Americans want more natural sweeteners. However, the honey market is rife with fakes. Here’s how to spot them.
Beekeepers are the celebrities of honey circles. They’re bringing local honey to the (small) masses and, more importantly, working to restore bee populations that continue to decline as a result of widespread pesticide use.
More popular than the beekeepers themselves is the delightful honey they collect from the busy, bustling bee hives they maintain.
Each year, Americans eat more than 400 million pounds of the sweet stuff, but American beekeepers only supply about half of that. The other half of the honey bounty comes from imports, and therein lies the issue: Despite the increasing popularity of local honey and the greater awareness around supporting bee populations, many people are snookered by the golden, sticky sweetener at the store or farmers’ market.
Here, find out how to spot a honey huckster so you won’t be fooled again.
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Organic and non-GMO honey claims are almost worthless.
You may seek out organic varieties of your favorite foods and research endlessly to find non-GMO versions of everything on your grocery list, but when it comes to honey, the claims don’t count for much.
For honey to be accurately labeled organic in the U.S., every flower and plant the bee draws nectar from would have to be free of pesticides. A beekeeper can’t guarantee that, as bees often source nectar from thousands, even millions of flowers, to make one batch of honey. Even if they’re keeping their hives free of pesticides and antibiotics, beekeepers can’t be certain where bees collected their feed. That makes a true “organic” honey claim nearly impossible.
Don’t be fooled: You can buy organic or non-GMO honey if you want. You’ll likely pay more for a claim that cannot be fully supported.
A “Made in the USA” claim on honey isn’t always legitimate.
The honey in your grocery store might not be from your nearest beekeeper, but a “made in the USA” honey claim is good enough for local, right? Wrong. Lax enforcement on honey claims means a lot of these label declarations go unnoticed and certainly aren’t investigated for legitimacy.
Additionally, some honey packers are buying honey that is from a foreign source, repacking the honey (often with fillers like high-fructose corn syrup), and saying it’s “made” in America.
Don’t be fooled: Unless you visit a farm to see the beehives that will produce your honey, you have few ways to know for certain where your honey originated. The bottler may be upfront and clear on labeling everything from when the bottle was packaged to which individual factory packaged the honey. Without those labels, your honey is a bit of a guessing game.
Your honey may be tainted or “spiked.”
Americans eat a great deal of honey every year, and our country’s hives don’t make enough to feed the demand. Nearly half of America’s honey is imported from other countries. Many may be OK, but Chinese honey has a long history of being a honey con artist.
Indeed, research shows Chinese honey, which can be tainted with lead and illegal antibiotics, is frequently laundered through other Asian countries. This helps the companies avoid steep tariffs the U.S. government placed on Chinese honey a decade ago in order to prevent the fraudulent or dangerous product getting into American stores.
If your honey isn’t a foreign fake, it may be “spiked” with inferior sweetening products like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Using the cheap sweetener, honey bottlers can save money and stretch profits.
Don’t be fooled: You can’t know just by looking at honey if it’s tainted or thinned with HFCS. You can, however, read the label. If the ingredient list contains something other than honey, the sweetener is spiked.
Avoiding tainted Chinese honey is a bit more tricky. Indeed, as much as one third of U.S. honey imports may be this tainted honey. You can do due diligence by researching your options, too. Brands like Nature’s Nate (amazon.com, $10) and Bee Harmony (amazon.com, $12) do an excellent job of explaining sourcing and processing so you can feel confident in their honey. You can also make friends with a beekeeper you trust to deliver you pure, local honey when you need your next fix.
The majority of honey doesn’t even contain pollen.
Some honey bottlers use a filtration and pasteurization process that heats up the honey in order to make it last longer. This high-heat phase also removes many of the healthful benefits people seek in their jar of sticky golden goo.
Specifically, the heating process destroys pollen. A study by Food Safety News found that three quarters of honey sold in the U.S. contained no pollen. Pollen is one way scientists can source the honey—and verify where it was made.
Don’t be fooled: Raw honey is a claim that should indicate the honey was never filtered or pasteurized. Of course, it’s also not widely enforced, which means you can’t always trust what’s on the bottle; you’ll need to trust the brand. This calls on doing research on honey brands before you buy or finding honey from a local supplier you know does not use heat or sterilization.
Farmers’ market honey isn’t necessarily local.
Lest you think your best option for buying good, high-quality honey is buying from beekeepers at your local farmers’ market, here’s the truth: even that honey could be fake. Is it likely? No, most farmers’ markets have strict rules about who can hawk their wares. If the beekeeper isn’t legitimate, the market will most likely sniff it out. But is it possible? Absolutely. Anyone could use cheaper honey, rebottle it, and slap a premium price on it.
Don’t be fooled: Get to know the beekeeper. Ask about where their hives are. Could you ever visit the hives? Does she do educational visits for children to working hives? Be sure to follow them on social media so you can see their work and progress. The more you know about your local beekeeper and the work they’re doing to restore bee populations and bring you good honey, the more confident you can feel.