You might have seen some news coverage recently that claimed much of the honey sold in the US isn’t actually… honey. So what is it, then?
Well, it IS still honey, and it did still come from bees. But it’s been treated and filtered to a point that it no longer meets the standard of what is properly called honey by several regulatory agencies, including the FDA:
“In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. …Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey.”
It’s in part a semantic quibble, but also hides a larger issue: where does the honey sold in the US actually come from?
Honey normally contains pollen. Bees gather pollen from plants to feed their young, and they also drink nectar from some plants too. When a bee is out collecting for her hive, she stores the nectar in a special pouch of her gut. When she returns to the hive from foraging, she passes the nectar to a “house bee” through a process called trophallaxis. This is a nice sciency word for barfing up nectar so another bee can eat it.
The house bee “chews” the nectar for a while, getting the digestion started and breaking down some of the complex sugars in the nectar. She then barfs up the honey (Again! I know!) into the comb, where it gradually loses some of it’s water content and becomes the very sticky, sweet stuff that we know and love.
While all this is happening, there is pollen everywhere. Bees are fuzzy, so in addition to the pollen they actively collect, they are usually covered with pollen. It’s sticky stuff–but, you know, it is plant sperm. That shit gets everywhere.
So, pollen in honey is normal. And it serves as a sort of honey provenance. The problem with pollen-less honey is you don’t know where it came from, or what kind of plants the bees were feeding on. The fear is that Americans are the victims of “honey dumping”—or, yes, “honey laundering.”
Instead of happy bourgeois American bees, our honey is coming from oppressed proletarian bees in China. (I’m exaggerating of course, but that’s about the tone some of the news reports have taken.) Chinese honey has a bad reputation, and has shown up in the US with a variety of contaminants. Heavy metals are another fear, since bees don’t recognize toxic waste dumps as places they should not forage in. They go where the pollen is.
So how can you make sure you get American honey? Buy local. And by local, I mean honey that is not part of a chain store brand, but something from a beekeeper that is in your state, with a traceable address and name. Not everyone has access to a farmer’s market, but the analysis done by the Food Safety News Group (more about them later) suggests that purchasing organic honey is more likely to be locally or at least US-sourced honey.
Why is honey ultra-filtered? There are two reasons usually offered, one benign, and one sinister. The reason most large honey packagers give for filtering out the pollen is that it creates a more shelf-stable honey, and it is clearer. Basically, it’s a cosmetic treatment to make honey pretty. That is probably true; Americans are awfully paranoid about the slightest defects in their foods. Filtering has a shady side effect: it makes it easier for honey to be processed and shipped longer distances (like from Asia) and means that many different kinds of honey can be blended together undetectably.
Does it matter that both American and foreign honey has the pollen removed? Aside from the issue of honey tampering and tracing your honey back to a source, probably not. There are a LOT of wild health claims made for eating honey and pollen, and the best summary I can give you of the scientific support for that is “little to none.” It probably doesn’t really matter if your honey is filtered. From an energy conservation standpoint, eating locally produced, non-processed honey saves a lot of carbon. Foodies can chat up their local beekeepers and find out the details of the flowers that went into their honey. But eating raw honey will not cure your allergies, or your cold.
So, why the sudden interest by the media in where our honey is coming from? The study of over 60 commercial brands of honey by a leading melissopalynologist (honey pollen detective, in human speak) was commissioned by the Food Safety News Group, which is a collection of very good science journalists…. run by a legal firm specializing in food illness lawsuits. Hmm.
This is part of a honey reporting effort by this FSN group that’s been going on for several months, and some of which is a bit alarmist, frankly. It’s clear they hope to drum up support for a law or a regulation that puts “honey should have pollen in it” in writing, as well as requiring clearer labeling on where the honey is coming from. That’s not a bad thing, really, since it is good to know where our food comes from.
The American Beekeepers Federation has been lobbying for a “standard of identity” for honey; just this month they reported that the FDA just rejected their petition. The laws about labeling honey are pretty confusing; the country of origin is only required to be declared if the honey bears a “USDA mark.” (Why organic honey has to be clearly labeled, but not other honey.)
The short term result of those regulations could be higher prices for your honey. Not because there is a major honey shortage–the frequency of Colony Collapse Disorder is declining, thank goodness–but because the cost of producing honey in the US is much, much higher than it is in China, India, or Argentina. It isn’t possible for US beekeepers to sell large quantities of honey at low prices when they are struggling with so many other challenges. There are so many things that kill honey bees they have to deal with right now, on top of what we all experience as rising costs of living.
It’s hard out there for a beekeeper. So I do hope that those of you that can will buy local honey!