Is It Really Honey?
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By Sue Norris In these days of “fake” everything, we should have expected fake honey! But what exactly is it and how does it affect the honey industry?
Honey is the third most “faked” food out there, right after milk and olive oil according to the Decernis management compliance company.
Adulteration of honey is a big problem. Why is it done? Profit — pure and simple — and it’s not a new thing either. There have been concerns about the adulteration of honey and use of deceptive practices from as early as 2010.
An article back in 2011 caused a huge backlash by claiming that up to 75% of all honey sold in outlets was not honey but “altered product.”
You are probably thinking, okay, but that’s ancient history now — except that it still continues to this day.
Imported honey is supposed to be tested for purity of product, but the FDA is woefully undermanned and it is estimated that only around 5% of all imported honey is actually tested. To make matters more confusing, they issue only guidelines not regulations on honey. The FDA has also been accused of being unmotivated to improve the status quo.
The U.S. is not the only country to have this issue. In 2018, Australia’s top honey producer was accused of adulterating their honey product. Europe has also had its share of honey scandals, too.
In order to verify the source of a particular batch of honey, the people that test the honey look for pollen residue in the honey. A very small sample of unfiltered honey is needed to do this and the source of the honey can be verified. The test batch can also be tested for pesticide residue and/or other contaminants.
Many backyard beekeepers filter their honey through a sieve. The object of the exercise being to remove any debris such as insect particles or other imperfections. This process removes most if not all pollen, so the actual source cannot be verified. If you require your honey tested, you must send an unfiltered sample for testing.
Testing can reveal not only the pollen source, but the likely geographic location of source, purity, pesticide residue, and/or medication residue.
An underhand practice known as “ultra-filtration” is used to pass off inferior or contaminated honey as pure. This method removes all pollen from the honey, making it impossible to source the origin.
Certain countries such as China, Thailand, and India have in the past shipped contaminated honey to the U.S. and Europe. This honey has been tested for contamination and has been found to contain certain pesticides (especially neonicotinoids), miticide residue, and heavy metal contamination, making it unsafe for human consumption. As a consequence, honey imports from these countries were banned.
Enter ultra-filtration. The contaminated honey is now filtered, sent on a deliberately convoluted route of import and enters a country falsely labeled from a different country, if tested there is no apparent contamination picked up and yet it remains contaminated.
Adulteration of honey, or thinning, is surprisingly common. Real honey is mixed with another sugar syrup. This obviously stretches the amount of pure honey to make more product and therefore more money for the producer.
As you know, honey is composed of mainly fructose and glucose. The bees impart a certain “essence” in their production of honey that gives honey its distinctive taste. The syrups that are added to honey come from a variety of sources — cane, corn, or rice. These are easier and cheaper to produce than real honey.
It is not illegal to sell these blends, but it is illegal to pass them off as honey. Any additives to the honey are required by law to be listed on the label – and there lies the problem. Testing for these “blends” is expensive and time consuming.
While you may not think these practices affect you and your bees, it does indirectly by casting suspicion over the entire honey industry.
When scandals such as “fake honey” hit the headlines, suspicion falls upon the whole industry, the vast majority of whom are innocent and rightfully angered by the lack of oversight.
Why should we be concerned? Apart from the ethical and moral side of things, fake honey is bad for the honey industry in general. It undercuts pricing of genuine honey making it very hard to make ends meet let alone make a profit.
Beekeepers have taken to other avenues such as queen rearing to improve their income. Others have simply left as it has become so difficult to carve out a living.
Consumers may perceive true honey as expensive and turn to cheaper “supermarket” honey especially in economically tough times. The fake honey producers can undercut true prices by as much as 50%.
From a health point of view for diabetics, honey is low on the glycemic index and is considered one of the best substitutes for sugar. It is also considered very beneficial as an anti-inflammatory for all.
So, what is the take away from this? If you are a small localized producer, you likely have your own group of loyal customers who are happy with your product.
The honey industry needs to bring more pressure to the FDA for enforcing the quality checks on imported product and needs to issue directives rather than recommendations.
SUE NORRIS was born and raised in the UK. She traveled around the world as a registered nurse and settled in New York state with her partner about 25 years ago. She currently lives on 15 rural acres with 40-ish chickens, four rabbits, two dogs, three cats, and assorted wildlife. Sue is happily retired and enjoying the serenity.
Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.