Scent and flavour compounds

Each honey has a unique aroma and taste. Experienced 'noses' and tasters identify the flavours in honeys as being floral, aromatic-herbal, fresh, citric, fresh-fruit, ripe-fruit, caramel, woody or hay-like.

More than 500 volatile compounds, many from essential oils in nectar, contribute to honey's scent and flavour. Many are aldehydes and ketones; others are acids such as cinnamic acid (which smells of honey) alcohols, bitters, esters and terpenes. There may also be aromatic alcanes from beeswax. Non-volatile compounds such as sugars, flavonoids and amino acids also contribute to honey's flavour.

A unique cocktail of up to 60 compounds accounts for the scent of each plant's essential oil, with larger amounts of several compounds characterizing each cocktail. This is why, for example, derivatives of the aldehyde linalool (with its floral, slightly spicy smell) characterize citrus honeys; dihydroxyketones characterize eucalyptus honeys; and the aldehydes hexanal (with its scent of freshly mown grass) and heptanal (fresh, herbal, green, woody, fruity) characterize lavender honeys.

Prolonged heating at more than 35ºC/95ºF changes a honey's scent and flavour by evaporating volatile aromatic compounds and beginning to burn its sugars.

Health benefits

Honey's volatile aromatic molecules stimulate sensory nerve endings in the nose. Enjoying the scent can lift the spirits. What's more, certain molecules have relaxing or stimulating effects in the brain.

Certain aromatic compounds absorbed into the blood (via the lining of the nose or breathing passages; or from honey on the skin or in the stomach or gut) can affect health. Linalool, for example, can have sedative effects.

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