Not the Real Deal: Adulterated Honey 101
Search the shelves of nearly any grocery store and you’re sure to find honey labeled raw, unfiltered, and organic. Next to these jars and bottles, plastic bears filled with amber liquid are marked at a fraction of the cost.
What’s the difference? Other than price and packaging, there may not be one.
At some point between the hive and the market, it’s estimated that as much as 70% of honey in the US is modified in some way (1). Complex supply chains, advanced food fraud practices, and vague labels can make it impossible to tell where honey came from and how it was produced.
Honey fraud doesn’t only impact the consumer. In an effort to compete with market demand for impossibly low prices, beekeepers are forced to turn to unsustainable methods that can be detrimental to bee health. This results in dwindling bee populations and may cause colony collapse disorder, which creates a vicious cycle where beekeepers face more challenges than they started with.
Until these facts are widely known, the demand for fake honey will continue to cause a ripple-effect of issues that impact pollinator health and the environment.
Knowledge is power. Read on for the full download on honey adulteration, what our small honeycomb company is doing to combat it, and how you can get involved.
What Is Adulterated Honey?
The difference between adulterated and unadulterated honey is simple.
- Adulterated honey is fake honey. It may contain some real honey, but what’s been done to it or how it was harvested has degraded its properties. Therefore, labeling it “honey” doesn’t accurately represent what’s in the package.
- Unadulterated honey is the real deal. This is the stuff naturally packed with gut health-supporting properties and other wellness benefits. It hasn’t been altered in any way, and it was harvested appropriately.
There are four main ways that honey can be adulterated by people. Honey can also be contaminated without direct human intervention.
Blending became popular in the 1970s with the creation of corn syrup. Today, syrups made from corn, cane sugar, rice, and other crops dilute an estimated 30% of honey globally (2).
Humans aren’t the only ones who can be fooled by cheap sweeteners—bees are sometimes fed sugar syrups to encourage increased production, or if too much of their honey supply has been harvested. While it has the immediate desired effect, it also isn’t a complete replacement for natural pollen and can be detrimental to bee health (3). It also means the honey is made from processed sugars instead of plants and pollen.
Harvesting Too Early
Honey isn’t ready to eat as soon as the nectar hits the hive. This unripe honey hasn’t received the TLC from bees it needs to be infinitely shelf stable and nutritious.
Honey that’s been pasteurized has been heated (filtered). Heating removes beneficial enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, as well as pollen. After pollen is filtered out of honey, it’s origins can’t be traced. That makes pollen filtering a common practice among honey fraudsters.
Though not considered adulteration of honey, toxic chemicals are often found in honey. In fact, 75% of honey in the world has been found to contain pesticides (4).
The Ultimate Honey Quality Test
Although the definition of unadulterated honey is cut and dry, figuring out whether honey has been adulterated is not. Even worse, honey fraud is a global crisis, impacting beekeepers and ecosystems around the world. Between the expectation for cheap honey and the many systemic issues, the industry is largely paralyzed, trapped in a position that isn’t sustainable with no clear way out.
Rather than being crushed by the weight of this massive and complex problem, we at Pass the Honey took matters into our own hands by asking the tough questions.
- How can we guarantee the purity, quality, and origin of our honeycomb?
- What can we do to help the industry move away from fake honey?
- How can we support bees and beekeepers so they can sustainably keep up with the demand for real honey?
Our research and curiosity led us to develop these standards.
That still leaves the possibility of adulteration through supplemental feeding and pesticides, though. That’s why we turned to our partners at Terra Genesis International to seek out the cleanest honeycomb we could find in the world. They landed in the remote and flourishing Turkish mountains, where no pesticides or herbicides are used and generational beekeepers use natural methods.
In our most recent audit, all practices used by our beekeeping partners were found to exceed sustainable standards and meet or exceed minimum standards for regenerative practices.
One of those regenerative practices is only harvesting the excess honeycomb—about 20%—so the bees have plenty of their own honey to eat and don’t need supplemental feeding.
To be sure these standards are enough to secure a bright future for bees and beekeepers, these practices will be implemented and researched on a large scale through our Regenerative Honeycomb Initiative.
Welcome to the Honey Testing Lab
Can’t liquid honey be pure? Absolutely. But the only way to know for sure that any honey or honeycomb is unadulterated is through nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). This chemical testing reveals:
- If other ingredients have been blended into the honey.
- Presence (or lack thereof) of pesticides and herbicides.
- Country of origin.
- The type of flowers the bees foraged on.
- The presence of pollen, royal jelly and propolis.
We believe that NMR testing is an essential part of solving the honey fraud problem. All honey sold should undergo rigorous testing. Although we trust that our partners and standards will result in pure honeycomb, we use NMR to set an example for the industry.
What About Organic Honey?
Since bees have a flying radius of several miles, organic certifications don’t mean much for honey.
In the US, land use and industrial agricultural practices make it statistically improbable that the bees were foraging in areas with no genetically modified plants, and that those plants were free from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers (5).
Additionally, the majority of honey sold in the US isn’t native (1). Other countries’ organic certifications are accepted in the US. This isn’t to say honey from other countries is inferior—but honey fraud happens all over the world, so it’s not superior, either.
If you do choose the organic label, let it be for the cause of supporting your local beekeepers. Just don’t expect it to be truly organic.
Normalize Unadulterated Honey
Honey is one of the most wholesome, energy-dense foods you can eat. It’s also one of the most fraudulent foods on the planet.
No one should be fooled into paying premium prices for processed syrups that don’t contain the many benefits expected from raw honey. And the way we see it, there’s simply no good reason the honey industry should harm the very creatures that produce the true product (honey bees) or pose a threat to the beekeepers who are simply trying to share their passion for this beneficial food.
Thankfully, we’ve noticed a trend in conversations within the Pass the Honey community—between our efforts and media coverage, awareness about honey adulteration is on the rise. Being a part of the movement that will shift the market from cheap and easy to ethical and regenerative is easy: support real honey.