A Sticky Situation: The Buzz About Organic Honey

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Back in 2011, online publication Food Safety News released an article regarding a test they performed on over 60 different brands of honey. The test revealed that around 76 percent of the honey on store shelves has almost all of the pollen removed — from which, they concluded that the majority of the honey being bought nationwide is not “real honey.” It stated that honey was being “ultra-filtered” so that it couldn’t be traced to its point of origin, which in China’s case, could allow them to evade trade restrictions by selling through other countries.

Humans have been eating, trading, and using honey for thousands of years. It’s packed with nutrients, can hasten the healing of wounds, and simply tastes downright delicious. It’s even in the Bible, when the land of Canaan is described as a land “flowing of milk and honey.”

There are lots of different varieties, too – each with their own uses and benefits. For example, take Manuka Honey. Made in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the manuka bush. This native bush contains a compound noted for its antibacterial properties, and the honey made from its pollen can be sterilized and prepared for use as a treatment for cuts and burns. It’s also supposed to aid digestion and even prevent acne.

Our love of the golden goo carries through to modern day, as every grocery store has a large section dedicated to honey of every sort. However, there’s been some question recently as to whether the honey we’re buying in stores is the genuine product we expect. When Food Safety News published their article, it led to a rise in the belief that ultra-filtered honey, lacking pollen, was not only untraceable, but also lacked most of the ingredients that made it nutritious in the first place. According to the article:

“Chinese honey has long had a poor reputation in the U.S., where – in 2001 – the Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff import tariffs or taxes to stop the Chinese from flooding the marketplace with dirt-cheap, heavily subsidized honey, which was forcing American beekeepers out of business. To avoid the dumping tariffs, the Chinese quickly began transshipping honey to several other countries, then laundering it by switching the color of the shipping drums, the documents and labels to indicate a bogus but tariff-free country of origin for the honey.”

The dust has long settled, and numerous organizations have discovered that the issue isn’t nearly as cut and dried as it was initially made to seem. There is indeed some truth to the Food Safety Network’s claims: removing pollen from honey does render it untraceable, opening the door for honey that might be unsafe to enter the U.S. market through alternate avenues.

However, a lack of pollen might not be as detrimental to quality as it initially seems.

Defining Honey

Honey, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) (specifically in the Codex Alimentarius Section 12-1981 that deals with international food standards), is the “natural sweet substance, produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of there own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

It’s a pretty clear definition, but questions arise during processing: when ingredients are filtered and removed, when is honey not honey anymore?

According to Food Safety News, it’s not honey when all the pollen is removed. However, it appears that the USDA is pretty relaxed when it comes to production standards. In fact, the USDA states that honey doesn’t need an official inspection to carry their official grade marks.

This means that companies can essentially claim whatever they want, and there is little to no verification process or consequences for making false claims. This can open the door for honey products that are diluted, ultra-filtered, and supplemented with sugar and other sweeteners. So while it may be technically still considered, and sold as, honey, it’s clear that it’s not the product most consumers expect to receive.

Many honey makers claim that the real nutritional value does not come from pollen, but from the honey itself, and that filtering is done so that honey doesn’t crystallize on the shelf. Indeed, American consumers tend not to want honey that crystallizes, instead preferring the traditional all-liquid product most of us are familiar with. Essentially, supermarket honey is filtered, but it’s still technically honey with Food Safety News actually later publishing an article agreeing with this statement.

What the USDA does clarify, however, is that if a honey producer wishes to put a USDA seal on a product, it must state its country of origin as well. This can make it difficult for Chinese producers that are subject to additional tariffs. These fees were instituted to make up for the fact that Chinese honey is heavily subsidized and can be sold at a substantially lower price than the American counterpart.

Supposedly, these Chinese manufacturers are avoiding tariffs with something unaffectionately dubbed “honey laundering.” They sell through markets in other countries, like India, where their product is re-labeled and can be dumped into U.S. markets at low cost, thereby avoiding fees. Some maintain that they’re abusing the filtration process to remove pollen because it’s the only way to truly tell where honey is manufactured. If there’s no pollen in the honey, there’s no way to prove that it came from an illegal source — a sort of natural microtagging, if you will.

Filtering Through the Misinformation

The important thing to understand if you’re confused by all this — and what has confused most people trying to wrap their heads around the issue — is the difference between filtration and ultra-filtration. They’ve become almost synonymous, but bear important distinctions.

Standard filtration has been a part of American honey for years, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As mentioned previously, while it removes impurities like pollen, bee wings, and pieces of honeycomb, it doesn’t take out the important nutrients. Most of the nutrition in honey comes not from pollen, but from nectar. Studies have shown that even in honey with all pollen removed, nutritional value remains much the same.

Ultra-filtration is filtration taken to an extreme level, where water is added to the product, the mixture is sent through extremely fine filters, and then the water is removed. This dilutes the honey, and thus the flavor. They then compensate for this by adding sugar and artificial sweeteners, which of course is not what we want when we buy honey.

Essentially, the issue at hand isn’t nutrition related. It’s a commerce issue. Honey producers want Chinese manufacturers to pay the tariff, and it hurts if they’re able to circumvent the process. It’s likely that “honey laundering” does happen, but the issue lies with our government organizations and the lax standards they impose on honey. When it comes to quality, most of the honey you buy is the real deal, even if it’s filtered.

Protecting the Bees (And Yourself)

As a purchaser of honey, if you’re interested in getting a quality product and supporting the legal honey industry as a whole, the best thing you can do is stay informed, read labels, and buy from sources you know are trustworthy.

When you buy honey at a large store, there’s usually no telling where it came from. While you can be fairly sure it’s decent product, there’s no way to be sure where much of it comes from. As we talked about in a previous post, it’s difficult to tell what terms on labels really mean, or if they’re even enforced in any way. Just like the term “local,” “natural honey,” “organic honey,” or anything similar doesn’t really hold much weight.

By going to a local beekeeper or organic store and buying your honey there, you can ensure that what you’re getting is honest, healthy, and supports your local honey industry. As markets are driven by consumer demand, you can also be the agent of change.

Honey that is raw and less filtered generally tends to crystallize, and if more people accept this rather than the smooth, clear honey that is most common in America, production processes will change to meet demand. Crystallization doesn’t really affect the quality of the honey; since it doesn’t spoil, the crystals are merely the golden goo getting dehydrated over time. However, voting with your dollar is the most effective method of getting what you want. As always, innovation is driven by the consumer, and the same holds true here.

It’s as important as ever to read and research what you buy. Keeping tabs on businesses’ claims is crucial, because if they can tell you something is local or organic and not have to verify the information, they likely will. However, it’s just as important to take news claims that may be sensationalist with a grain of salt. Not every corporation is evil nor is every import likely to be corrupt or counterfeit, and just because something seems fishy on the surface doesn’t always mean there’s a larger conspiracy at work.

Digging a little bit beneath the surface often reveals that the truth is somewhere in the middle of all the different claims. In the end it boils down to using your intuition and determining for yourself who you trust.

If you only like raw honey from small farms, that’s fine. If you don’t have an issue buying the standard jar of clear honey from the grocery store, so be it. The important thing is that you’ve informed yourself, understand the personal costs and widespread consequences, and make your decision based on that.

After all, an informed consumer is a safe and satisfied one.


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