Honey - The Foremost Elixir of Nature
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Thy lips, Oh my spouse, drop as the honeycomb; honey and milk are under thy tongue.”
So celebrates the ‘Songs of Solomon’ in praise of honey.
To the ancients, this natural confection had an aphrodisiac reputation, but above all, it was nature’s foremost elixir, renowned for its culinary uses, and for curing many ailments of the body. To administer treatment, ancient Mesopotamian physicians used honey as a vehicle in their medicinal remedies. In fact, the first antiseptic in medicine was a combination of honey, myrrh, and alcohol. In their kitchens, honey was used as far back as 1000 BC, as an ingredient in cakes.
The Greeks and the Romans also attributed healing qualities to honey and also associated honey with their religious traditions. Zeus’s survival was thanks to bees who fed him, honey, when his mother hid him in a bee’s cave away from the wrath of his father. And it would be Zeus who would later repay the bees for their care by making them the color of gold.
The first natural sweetener known to man and the only food that does not spoil, honey has been a favorite since the dawn of history. For untold centuries, it has been used as a tasty stamina giver and a cure-all medicine in all parts of the world. A genuine very sweet syrup honey is rich in many vital minerals and is an easily assimilated source of energy – an instant strength-building food.
This pleasant-tasting bee product was much sought after in ancient Egypt. Honey was employed in lieu of gold to pay taxes, buried with the dead as sustenance for the hereafter, and offered as food for the gods.
Before the Arabs introduced sugar into Europe, honey was virtually the only sweetener known on that continent. The Roman historian, Pliny, when writing about Arabia Felix, stated that the southern Arabians owed their wealth to the huge production of honey – hence, the Biblical phrase ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.
The Qur’an when describing Paradise speaks of ‘rivers of clarified honey’. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have advised: “Honey is a medicine for the body and the Qur’an is a medicine for the soul. Benefit yourselves from the use of the Qur’an and honey.”
The medicinal value of honey continued into the Umayyad period and beyond, when medieval folk healing methods included honey as one of the three principle methods for treating illness – the use of honey, cupping, and cautering.
Today, in the Arabian Peninsula, honey remains very important in the daily life of the people. In Yemen, pure honey is fed to the mother, along with butter, to strengthen her after childbirth. In the mountainous areas of southwestern Saudi Arabia, famous for agriculture since ancient times, Arab vacationers buy almost all the honey that is produced in that region as meaningful gifts for the folks back home. Beyond the borders of the Arabian Peninsula, in fact, throughout the world, this venerable sweet, with its many attributes and beneficial characteristics, is much in demand.
Honey takes tremendous energy to produce. Manufactured by bees from the pollen of flowers, it is then stored by them in honeycombs as a food reserve. 160 thousand bees make trips to 2 million flowers to gather the 4 pounds of nectar, which, on the way back to the hive they convert, by the reaction of various glands, into one pound of honey. Without a doubt, this immense work by the bees gave birth to the phrase ‘as busy as a bee’.
It has been scientifically established that honey contains some 75 ingredients, including 23 types of minerals, 5 enzymes, 5 organic acids, aromatic volatile oil, fruit and grape sugars, proteins, 7 vitamins of the B complex group, and other components needed by the human body. Containing more minerals and vitamins than sugar, this highly nutritious bee byproduct has been, for thousands of years, employed as a medicine. The peoples of the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Indian sub-continent, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Europeans, well into the Middle Ages, all had great faith in honey as a medicine.
In the Arab countries, honey has for centuries been promoted for beautification and as a remedy for a wide range of diseases. Egg yolk mixed with honey is employed to keep the skin soft; it is often rubbed into the scalp to strengthen the hair; and honey mixed with olive oil and orange juice is utilized for kidney ailments. Surah XVI of the Qur’an refers to honey ‘wherein is healing for men’ while medieval Arab physicians such as al-Majusi and al-Basri, spoke in laudatory terms when it came to the curative power of this sweet.
Already digested in the bee’s stomach, the simple sugars in this sweetener, after entering the bloodstream, are immediately absorbed and used by the body. Containing antibiotics and non-irritating to the digestive tract – bacteria cannot grow in honey – this bee manufactured perfect food was long considered to be one of nature’s most powerful germ killers. Once employed as a universal healer, it still retains its mythical medical aura.
There are a great number of claims, many not scientifically proven, about the healing power of this delicious sweet and its sister products: Royal Jelly, Propolis, and Bee Pollen. Through the ages, many people believed that honey and its byproducts cured ulcers and aided in the healing of anemia, arthritis, high blood pressure, pneumonia, rheumatism, sclerosis, skin diseases, insomnia, and hangovers.
The diuretic effect of honey has been well known since antiquity and its use in plasters and for the relief of throat and bronchial ailments are still employed in our times. Hot milk or water and honey to relieve husky throat is a common folk remedy that has stood the test of centuries.
Modern research has proven that using honey as a healing agent is a medical reality. New Zealand biochemist, Dr. Peter Molan, after 20 years of research, concluded that this bee product cleans and heals wounds better than the dressings and ointments used in hospitals. Also, some 50 studies published by the British Journal of Surgery and other publications, attest to the healing qualities of honey, especially in banishing infections, promoting skin growth, and in prevention of scarring.
Along with its medical attributes, honey has a renowned aphrodisiac reputation – highly valued for millennia as a love food. The Greek physician Galen and the Roman poet Ovid recommended it to lovers. In Roman mythology, Amor, the god of love, before smiting lovers, dipped his arrows in honey, while the Chinese utilized it as a binder in aphrodisiac drinks.
A good number of Arabs have always believed that consuming honey prolonged the sexual act. For instance, in Morocco, wedding guests are offered honey and after the wedding the groom feasts on honey to which common folklore attributes a powerful aphrodisiac effect. Furthermore, Shaykh Nefzawi in his book the Perfumed Garden recommends that ‘he who feels sexually weak should drink a glass of thick honey before going to bed’.
In England, for centuries, honey was made into a honeymoon drink called ‘mead’ and, in our times, most modern sexologists recommend it for restorative diets.
Yet, dominating all these attributes is its use in the kitchen. It is a far superior sweetener for baking and cooking than other confections. It adds a distinctive flavor to food and has a tendency to absorb water, hence helping to keep food moist and fresh.
The color, flavor, and quality of natural honey vary according to the flower from which the bee draws the nectar. These range from mild, light-colored clover to strong dark-colored buckwheat. Of course, not included is a honey produced on modern farms by bees fed artificial foods, like sugar.
Honey will not spoil easily. It has excellent preservation qualities and will last almost indefinitely. This is attested to by honey offered by the ancient Egyptians to the gods. Unearthed in Egypt after 3,000 years, it was found to be still edible. However, if stored for long periods of time, honey may crystallize. Although it can be restored to its original texture by heating, a change in its flavor usually remains.
Today, a choice food in all parts of the world – 450 million pounds were consumed in 2013 in the U.S.A. – honey is universally sold, at times, in the comb, but most often it is extracted from the comb by centrifugal force, strained, then retailed in liquid form.
In modern industry, honey is employed in medicine such as cough remedies and skin ointments, beauty products – from hair conditioners and skin lotions to toilet soaps. However, its overwhelming use is in baking, desserts, sauces, spreads, for one’s morning coffee, and as an important ingredient in many other dishes.
Some cooks may shy away from using this ancient sweetener because of how it sticks to measuring utensils, but a spoon or cup moistened with water or oil before measuring the honey will solve the problem. Yet, even though it may be a little messier to use than sugar, its enhancement of other foods makes it a preferred sweetener to those looking for gourmet dishes.
Complete food and centuries-old tested folk medicine is a great confection for all except those with diabetes. Perhaps, the Arabic name for bees/nahal, which also means ‘gift’, best describes this ultimate elixir – nature’s foremost gift to humankind.