Walk into a high-end health food store these days, and you’re bound to find a shelf of pricey specialty honeys purporting to tickle your tastebuds with distinctive flavors. But isn’t it all just one big marketing ploy? Do they really taste that much different from standard honey? The science says yes.
“There’s definitely science behind it,” May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, told Gizmodo. She got involved in honey-related research several years ago in response to a trend among nutritionists to dismiss honey as merely being sugar. “But sugar tastes like sugar. Honey tastes like a zillion different things,” she said — at least when comes to specialty honeys, as opposed to mass-produced honey that comes in a squeezable plastic container shaped like a bear.
In essence, honey is concentrated nectar: worker bees flit from flower to flower, gathering the nectar and storing it in their hives. Pure nectar is about 80% water, which evaporates once it is stored, helped along by bees batting their wings to speed up the process by creating a breeze. Honey is only about 18% water.
Nectar is also laden with phytochemicals: flavanoids, phenols, and carotenoids. That’s why there are different colors for different varietals of honey, and it’s also the reason why there really are differences in flavor between them.
“Everything that a plant makes invariably occurs in at least trace concentrations in the nectar,” Berenbaum explained. So honey has its own terroir, just like wine: it takes on different flavors depending on the kinds of flowers that are typical in a given region. That pricey jar of honey from your local health food store captures “a period of time and a particular place all distilled and concentrated,” she said. “Every hive box is different, because different nectars have gone in.”
For instance, sweet clover honey is made from the nectar of a midwestern wildflower; it is light with a strong hint of cinnamon. Oregon’s Meadowfoam honey evokes roasted marshmallow and vanilla. The buckwheat variety is dark and resembles blackstrap molasses. There’s even regional differences in buckwheat honey. The cultivated buckwheat that grows in the Northeastern US yields a very dark pungent honey with a strong goaty flavor profile — to some unlucky people it tastes distinctly like cat pee — while the wild buckwheat common to California is lighter and sweeter on the tongue.
Beekeepers make these so-called monovarietal honeys by placing their hives in areas dominated by one particular flower — although bees are free spirits and might roam further afield, so there will always be traces of other nectars even in a monovarietal honey. It just becomes part of the overall flavor profile.
Those flavor profiles can be surprisingly complex. Horse chestnut honey is all the rage in Europe, but according to Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the University of California, Davis, it’s an acquired taste for most American palates. Open a jar and take a whiff, and you’ll pick up the unmistakably dank aroma of a wet saddle. “The first taste is bitter, followed by this whoosh of flowers,” Harris told Gizmodo. “Then there’s this flowering in your nose and palate, then it gets bitter again, and it’s all floral at the end. Most Americans can’t figure out why it’s so popular because they can’t get past that first weird horsey scent.”
Harris and her husband — a beekeeper by trade — were among the first to start selling monovarietal honeys in the 1980s, mostly to local health food stores. So she was a natural choice to head the UC-Davis center, where her focus has shifted to the sensory experience of honeys — specifically their distinct flavor profiles. That’s when she got the idea for a flavor wheel to help people develop a more sophisticated palate for honey, along with a broader vocabulary (beyond “sweet”) to describe their taste sensations.
The front of the wheel lists descriptive words for the various flavors in honey — spicy, salty, toffee, vanilla, bitter, fruity, or floral, or instance — while the back offers tips for how to taste it, using examples of four kinds of varietal honey: Florida tupelo, California orange blossom, Northwest blackberry, and Midwestern clover.
To develop the wheel, a panel of 25 tasters came to the center on two different days and participated in a rigorous tasting protocol, akin to those used when investigating the flavor profiles of wines or olive oils.
The honey was served warm, to better activate the volatile aroma compounds (honey doesn’t have that many). There were also rows of 60 different samples in tiny glass jars — bits of melon, marshmallow, or fir tree, or lavender oil, for instance. The tasters would sniff or nibble on each sample and try to detect those same flavor notes in the various honeys they tasted.
In the ensuing discussion, each taster described the flavors they detected, and then filled out a form, specifying smell, first taste, second taste, texture, and how long the flavor lingered. Harris and her team spent the next six months comparing responses to identify 99 descriptive words that the group of tasters mentioned at least twice. Those words ended up on the final flavor wheel. Yes, one of those flavors is “cat pee.”
Not everyone can taste the cat pee in buckwheat honey, because we all have different combinations of taste receptors. There is always a subjective element to tastings. “People don’t [perceive] taste all the same,” Harris admits, noting that there is variance even for individuals. “What you had for breakfast can affect what you taste all day.” But certain aspects should be the same for everyone, apart from the occasional rare outlier. Open a jar of sweet clover honey, and the first thing you should smell is cinnamon. Ditto for orange blossom and its distinctive “bouquet” of jasmine. If you don’t pick up on those notes right away, you’ve bought a subpar jar of honey — or you’re not a very good taster.
Just be sure to avoid honeys made from nectar with high concentrations of rhododendrons or azaleas. Those varieties contain grayanotoxins and are poisonous for humans, causing dizziness, perspiration, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, irregular heart rhythms, shock, and convulsions, and sometimes death. That’s right: too much of the wrong kind of honey can kill you. In Turkey, it’s known as “Mad Honey,” and is considered a local delicacy (in moderation, that is).
You can buy a Honey Flavor Wheel of your very own for just $10, with the proceeds supporting the ongoing bee research at UC-Davis.
Images: (top) Jag_cz/Shutterstock. (bottom) Amina Harris/UC-Davis.
Jansen, et al. (2012) “Grayanotoxin poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and beyond,” Cardiovascular Toxicology 12: 208-13.