knowledge, phenolic compounds (phenolic acids, polyphenols, flavonoids) and minerals take on particular importance from the point of view of health benefits. (8)

Fig. 1 – Healthy properties of monoflora honeys (Mărgăoan et al., 2021)

5) Health claims

A question that arises spontaneously is because the labels on honey – the 100% natural sweetener par excellence, since the Stone Age – do not report, in Europe, any of the numerous health benefits associated with its regular consumption. Unlike the labels of countless food products sweetened with artificial sweeteners which – despite the suspicions and certainties about the related public health risks (9,10) – instead make various ‘health and nutrition claims’.

Simply, the ‘EU Register of Health Claims’ does not make any authorized health claims about honey or the bioactive substances it contains. (11) Since no operator or trade association has so far dared to face the heavy evidentiary burdens imposed by the European Commission to submit the relevant applications.

Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has on the other hand clarified the possibility for economic operators in the food sector, under their own responsibility, to use ‘health claims (…) scientifically corroborated, taking into account all available scientific data and evaluating the evidence‘. (12) And the official interpretation of the Court, which intervened on ‘botanicals’, could also be applied by analogy to honey.

6) Sensory analysis of honey

Sensory analysis of honey also has regulatory relevance, although its organoleptic requirements are not as precise as those established in the EU for extra virgin olive oils. (13) International Honey Commission (IHC) has therefore developed a harmonized scientific method of sensory analysis, to identify:

– the botanical origin(s) of the honey, e

– the presence of any defects (e.g. fermentation), and thus ensure

– the conformity of the products to the marketing standards and the organoleptic requirements indicated (Piana et al., 2004). (14).

Organoleptic tests are based on a common terminology for tasters, a ‘smell and aroma wheel’ based on the characterization of different honeys, as well as a method for conducting sensory analysis and attributing evaluation results, in line with standards applicable ISOs.

Fig. 2 – Wheel of honey odors and aromas (Piana et al., 2004)

7) ISO standards in progress

At ISO headquarters (International Organization for Standardisation) the standard called ISO/CD 24607 is being defined, relating to the specifications of honey produced by bees of the Apis species and intended for direct consumption, including honey in containers intended for packaging, as well as honey intended for industrial use. (15) At present, the draft standard is registered and the comment period by the technical committee has ended.

8) Vegetarian, vegan?

One of the doubts relating to honey concerns its qualification as a food of animal or vegetal origin, as it is produced by bees but from components of vegetal origin (eg nectar). Hygiene 2 Regulation (EC) No 853/04 qualifies honey in all respects as a food of animal origin, therefore compatible with the vegetarian diet but not also with the vegan one. (16) The material of plant origin (i.e. pollen) that may remain is in turn classified in the EU as a product of animal origin (17,18).

9) Conclusions

The universe of honey it deserves to be explored and experimented in its infinite variety, to appreciate its sensorial characteristics with specific attributes that are always different in terms of colour, aroma, flavour, consistency, but also the beneficial properties which are in turn peculiar.

The protection of bees and so their pollination function – crucial for agri-food production and biodiversity – also depends on the diversity of the honey we consume. As well as the choice of organic foods, as they are made without the use of pesticides that are toxic to pollinators. (19)

Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna

Footnotes

(1) Guido Cortese, Dario Dongo. Honeydew honey, a superfood from the woods. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.13.19

(2) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. Honey, fruit juices, jams and marmalades, dehydrated milk. Proposals for the reform of marketing standards in the EU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.5.23

(3) Dario Dongo. Honey, identity on the label. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).  13.11.18

(4) Council Directive 2001/110/EC of 20 December 2001 relating to honey. Latest consolidated version 26.3.14 https://tinyurl.com/2bkh3xsp

(5) Bogdanov, Stefan & Jurendic, Tomislav & Sieber, Robert & Gallmann, Peter. (2009). Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 27. 677-89. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2008.10719745

(6) Kunat-Budzyńska M, Rysiak A, Wiater A, Grąz M, Andrejko M, Budzyński M, Bryś MS, Sudziński M, Tomczyk M, Gancarz M, Rusinek R, Ptaszyńska AA. Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of New Honey Varietals. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2023 Jan 30;20(3):2458. doi: 10.3390/ijerph20032458

(7) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Honey and health. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 27.4.20

(8) Mărgăoan R. et al. (2021). Monofloral Honeys as a Potential Source of Natural Antioxidants, Minerals and Medicine. Antioxidants 10(7):1023, https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox10071023

(9) Dario Dongo, Camilla Fincardi. Intensive sweeteners, microbiome and health risks. Scientific study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 1.3.20

(10) Marta Strinati. Aspartame and health risks, brief scientific review. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 20.8.23

(11) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. EU Food and Feed Information Portal Database. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 28.5.23

(12) Dario Dongo. Health claims on botanicals, the Court of Justice clarifies. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 13.10.20

(13) See paragraph 5.2 of the previous article by Dario Dongo, Giulia Pietrollini. Marketing of olive oils, reg. EU 2022/2104. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(14) Piana ML et al. (2004) Sensory analysis applied to honey: state of the art. Apidologie 25:S26-S37 https://doi.org/10.1051/apido:2004048

(15) Dario Dongo. Miele, work on an ISO standard begins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 27.5.22

(16) See Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004, Annex I, point 8.1, first indent

(17) Pollen (not intended for human consumption) is included among the ‘beekeeping by-products’ defined by Regulation (EU) No. 142/2011 on animal by-products. Furthermore, bee pollen is among the products of animal origin (along with honey) that can be imported from China, under the conditions defined by Decision 2002/994/EC

(18) Recital 2 of Directive 2014/63/EU, which amended the ‘Honey Directive’, reports that bees are responsible for the presence of pollen on honey, and that any presence of additional pollen may accidentally come from they. This directive therefore established that pollen is not an ingredient of honey, but a specific natural component of it

(19) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. World Bee Day, world bee day. No eligible policy. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 20.5.23

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in Food Technologies and Biotechnologies, qualified food technologist, he follows the research and development area. With particular regard to European research projects (in Horizon 2020, PRIMA) where the FARE division of WIISE Srl, a benefit company, participates.