Or is it mystery syrup? Is it laced with antibiotics? Is it honey at all? “More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce,” so says two-time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Andrew Schneider in his November 7, 2011, Food Safety News (FSN) article, Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey.
According to Schneider, much of the honey in U.S. stores is “ultra-filtered.” Ultra-filtering removes pollen and any trace of substances that identify honey as well, honey. You can see an example of what I believe to be a grain of pollen in this image. (Get a peek at more microscopic pollen grains in Checking out honey pollen under the microscope.)
So how do honey packers get rid of the pollen? Here’s Schneider again:
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.
At the time he wrote that piece in 2011, Schneider said the FDA declared that if honey didn’t have pollen, it wasn’t honey. That may not be true today.
In its 2014 Draft Guidance for Industry: Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products, the FDA answers the question, “What is Honey?” this way, with no mention of pollen as proof that the substance is actually made by bees.
Reference materials in the public domain define honey as “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.” 2,3 FDA has concluded that this definition accurately reflects the common usage of the term “honey.”
Incidentally, I hunted for it, but could find no evidence of this draft having been accepted and made the rule of the land. Apparently, it’s still a draft.
How do we know if the “thick, sweet syrupy substance” in our little plastic bears actually came from bees? There’s only one way: Count the pollen grains. Real honey will have other microscopic bits in it too, as you see in these photographs of honey under my microscope. Those bits may be wood fibers from the hives, or bits of bees wax, even that marvelous substance, royal jelly.
Of course, if all these goodies have been filtered out, we have to take the packaging company’s word for it that what we are eating is honey.
Should we care whether there’s pollen in our honey?
Apart from pollen being the sole way to know for certain that we’ve got honey, according to Schneider, pollen matters for three reasons.
First, it’s a matter of safety. Schneider again:
Major food safety standard-setting organizations such as the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, the European Union and the European Food Safety Authority say the intentional removal of pollen is dangerous because it eliminates the ability of consumers and law enforcement to determine the actual origin of the honey.
Should a major food poisoning outbreak be traced to honey, for example, only the pollen can tell watchdog agencies where the honey came from. Remember peanuts and spinach? Today we’re seeing a massive nationwide recall of frozen fruits and vegetables linked to a potentially deadly Listeria outbreak. To stop such wide-spread food poisoning illness and death, the Center for Disease Control and other agencies must be able to find the origin of the contaminated food, so they can pull the bad stuff off the shelves and fix the problem at its source.
Second, honey may have medicinal benefits. In his 2011 article, Schneider quotes Kathy Egan, then a dietitian at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, who says raw honey, complete with its pollens, “is thought to have many medicinal properties,” including improving stomach ailments, anemia and allergies.
Third, without the pollen, watchdog agencies can’t tell whether we’re getting real honey from ethical producers, or junk that may be laced with toxins and/or antibiotics. Nor, apparently, can they tell if it’s been diluted with high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. Most questionable honey, according to FSN editor Dan Flynn, comes from China.
On April 13, 2014, Flynn penned a follow-up to Schneider’s article, Letter From the Editor: The Bogus Honey Story Won’t Die, in which he detailed the FDA’s turnabout in no longer specifiying pollen as a requirement to prove that a substance is honey. Flynn states
Once the pollen is removed, it opens the door to illegal dumping of honey measured by the tonnage. For years, the Chinese have illegally dumped into the U.S. market millions of dollars worth of their “honey,” which is often exposed to illegal antibiotics. They have a harder time getting their “laundered” honey into places such as Europe because many world food-safety authorities say that ultra-filtered honey missing its pollen is no longer honey.
How to protect yourself and your family
Buy local, and make sure it really is local. Apparently, many unscrupulous honey purveyors purchase “honey” from China, then repackage it here in the United States under their brand names.
Remember that quote at the beginning of the article, that more than three-fourths of the honey sold at U.S. supermarkets cannot be identified definitively as honey? According to Schneider, the actual number is seventy-six percent. That’s just supermarkets. If you buy it at your corner drugstore, you may not find honey in any of the jars on their shelves.
100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.
Ordering honey with your tea in a restaurant? Same thing.
100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, [sic] McDonald’s and KFC had the pollen removed.
You will have better luck buying from organic and from so-called “natural” food stores.
Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.
Here’s the complete list of the honey Food Safety News found to contain no pollen at all, in a nice graphic you can print and paste on your fridge.
Buy local. Shop your local farmer’s market and get to know the farmers. Look for brands in your supermarket from regional hive keepers, like the Lovers Lane Farm brand we can get here in San Francisco. On their web site, they show a distinct love of bee keeping and harvesting honey using time-honored traditions. That’s what you want to see when you buy honey from a local bee keeper: Someone who loves his or her bees and respects them and the work they do to provide a wholesome, real food.
Check your pantry. Where did your honey come from? Do you have one of the suspect brands? If you know your bee keepers, tell us a little something about your experience with them, won’t you?
♥ ♥ ♥
This post is shared at Simply Natural Sunday of 5/28/16.