mead, alchohol

The Return of Mead

But is the ancient honey wine healthy?

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The world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead—a complex drink of fermented honey, fruit, herbs, flowers, and spices historically used for medicinal purposes—is also one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. beverage industry. The category has grown 150 percent in just the last year, according to a South Carolina representative who recently introduced a bill to relax restrictions on the drink’s makers. But as interest in the mead has grown, so too has curiosity about how healthy (or not) it might be.

Unfortunately, determining mead’s health value isn’t so easy. The Food and Drug Administration prohibits wine and mead makers from making health claims on their labels; and companies aren’t required to include nutritional information, either.

Most meads are gluten-free, making them a good option for those who are sensitive to wheat. But they're also a bit high in calories (a basic mead recipe on Epicurious clocks a 12-ounce serving at more than 400 calories). And if it's not listed on a bottle's description, the only real way to know how much of a particular ingredient is in a mead is by asking a mead creator, a.k.a. mazer. We talked to a mead maker (as well as some other experts) to investigate the possible health boons of this ancient (and newly popular) beverage:

Many mazers use unpasteurized, raw honey. This could help honey retain its antimicrobial benefits. In fact, in 2014, Swedish scientists concluded that when made with unpasteurized honey, mead might help curb resistance to antibiotics. Bees’ stomachs contain types of lactic acid bacteria—benefits that are lost when honey is pasteurized. Raw honey is controversial, though. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s safe, except for infants under one year old; and the National Institutes of Health notes it can potentially lead to food poisoning. 

Some are farm-to-bottle. Honey’s, the new Brooklyn tasting room at Enlightenment Wines, doesn’t rely on fermentation aids or processed ingredients in its meads. It only uses raw, unpasteurized honey and plants (including rosehips, dandelions, sumac, and lemon verbena) either organically grown or foraged in the Hudson Valley. “The alcohol created through fermentation allows you to preserve the herbs and fruits,” says co-owner Raphael Lyon.

Meads could pack a nutritional punch. But that really depends on which herbs and fruits are used, says Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., a dietitian in New York City. Tart cherries, for example, are a source of melatonin. So a mead made with them could make sleep more restorative. Cinnamon might improve insulin sensitivity, important for people with diabetes; and other common ingredients, such as blueberries, cranberries, and apples, contain antioxidants and flavonoids, which some studies have suggested could improve heart health.