Irish heather honey makers could make a sweeter return on their produce as a result of research showing that it has the same health benefits as one of the most expensive types.
Saorla Kavanagh examined 131 honey samples from 78 places in Ireland as part of her PhD research at Dublin City University (DCU).
She found that the honeys collected from bees that forage on pollen from bell and ling heathers had levels of antioxidant compounds similar to those in manuka honey.
These properties help prevent damage in body cells, and its anti-bacterial activity makes manuka one of the most medicinally effective honeys, with a related increase in what customers pay for it.
Ms Kavanagh said the high demand and retail value of manuka honey suggest the potential health benefits of Irish heather honey should now be investigated further.
Being able to identify particular characteristics in honey which are associated with its health benefits, and rapidly assessing these characteristics in Irish honey, could help beekeepers to market their honey appropriately and increase its commercial value,” she said.
Most honeys sold are a blend of honeys from two or more sources, like the multi-floral ones that made up the majority of those tested in the research. It was the first comparison of Irish single-origin honeys, with honeys from the nectar of oilseed rape and ivy also included in the sample.
The samples donated to the research at DCU’s school of chemical sciences by Irish beekeepers included 55 urban and 69 from rural locations. Ms Kavanagh found that multi-floral honeys produced by urban bees had higher levels of the anti-oxidant phenolic compounds that are important for health, possibly because of the diversity and abundance of flowers surrounding hives.
Honey that originates from pollen in a single plant’s flowers can be identified by its colour and flavour, but also from chemical markers and sometimes by quantifying microscopic pollen grains in it.
The higher the total phenolic content (TPC), giving it higher anti-oxidant capacity, the darker in colour a honey usually is. However, ivy honey proved an exception, as it was the darkest analysed despite having lower TPC than heather or manuka honeys.
Of the seven Irish single origin honeys in the study, heather honey had the highest TPC, even higher than manuka honey. Like manuka, heather honey from northern Europe also commands a higher price.
Ms Kavanagh’s work is funded by the Irish Research Council, and the findings are published in the Food Chemistry journal. The article is co-written with academic supervisors Blánaid White of DCU school of chemical sciences and Jane Stout at Trinity College Dublin’s school of natural sciences, as well as Jessicaa Gunnoo and Thayse Marques Passos at DCU.