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Local Libyan Honey Is Sweet, But Is It Good For What Ails Us?

NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road trip from Tunisia to Cairo to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves.

He's also sharing with us here at The Salt what he's been eating.

Dear Salt,

I have another question for you. It came up as we made it to the Green Mountains of eastern Libya, rocky slopes that are covered with pines and studded with stone cliffs. It's long been a land of historic rebellion, from the independence fighters battling the Italian armies several decades ago to just last year when the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began just west of here, in Benghazi. But more pertinent to this dispatch, the mountain valleys are also home to agriculture.

Somewhere along the road our Libyan driver, Mahmoud El Kish, pulled the car over. In front of us was a roadside stand, where young men were selling strong-smelling bunches of rosemary, sage, and mint. Mahmoud had his eye on something sweeter: Glass jars of pure honey.

He paid 20 Libyan dinars, about $15.00, for a single jar, which he considered worth the price. For one thing, it was said to be the most special of all kinds of Libyan honey, made by bees that feast on the flowers of the sacred sidrah tree.

More important, Mahmoud had a special purpose for the honey. He sipped it straight from the jar and then handed it to John Poole, our photographer. Both John and Mahmoud had been experiencing some stomach trouble along the road. "Drink this," Mahmoud said. "It is good for the stomach. It's like medicine."

Mahmoud is a man you listen to. He safely guided NPR correspondents through the worst of the Libyan war. Mr. Poole put the jar of honey to his lips and sipped it like a beer. He reports a "very strong" honey flavor, with "little bits of something, maybe honeycomb," suggesting it hadn't been processed. He liked it, whether it would help his stomach or not.

As I write this, Mahmoud says he feels better and John isn't so sure, though it's a little too early to draw definite conclusions about either. So this leads to my question. Does pure honey have any medicinal properties?

Dear Steve,

Well, throughout history, lots of civilizations have clung to the idea that honey heals. Two millenia ago, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder declared honey to be the finest, most health-promoting liquid known to man.

These claims are still circulating today, with many folks using honey to try to stave off allergies. If you watch our Tiny Desk Kitchen video, you'll learn that while it may be delicious, eating "local" honey is not likely to be an effective strategy for treating a seasonal ragweed allergy.

As for sipping honey, like beer, to make your stomach feel better? Well, honey does contain some potent antimicrobials that have been shown to help heal topical wounds. But they're probably not strong enough to overcome a serious case of traveler's diarrhea or a bacterial infection. So I guess the question is, what exactly is upsetting John's stomach?

If he's a little homesick or just tired, honey may be an effective "feel good" treat — it's a little pick-me-up, like an ice pop or a soda. If this is the case, my advice: Keep sipping.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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