Honey Laundering

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?

bee by nutmeg66

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.

Ahem.  Anyway.

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.

Support your local beekeeper!

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.

honey with pollen grainsSo, 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!

15 thoughts on “Honey Laundering

  1. I had some Chinese honey once when I was an undergrad. Back then it was my habit to have tea with honey. This Chinese honey turned my tea blue and a black ppt. fell out. I threw it away, but now I wish I had kept it.

  2. I am happy it’s so easy to get good local, unheated honey here in Israel. You can find in your local store honey from different micro climate zones made of different flora. Did you ever compare avocado honey with eucaliptus flowers’?

    Also, unheated honey still has active enzimes in it, it won’t stay runny but will instead clump. It may look weird but that’s the good sign of untreated honey, with all the propolis and other ingrediants intact. If there are any health benefits( arguable) then that’s the best way to consume it.

  3. “It probably doesn’t really matter if your honey is filtered.”

    What about from a flavour point of view? The things large honey packagers do to honey, such as flash heating and filtering, plus mixing together honeys from multiple producers and even countries, do nothing for the flavour except enhance blandness in my opinion.

    Here in the UK our labelling laws seem to be better. A country of origin and contact address is required for all honeys sold. We are not allowed to put organic on our label unless our hives are situated within a three mile foraging radius of only organically grown crops (extremely rare). But the latest worry here following a European court case (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2058190/EU-orders-pollen-warning-honey-jars.html and http://www.bbka.org.uk/files/library/gm_pollen_press_release_9_nov_2011_1321206819.pdf) is that we may in the future have to put ‘contains pollen’ on our labels and be required to test our honey for GM pollen. Hopefully it won’t come to that, as not many small-scale beekeepers can afford to pay to test their honey, doing so would almost wipe out any profit.

    Thanks for recommending local honey!

  4. That is a really good point Emily! Flavor is almost certainly changed by this treatment, but I’m not enough of a foodie to really be able to tell.

    I decided not to go into the EU pollen wars since the post was already really long, but that could be a potential nightmare. I wish the EU could be a bit more rational about GM crops.

  5. it’s not only heavy metals that are a problem, but good ol’ fashioned plant toxins too. Take a look at the wikipedia entry on ‘Mad Honey’ – honey made from toxic flowers. Given the propensity of states like California to plant oleander and other similarly dangerous flowers down the highways, knowing the provenance of your honey is vitally important.

  6. I read the FSN article and sent it on to my local bee keeper. It did seem somewhat alarmist, and perhaps a bit protectionist in intent, but when I buy honey I expect it to be from North America, not some place else and especially not China. China does not have a good food safety record. Of course, if I buy clover honey, I expect it to be from clover, so you could say I’m naive.

    We are still eating out of a tub of crystalline honey from a local producer from two years ago. I know bees can go to some disgusting places to collect their vomit, but my main danger is cutting off a finger when trying to hack out chunks with a chopping knife. But honey can be dangerous. Infant botulism isn’t common, but no one should feed honey to a child less than a year old (I wonder if ultra-filtration takes out Clostridium spores?). I’m not sure oleander is much of a problem since the bees should die before they make much honey from it, but the toxins in the heather family might be worrisome, except (a) they bloom in the spring and bees probably use most of the nectar for the growing colony (honey is usually harvested from the fall overwinter stores); (b) I’m not sure the average person consumes enough honey for it to be a danger; and (c) at least for me, those plants are not too common in my neck of the woods (except Labrador Tea).

  7. Oh, I love new, obscure professions: “Food Safety News asked Bryant to look for pollen because that’s what palynologists do. But Bryant is also a melissopalynologist, which means he also specializes in the study of pollen in honey.” Thanks for that link!
    Strong arguments here for better provenance for honey and an irrefutable inspiration to buy local organic. My farmers market honey man could tell me exactly where his bees had been foraging. And his varieties were as different as fine wines. Excellent bee barf!

  8. Another thing. What about dark forest honeys? There will be little, if any, pollen in the stuff, because the honey bees in coniferous forests take honeydew from aphids feeding on spruce and turn it into honey. Few flowers involved. How does someone figure out the provenance of this type?

  9. Yeah, Dave, all good points!
    I thought about getting into the botulism issue, but then figured this was already a very long post. Most beekeepers know by smell and sight when the bees start collecting some of the nasty stuff–or at least the ones I know do. Another reason to buy local :)

  10. I notice that local honey seems to taste better and is not as thick as the processed stuff. Never thought about it until I bought some from a guy I worked with who was a beekeeper. It was the best tasting stuff I’ve had in a long time.

  11. I buy my honey locally from a guy named Ed for a multitude of reasons. The first is quite selfish: it tastes better. It just does. The ultra-filtered stuff that comes in the little plastic bear is as much like honey as “syrup” is to actual maple syrup that comes from trees or grocery store tomato-flavored orbs are to actual tomatoes. My favorite is sourwood honey with Arkansas black apples. Hngh. So good.
    Health benefits aside, I know the face of the guy who takes care of the bees. I know that the cashy pennies I give him will support his family and the local economy. I feel safer about my food when I know where it comes from. Knowing the face of the grower/producer is ideal, but clear labeling is better than nothing. I’d like to see us move toward a better awareness of our food sources because it can’t but be better than plugging our ears and covering our eyes and going “LA LA LA.”

  12. Thought provoking article. For me, it’s about taste. We have our own bees now, and when I was taking classes with Serge Labesque, he told us that we’ll think out honey is the best. I also noticed he seemed to eat about a 1/4 cup a day. I was incredulous at the time, but now it seems I have taken up his ways!
    It’s nice to have knowledge and contact with whoever supplies your food whether a person or an insect. Thanks for the article.

  13. How does the house bee ‘dry out ‘ the honey? Honey will pick up moisture from the air if it is not sealed.

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