Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real anymore. Fake merchandise is everywhere, from fake handbags to ripoffs of name brand shoes, and even counterfeit iPhones. But I have to say I was really shocked when I found out that much of what passes for honey in U.S. retail markets may in fact be something else, or at the very least can’t be analyzed or verified as to its authenticity or origin.
This isn’t exactly new news, but it is still newsworthy to me. As reported a little over a year ago, tests by scientists have shown that fully 75% of all honey sold in U.S. grocery stores has had the pollen filtered out by a process known as ultra-filtering. This process involves heating the honey and then forcing it under high pressure through extremely small filters to remove the pollen particles. I’ve included a link to a list of the brands of honey found without any pollen, and it includes some big names like Sue Bee, Kroger and Giant Eagle. So then you might be wondering, why does this matter to you and me?
For one thing, the pollen in honey is part of what makes it a natural product. A bee hive is a bustling combination of factory, nursery and living quarters. Workers bees are coming and going throughout the day gathering nectar and pollen from various flower sources. The pollen is used as a source of protein for the developing brood, while the nectar is turned into honey or fed directly to the larvae. The pollen and nectar are stored separately in the hive, but some pollen does find it’s way into the finished honey. And to the bees, that’s not a bad thing at all. And to most consumers of honey it’s just fine too.
Another reason to be concerned about the removal of pollen is that it makes the source of the honey impossible to track. That has allowed for unscrupulous producers to use honey from places like China and India where the honey can often be contaminated with antibiotics, pesticides and heavy metals. The ultra-filtering of honey serves like a money laundering deal that obscures the original location, since the presence of pollen particles from foreign plants would reveal the source of the honey when examined under the microscope. It also allows countries like China to avoid trade restrictions by shipping honey to third party countries, who then ship it on to the U.S.
But not everyone agrees that mass-marketed honey has really been ultra-filtered. This article from the National Honey Board tries to assure consumers that most U.S. honey has only been filtered using methods approved by the USDA’s standards for extracted honey. The Honey Board states that U.S. consumers actually prefer a product that “is the clear, golden liquid honey that has been strained or filtered to remove undesirable particles that make honey cloudy”.
I don’t really doubt the Honey Board’s claim that most U.S. consumers prefer a clear, light, filtered honey product. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has different taste preferences, and there’s no real right or wrong when it comes to taste. But not everyone prefers that kind of honey, me included. Many of us actually prefer a honey that is not homogenous – you know, one with a little character all its own. And many like me prefer a honey that hasn’t been processed at all except for a little straining to remove pieces of wax and any bits of foreign materials.
So what’s the best way to get real honey that hasn’t been over-processed and ultra-filtered? My advice is to find honey from a local beekeeper, and ask some questions! One good place to start is at farmer’s markets. Beekeepers often sell their honey there, and most will be happy to answer your questions. Remember that there is no legal definition for “raw honey” in the U.S., so anyone can make that claim with no proof required. Former KY state apiarist Phil Craft says that in his experience most local, small-scale beekeepers don’t heat their honey above 100°F, which is no higher than temperatures might get inside a beehive in summer. Heating the honey a little bit helps it flow faster, which saves time when you’re filling a lot of jars. So you might want to ask the beekeeper if the honey is heated, and how it has been filtered.
For what it’s worth, we don’t heat our honey at all before we put it in jars. With the small amounts we usually are dealing with, we can wait a little bit for the honey to flow. We also strain it through a 200 micron filter that allows any pollen to remain in the honey. I also have to say that none of our honey is cloudy looking either, despite the lack of processing. And in case you are wondering, we at Happy Acres are not in the business of selling our honey. Our production is limited, and most of it is consumed by us. We do share some of our honey with special friends and neighbors, but there isn’t enough to go around for everyone. Keeping bees is a hobby for me, not a business.
And truth be told, I still like to sample other beekeeper’s honey, especially when I get a chance to meet the beekeeper and talk ‘shop’. Every honey crop is unique, and some are truly exceptional. Of course, us beekeepers don’t make the honey ourselves, because only bees can make honey. I like to support local growers whenever possible, and that includes those selling honey. I hope the next time you buy honey you consider supporting your local beekeeper. It’s the best way I know of to make sure you really know what’s in that honey jar!