Honey is a thick, sweet syrup made by honey bees.
It’s loaded with healthy plant compounds and has been linked to several health benefits.
However, there's controversy surrounding which type of honey — raw or regular — is healthiest.
Some people believe that the raw variety of honey is better for optimal health, while others claim there is no difference between the two.
Raw honey is best described as honey “as it exists in the beehive” (1).
It is made by extracting honey from the honeycombs of the hive and pouring it over a mesh or nylon cloth to separate the honey from impurities like beeswax and dead bees (2).
Once strained, raw honey is bottled and ready to be enjoyed.
On the other hand, the production of regular honey involves several more steps before it is bottled — such as pasteurization and filtration (1).
Pasteurization is a process that destroys the yeast found in honey by applying high heat. This helps extend the shelf life and makes it smoother (2).
Also, filtration further removes impurities like debris and air bubbles so that the honey stays as a clear liquid for longer. This is aesthetically appealing to many consumers (2).
Some commercial honeys are additionally processed by undergoing ultrafiltration. This process further refines it to make it more transparent and smooth, but it can also remove beneficial nutrients like pollen, enzymes and antioxidants (2, 3, 4).
Moreover, some manufacturers may add sugar or sweeteners to honey to reduce costs.
Summary Raw honey is best described as honey “as it exists in the beehive.” It is extracted from the beehive, strained and poured straight into the bottle, bypassing commercial processing methods.
Raw and regular honey are processed quite differently.
This can lead to a variety of distinctions between the two, especially in quality.
Here are the main differences between raw and regular honey.
Raw Honey Is More Nutritious
Raw honey contains a wide variety of nutrients.
It has approximately 22 amino acids, 31 different minerals and a wide range of vitamins and enzymes. However, the nutrients are only present in trace amounts (, , 7).
Many studies have linked these antioxidants with impressive health benefits, including reduced inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers (, , ).
Conversely, commercial honeys may contain fewer antioxidants due to processing methods.
For example, one study compared the antioxidants in raw and processed honey from a local market. They found that the raw honey contained up to 4.3 times more antioxidants than the processed variety (3).
Interestingly, one unofficial study by the US-based National Honey Board found that minimally processed honey contains levels of antioxidants and minerals that are similar to those of raw honey.
However, there are very few studies comparing the two types. More research in this area can help shed light on the impact of processing on the antioxidants in honey.
Most Regular Honey Doesn’t Contain Any Pollen
Bees travel from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen.
The nectar and pollen are taken back to the beehive, where they are packed into the honeycomb and eventually become a food source for the bees ().
Bee pollen is surprisingly nutritious and contains over 250 substances, including vitamins, amino acids, essential fatty acids, micronutrients and antioxidants ().
In fact, the German Federal Ministry of Health recognizes bee pollen as a medicine (14).
Bee pollen has been linked to many impressive health benefits. Studies have found that it may help fight inflammation and improve liver function. It also has properties that may help fight against heart disease and stroke ().
Unfortunately, processing methods like heat treatment and ultrafiltration can remove bee pollen (2).
For example, one unofficial study analyzed 60 samples of commercial honey brands in the US and discovered that over 75% of all samples contained no pollen.
Regular Honey May Have Hidden Sugars or Sweeteners
Approximately 400 million pounds of honey are consumed in the US each year (16).
Because honey is so popular, it’s hard to meet this high demand from local suppliers alone. This is why approximately 70% of the honey consumed in the US is imported (17).
Summary Raw and regular honey differ mainly in how they are processed. Raw honey contains pollen, may be more nutritious and does not have any added sugars or sweeteners, both of which may be present in commercial honeys.
Honey has been linked to some impressive health benefits.
Studies have found that it may help reduce risk factors for heart disease like blood pressure and cholesterol, improve wound healing and even treat coughs (, , ).
However, it’s likely these health benefits are mostly related to raw honey, because it is higher in antioxidants and other beneficial components.
One of these components is an enzyme called glucose oxidase. This enzyme helps produce molecules that give honey its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties (24).
Unfortunately, this enzyme can be destroyed by processes like heating and filtering (2).
Also, it’s not entirely clear if minimally processed honeys have similar levels of antioxidants as raw honey. For example, an unofficial study found that minimally processed honeys had similar levels of antioxidants to raw honey, but significantly fewer enzymes.
If you want to be sure to get all the health benefits, then you should choose raw honey.
Summary Most of the health benefits of honey can be attributed to its antioxidants and enzymes. Because commercial honeys are processed, they may have lower levels of antioxidants.
Raw and organic honeys are subject to different regulations in different countries.
Honey that is classified as raw is not allowed to be pasteurized or processed.
Conversely, organic honey must simply come from a bee farm that meets the organic livestock standards of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (25).
This means the bees, flowers and honey are not allowed to come in contact with pesticides, chemicals and other factors that go against the USDA’s criteria.
However, there is no specific rule that says it can’t be pasteurized or processed. In the US, this means organic honey may also be pasteurized and processed.
Summary Raw and organic honey are subject to different regulations in different countries. In the US, there is no rule that organic honey can’t be heated or processed, which means it may not be raw.
Raw honey can contain spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
This bacteria is especially harmful to babies, children under the age of one and pregnant women. It may cause botulism poisoning, which results in life-threatening paralysis (, ).
However, botulism is very rare among healthy adults and older children. As the body ages, the gut develops enough to stop the botulinum spores from growing.
That said, if you experience side effects such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea soon after eating raw honey, you should see your doctor immediately.
Note that regular honey may also contain Clostridium botulinum spores. This means babies, children under one and pregnant women should also avoid it.
Summary While raw honey is safe for healthy adults, it can be dangerous for infants and pregnant women. It may contain spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can grow in the gut of developing infants.
When it comes to choosing the healthiest honey, you should look for one that is raw.
Raw honeys are not pasteurized and bypass filtration, a process that may reduce its nutrients.
A great variety of raw and unfiltered honey is available on Amazon.
While minimally processed honeys are not bad, it’s hard to know which ones are minimally processed without actually performing tests beforehand.
If you would prefer a minimally processed honey because of its texture, it’s best to buy it from a local beekeeper, as they are far less likely to be ultrafiltered.
Summary When it comes to choosing honey, your best bet is to go raw. While not all commercial honeys are bad, it’s hard to know which ones are healthy or unhealthy without doing a test beforehand.
Raw and regular honey are processed differently.
Raw honey is only strained before it's bottled, which means it retains most of the beneficial nutrients and antioxidants that it naturally contains.
Conversely, regular honey may undergo a variety of processing, which may remove beneficial nutrients like pollen and reduce its level of antioxidants.
When it comes to choosing a healthy honey, your best bet is to go raw so you know exactly what you are getting.