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Does honey have any value as a preservative?

The sweetness of honey is also, interestingly enough, what makes it act as a preservative (at least sort of).

Yes, in a limited way. Honey is a concentrated solution of various sugars in water. The main sugars are fructose and glucose with smaller amounts of sucrose (table sugar) also present. Of course, there are also various other compounds that are responsible for the flavour and aroma and which may also contribute to the preservative properties. The main preservative action, however, is due to the sugars’ ability to remove water from microorganisms by the process of osmosis. This essentially means that if the concentration of a dissolved material, like sugar, is higher outside the microbe than inside, water will diffuse through the cell membrane to the outside, thereby dehydrating and killing the microbe.

The ancient Egyptians used honey as an embalming fluid and the Romans preserved fruits and meats by immersing them in honey. Others made more imaginative use of this effect. Alexander the Great was supposedly buried with a honey coating. Much later, Nelson’s body was returned to England after the battle of Trafalgar in a barrel of honey. The Romans also discovered that wounds would heal better when treated with honey and Roman soldiers actually carried honey into battle for this purpose. Today we understand why; honey can kill microorganisms that can infect a wound. Modern research has shown that this antimicrobial effect may not be due solely to the sugars present. It seems that honey can contain small amounts of other compounds which also have antibacterial activity.

Preliminary experiments have shown that at least in the laboratory, honey can kill the Helicobacter pylori bacterium which can cause ulcers. Although this is unlikely to have a therapeutic significance, some honey advocates are already claiming that honey may do more than just make the medicine go down. They even suggest that this bee regurgitation contains a magical mix of vitamins, minerals and enzymes; that it can be used to relieve the pain of arthritis and perhaps even prevent cancer. There is no evidence for this. As far as eating honey, the only reason to do so is for its sweetness. As Winnie the Pooh tells us: “The only reason for being a bee is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.” Of course, Winnie is wrong about the bees. They are critical for pollination!


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