June is pollinator month, an annual community event held in the United States, encouraging education, awareness, and activities to celebrate the invaluable role that pollinators (bees, flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, birds, and bats) play in our environment. What better way to celebrate than by shedding some light on the less virtuous practices of the honey industry, in turn empowering us to support those employing ethical ones.
In fact, after olive oil and milk, honey is the third most-faked food in the U.S. This has sprawling impacts on bees, beekeepers, and the nutritional benefits that we believe we’re getting from this medicinal sweetener. Let’s dive into all of these issues and discover ways to ensure that the honey we’re buying is legit.
What is honey, really?
With 600 million pounds of honey products purchased in 2021, an eight percent increase from the previous year, honey couldn’t be more buzzworthy these days. This is largely due to its purported health benefits (it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties) and lovely floral flavor. But what is the sticky stuff, exactly?
Honey is a sweet, viscous food substance made by honey bees and some related insects. It’s produced from the nectar of flowers, and is often used as a sweetener and a condiment in cooking and baking. Honey has been used medicinally for centuries. Basically honey bees visit countless plants, collecting nectar and inadvertently pollinating at the same time. With this nectar, they return to the hive where it eventually concentrates into honey. The amount of honey produced by bees is usually more than what the colony can consume on its own, leaving behind excess for beekeepers to harvest, and for us to enjoy.
The fake honey problem
But little do consumers know, a sizable portion of the honey and honey flavored products they’re purchasing are far from the real deal. Nicole Civita, a food systems educator, attorney, consultant, and the co-author of Feeding Each Other: Shaping Change in Food Systems Through Relationship explains, “The U.S. imports about 70 percent of its honey supply—which means that much of the honey we purchase and consume comes from far away and travels through long supply chains, creating lots of opportunities for unscrupulous actors to dilute, tamper with, or outright fabricate a viscous amber substance that gets bottled and sold as ‘honey.’”
There are so many ways honey can be adulterated, including filtering, heat treating, and diluting with additives like sugar and a variety of syrups, ranging from high fructose corn and rice to cassava and beet. The sweet stuff can also be prematurely harvested as plant nectar, processed, and falsely sold as its mature end-product, honey. Some honey imposters will even go as far to feed honey bees syrups and sugar for honey production, as opposed to allowing them to go about their natural behavior of collecting plant nectar for honey production.
No one knows just how much of the honey in our country nowadays is fake. “If I had to guess, I would say that a relatively small portion of what people buy on grocery shelves is fake, maybe 15 percent? I suspect that most fake honey makes its way into packaged foods that purport to use honey as an ingredient,” says Leonard Foster, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia. Civita also weighs in here, sharing: “I have seen claims that fake honey makes up 70 percent of the U.S. honey supply, which seems high to me. The Honey Authenticity Network says it’s more like 33 percent.” There truly is no way of knowing.
Why fake honey is so common
At this point, if you’re wondering: But don’t we have governing bodies in this country to ensure the accuracy of food labeling? Technically yes, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a honey grading system to inform consumers of the quality of product they’re purchasing. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that these systems are protecting consumers.
“When it comes down to it, there is relatively little regulatory enforcement directed at food produced in or imported to the U.S.—we have lots and lots of regulations and guidance about food, but very limited enforcement,” Civita explains. In fact, the Federal Register literally reads, “honey does not require official inspection in order to carry official USDA grade marks and…there are no existing programs that require the official inspection and certification of honey.”
Civita also adds, “The FDA has, for decades, been attuned to the practice of trading in fake honey, which began in the 1970s, as high fructose corn syrup grew in popularity and availability, so lots of labs and initiatives to test and assess the veracity of honey have been developed.”
But even third parties who do test for the purity of honey face challenging hurdles. Foster runs a lab aimed at developing a new test to detect fraudulent honey, and he says the motivation for this is that the current tests either do not work or will not be effective shortly. “The main reason for this is that the people making fake honey are now putting thought into how to do it in a way that will circumvent the existing tests,” he says. To address this, Foster says his lab is attempting to make a test that will be so expensive for fraudsters to beat that they just don’t bother trying.
The implications of fake honey on bees and beekeepers
It may come as no surprise that the ramifications this issue has on the bees, beekeepers, and the industry as a whole are sprawling.
Bee populations in this country are already struggling for a variety of reasons. Holistic entomologist Nissa Coit, learning network associate for the EcoGather Initiative and adjunct faculty in biology, ecology, and entomology at Sterling College, says the issues facing bee populations are usually summed up as the “four Ps:” pesticides, pathogens, parasites, and poor nutrition. “Each of these four major causes interact synergistically, creating adverse effects greater than the sum of their parts,” she says. This could look like bees being more susceptible to pests and disease as a result of pesticide exposure and lack of varied nutrition from the plants they pollinate. “All this is further exacerbated by a poor diversity and abundance of flowering plants in monocropped orchards or in lawns,” she says. “Like humans, bees require for optimal nutrition.” Coit notes that these issues apply to bees not just living in this country, but to the thousands of species found worldwide.
“Beekeepers are constantly battling high levels of colony loss, especially in the winter, due to all these factors,” says Coit. In fact, between 2020 and 2021, beekeepers in the U.S. lost over 45 percent of their honey bee colonies. This is a concern that far exceeds whether or not we’ll have honey for our morning tea as bees also pollinate the food crops that we survive on. (Approximately a third of the human dietary supply is pollinated by bees.)
However, there’s presently no concern for the endangerment of the commercially managed honey bees that are tasked with propelling our nation’s food production forward. Coit explains, “These bees are an economic asset to our food system, and are therefore more protected by commercial interests. We breed them to be stronger, treat them with medicine, and give them supplemental feed.” While significant losses of these commercial bees occur every year, despite the support they’re given, Big Ag simply replaces these losses, knowing that some will always be sacrificed for the cause due to the four P’s.
Beekeepers are among the hardest hit by the ramifications of fake honey. As you can imagine, these adulterated products drive the price of honey way down. Foster explains, “Honey is an internationally traded commodity, so anything that drives down the price of honey in one place has a ripple effect across the world by dropping the price that beekeepers everywhere can get for their honey.” He continues, “The fact that we keep finding more and more fake honey also leads to lack of public confidence in honey as a food, which puts further downward pressure on the price.”
This creates an environment where it’s super difficult for beekeepers to make a living from honey production alone. In turn, they need to put more pressure on their bees to collect higher amounts of nectar to produce even more of the sticky stuff. This can increase the odds that their bees are exposed to the four P’s, especially as this predicament often requires some honey bees to travel outside of their usual range to collect the additional nectar. Overall, more honey beekeepers are needing to turn to outside sources of income as the profession becomes less and less financially sustainable. And with fewer ethical honey producers in the industry, the market potential for fake honey producers grows that much larger.
Here’s what fake honey’s prevalence means for consumers
When it comes to fake honey’s effects on honey consumers, while it won’t harm us, adulterated honey does significantly impact the health benefits typically associated with the real stuff. Pure, raw honey can boost our health in so many ways due to its bioactive compound content that provides anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits. Plus, this coveted sweetener can help promote gut and respiratory health, while also alleviating sore throats and seasonal allergies.
However, when it comes to some of the additives found in fake honey, like refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, those health benefits are effectively replaced by health concerns. “Fake honey typically contains synthetic and highly processed ingredients that some folks try to avoid or minimize, which is especially true for people who seek out real honey as a natural food with nutritional and health benefits,” shares Civita.
These processed ingredients like added sugar and high fructose corn syrup are pro-inflammatory agents, hindering the immune system’s ability to do its job. Plus, if the adulterated honey in question has been filtered or heat treated, many of the healthy compounds that may have been present in the honey have likely been either removed or killed off. No matter, fake honey is still safe to consume, it just won’t offer the health benefits we may be expecting.
So how can you best navigate this issue, purchasing real honey products while avoiding the counterfeit stuff?
The only sure-fire way to know if your honey is real or not is to either test the chemical composition or know its true origin. And while most of us don’t have fancy lab equipment lying around to conduct these tests, we do often have access to a local honey producer. “The best way to make sure that you’re getting real honey is to buy directly from a beekeeper,” says Foster.
If you don’t have access to local producers, however, there are also a few traceability certification organizations that you can turn to, one of which is True Source Honey. When you buy honey that has undergone third party verification like True Source products do, you’re supporting producers who invest in transparency—proving that their products are free from adulteration, while also working to elevate the industry as a whole. Additionally, you can look out for claims on honey packaging like MGO, UMF, and NPA—these labels are often found on more expensive and niche honeys, like Manuka honey, and are a fairly credible indication that the honey has been tested for quality assurance.
“If the price of honey on your store shelf seems too good to be true, it probably is! Honey is, and should be, a pretty premium product…and treated as such,” says Civita. Some great brands offering the real deal that are available online or in many grocery stores include Bjorn’s Colorado Honey, Y.S. Eco Bee Farms, and Local Hive Honey.
If you’re curious whether the honey you already have in the cupboard is real or not, there are also a few at-home tests that you can try—though, of course, these won’t be 100-percent indicative of whether your honey is the real deal or not. Some of these tests include tasting for the floral notes and lingering aftertaste of pure honey, doing a stickiness test between your fingers—real honey should actually feel more like a balm or cream as opposed to truly sticky, and looking for a cloudy appearance indicative of crystals, honeycomb particles, and pollen found in the real stuff.
While there are still many unknowns surrounding this issue, we do know at least a portion of the honey and honey based products in this country are not authentic. This puts bees and beekeepers at risk, while drastically altering the nutritional benefits of the beloved sweetener. Through seeking out third party verified brands and local honey producers, you can seek out reputable honey products that will not only nourish your body, but will also support the good guys within the industry.