Ask anyone what honey is made of and you may get a quizzical look because we all know: 100-percent honey, right? Next time you’re at the grocery store, read some labels in the honey aisle—you could be surprised by what you find.
What honey is
Honey is a single-ingredient food, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, which defines honey as “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.” Pure, unadulterated honey can last a lifetime (or more) on your shelf. Its antibacterial properties can help to prevent wound infection. And honey may help with seasonal allergies. But your supermarket honey may not actually be honey.
What honey is not
That sticky stuff isn’t actually honey if it contains anything besides honey made from the nectar of flowers—and trace amounts of pollen, which can be present in honey in minuscule amounts, according to the National Honey Board. Conversely, a product consisting of honey and a sweetener (or any other ingredient, including any sort of flavoring) cannot be legally labeled as “honey'” and should, instead, be labeled as a “blend” of honey plus whatever else is in it.
When not-honey is labeled as honey
Some honey bottlers have been watering down their honey and adding sweeteners (such as corn or rice syrup, malt sweeteners and unrefined sugar) in order to increase production, reports LiveScience. Even worse, some so-called honey has been found to contain heavy metals and antibiotics, according to the US Department of Justice (this was found mostly in products imported from Asia).
The addition of anything to honey without labeling it properly is known as “honey laundering.” Honey laundering is a federal crime and subject to FDA enforcement action.
What’s being done about it
The U.S. established high import tariffs on “honey” from China as a result of the imports being sold in the U.S. at artificially low prices and undercutting U.S. markets. To avoid these tariffs, some Chinese packers resorted to sending their not-honey to the U.S. through other nations who would cover up the product’s true origins. And even one of the largest honey packers in the U.S., Michigan-based Groeb Farms, confessed to purchasing millions of dollars of this “laundered” honey in 2013. They were sentenced to pay millions of dollars in fines.
And please note: Honey isn’t the only food product subject to impurities and mislabeling, according to Live Science, which notes that “olive oil is often cut with cheaper oils and sold at premium prices, a practice that’s expected to expand as a shortage of the oil (caused by a 2012 drought in southern Europe) hits global markets.”
What you can do
To ensure the honey you’re bringing into your home is the real deal:
- Avoid any honey labeled as “ultrafiltrated.”
- Don’t be fooled by honey labeled as “pure.” This has no legal significance and doesn’t actually guarantee purity.
- Look for the label “True Source Certified” instead. True Source Honey independently verifies the ethical origins of honey.
You can’t get much more legit than buying honey straight from the farmer or beekeeper. A true honey harvester will know exactly what flowers the honey is derived from. You may pay a few more bucks than you would at the supermarket, but you’ll know what you’re getting, and help support local businesses (and bees!) in the meantime.