Honey is a big topic right now and is being praised for being a healthy food. There are worries of honey being fake or filled with corn syrup. Some say that the lack of honey pollen means it’s not honey and that processed honey is no longer honey anymore either. The question is, is it?
Difference Between Raw Honey and Honey
In the U.S. there is no legal definition that separates the difference between raw honey and honey. When a product is labeled as “raw” it refers to honey that has not been heated or filtered.
There are two types of honey; comb honey and extracted honey.
Comb honey: Honey presented in its original comb or portions thereof.
Extracted honey: Honey removed from the comb and presented in several forms, as defined in the United States Department of Agriculture Standards for Grades: (1) liquid, (2) crystallized or granulated, or (3) partially crystallized. (source)
Extracted honey is then taken and offered in many different forms. This includes blended, crystalized, filtered, organic, raw, strained, and whipped honey. We are going to focus on these three forms of honey:
Filtered Honey: Honey processed by filtration to remove extraneous solids and pollen grains.
Raw Honey: Honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat.
Strained Honey: Honey which has been passed through a mesh material to remove particulate material (pieces of wax, propolis, other defects) without removing pollen.(source)
Honey has possible health benefits so many people are worried about fake honey or honey that has all its benefits stripped from it through processing. This ultimately comes down to the difference between filtered honey and raw honey.
Raw honey goes through at least one straining process that is meant to remove debris, bug parts, and other things you definitely don’t want to eat in your honey. It still contains all of the pollen that the bees dragged in (honey is made from nectar, not pollen!) and all of the nutrients, sugars, and enzymes because it was not heated. This is usually considered a more superior and healthier honey.
Filtered honey, which has the possibility of going through a heating process, is often considered the less superior or “fake” honey because it does not contain pollen and it’s properties were possibly destroyed through a heating process.
Does Heating Honey Destroy its Benefits?
If you have looked into this before you may be familiar with this statement which is quoted quite frequently when talking about heating honey.
“Honey should not be heated rapidly, over direct heat. Basically, the hotter you heat it, the more potential for reducing nutritional value. Excessive heat can have detrimental effects on the nutritional value of honey. Heating up to 37°C (98.6 F) causes loss of nearly 200 components, part of which are antibacterial. Heating up to 40°C (104 F) destroys invertase, an important enzyme. Heating up to 50°C (122 F) for more than 48 hrs. turns the honey into caramel (the most valuable honey sugars become analogous to sugar). Heating honey higher than 140 degrees F for more than 2 hours will cause rapid degradation. Heating honey higher than 160 for any time period will cause rapid degradation and caramelization. Generally any larger temperature fluctuation (10°C is ideal for preservation of ripe honey) causes decay.” -John Skinner, University of Tennessee
While this statement seems pretty sound, I was not able to find a study or what information Mr. Skinner used to make this outline.
In 2012, a study was done to determine how heat affected the enzymes and nutritional value of honey. The study concluded that “Heating and filtering honey does not completely eliminate all enzymes, nor does it have a negative effect on honey’s mineral and antioxidant levels(source).” However, “…honey experiences significant reductions in some enzyme levels, it is not always the case for all enzymes. Furthermore, in some cases, levels of minerals and antioxidants increased, likely due to the effects of averaging the samples after processing(source).” Unfortunately, this study was expensive and may not be repeated.
More studies are needed but there is not a significant amount of data to prove that heating honey will destroy all beneficial properties or that filtered and heated honey is less “healthy” than raw honey.
Why is Honey Filtered or Heated to Begin With?
The number one reason honey is filtered or heated is the fact that U.S. consumers prefer honey that stays liquid for longer and is clear.
Honey naturally crystallizes and in order for it not to, the honey must be filtered and possibly heated.
For the honey to be completely clear it must be filtered to the point that everything, including the pollen, is removed.
One reason honey often has its pollen filtered out is due to allergies. Some people are severely allergic to certain types of pollens bees might pick up as they are collecting nectar to make honey. There’s a belief that eating local honey will help with allergies, but there is no significant data to support this.
What About Ultrafiltration?
Ultrafiltration, a specific kind of filtration used in the food industry, should not be confused with other filtration methods generally used in the honey industry. When applied to honey, ultrafiltration involves adding water to honey and filtering it under high pressure at the molecular level, then removing the water. It is a much more involved and expensive process which results in a colorless sweetener product that is derived from honey but is not considered “honey” in the U.S.(source) Ultrafiltration, a totally different process [from traditional filtration methods], is a specific filtration method used in the food industry for pretreatment and purification. It can filter particles smaller than 1/10 of a micron (a spider web is about 2 microns in diameter). Pollen grains vary in size from about 5 to 200 microns, large enough to be filtered with more common filtration methods…The FDA has said this product should not be labeled as honey”(source)
Imported Honey and Import Bans
More than 400 million pounds of honey is consumed each year by Americans but less than half of that is actually produced in the U.S.
A big worry is that most of our honey is coming from China and that their honey is ultrafiltered, contains toxic material, is cut with high fructose corn syrup, and contains harmful chemicals and antibiotics.
In 2001, the U.S. actually barred honey from China, not because it was unsafe, but because it was too cheap and U.S. beekeepers were suffering from it. However, at this time I have not been able to locate any information about whether or not this is still current.
Another worry is that this “fake” Chinese honey is being sold to India, mixed in with quality Indian honey, and then is being sold to the U.S. This is hard to confirm and doesn’t seem to have any hard evidence.
“But the EU has banned honey from China and India!!!!!”
Well, yes, they did at one point.
From 2002-2004 The EU banned the import of shrimp, farmed fish, honey, royal jelly, rabbit meat and a number of other products of animal origin which were stopped because “… the EU considered China’s system to control residues of veterinary medicines in farmed animals to be too lax.” The ban, on at least honey, was eventually lifted.
For 18 months the EU banned honey from India. The Indian government later decided that they would not allow antibiotics in any part of the honey making process.
In 2003, honey from the U.S. was actually banned from being imported into Europe. It was mainly because they couldn’t guarantee product purity. There are now regulations set in place so that U.S. honey can be exported to Europe.
Honey Without Pollen is Still Honey
Honey is made from nectar, not pollen.
Here is the FDA definition of honey: “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.'”
Here is the EU’s definition of honey: “Honey is a naturally sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on plants. Bees collect it, transform it by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit it, dehydrate it, store it and leave it in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”
However, “pollen is a natural constituent rather than an ingredient of honey.” So, the EU requires the presence of pollen in honey to prove that the honey is “real” and comes from the region the label claims it comes from. The EU requires proper country/region labeling of the area the honey comes from. The U.S. does not have as strict labeling requirements.
There is not a lot of evidence that processed or heated honey is any less beneficial to raw honey. However, honey does have a lot of qualities we can benefit from. If you are worried about “fake” or imported honey I encourage you to buy local, raw, and organic. Supporting small business supports your community and you can ask the beekeepers exactly how their honey was processed.
What is your favorite type of honey? Comment below!
–National Honey Board
–National Honey Board Honey Nutrition Information
–Relax, Folks. It Really Is Honey After All
–Your Honey Probably Isn’t ‘Honey,’ And The FDA’s About To Fix That
–Ban on honey imports from China
–Imports of Chinese honey into the EU