As you wheel your shopping cart down the honey aisle or explore the wide world of honey available online, you might notice certain words tend to pop up on labels.
To the untrained shopper, terms like “raw,” “organic,” and “Manuka” are like a secret code. You might have an inkling they might signal the honey is better for you, more sustainable, or just more delicious.
But what do these labelsreally mean?
What’s In a Honey Label?
Vague, ambiguous honey labels make it difficult to determine exactly what’s inside the jar or bottle at first glance. You’re probably trying to figure out:
- What’s the best choice for health?
- What’s the most bee-friendly option?
Well, not exactly.
In most cases, honey is quietly adulterated before it’s sold, diminishing its beneficial properties. And adding insult to injury, the USDA’s grading system for honey isn’t always enforced.(1)
Honey fraud and lack of regulation is a huge problem for conscious honey producers and consumers, and the questionable practices associated with these issues can be harmful to bees.
On the other hand, quality honey from reputable sources has advantages—it’s more nutritious, and its production can benefit bees and the environment. If you want to enjoy honey responsibly, learning how to source it is a worthy effort.
So, in this wild west of bootlegged amber liquid, how do you figure out what’s worth throwing your cash down for?
There are a few general rules that honey labels follow, and knowing the standards can help you dodge scams and narrow down the most nutritious option.
Let’s take a look at common labels you might come across and what they mean.
100% or Pure Honey
Pure or 100% honey simply means that your honey isn’t cut with other ingredients, like corn syrup. The label should list honey as the only ingredient.
Watch out, though—”100%” or “pure” only rates the purity in terms of honey vs. not-honey. “100% Clover Honey” has to be made out of only honey, but it doesn’t have to be made of only clover honey.In fact, in the US, honey containing roughly 60% Manuka flower nectar honey can legally be sold with the label “100% New Zealand Manuka honey.”(2)
Manuka honey is honey made from bees that foraged in the manuka plant in Australia and New Zealand. Manuka honey is typically dark-colored. While all honey is antibacterial and antimicrobial to some degree, research suggests Manuka honey may be more antibacterial than other varieties of honey.(3)
Manuka honey is often rated with a UMF (Unique Manuka Factor), which rates the level of antibacterial effectiveness. The higher the number, the more antibacterial activity.
Manuka honey is usually significantly more expensive than other types of honey because it’s produced in small batches. It's been touted as superior to other forms of honey (despite having similar properties to raw honey and honeycomb).
Since the label describes the flower type, like clover or wildflower honey, Manuka honey can be processed in the same ways as other honey, including raw, filtered, or comb Manuka honey.
Organic honey. Sounds nice, right?
Maybe this label makes you think of bees foraging in meadows, located far from human civilization. You may even think it means there are rules and testing in place to make sure it meets higher standards than conventional honey.
Not to burst your bubble, but…
The USDA does not have defined organic standards for honey.(4)
The “work around” for this conundrum is to allow honey produced in an operation that meets organic certifications for livestock production to carry the USDA Organic label.
The certification has nothing to do with the final product—it only ensures that bees are kept under the same standards as livestock. Last we checked, cattle and poultry don’t have a flying radius of six miles—not to mention some other biological differences. But we digress.
Another route the USDA takes is allowing organic certifications from other countries to carry into the US market—although those countries may not have standards for honey, either.
Plus, beekeepers don’t yet have the bee-tracking technology to guarantee that your jar of honey will only contain organic flower material.
For these reasons, it’s highly improbable that most honey labeled “organic” lives up to what you might expect from the organic label.
Filtered honey is honey that has been filtered to remove impurities like grains of pollen, beeswax, and other fine particles.
The process involves heating the honey, which prevents it from crystalizing and makes it fluid, smooth, and shiny. While it might look nice in a clear plastic bear, the filtering process eliminates many of the key elements that make raw honey so nutritious and tasty.
Filtered honey also has the highest risk of honey fraud because the process eliminates pollen, which is the key to determining honey’s origin.
Raw honey is honey that has not been processed with heat. It retains everything that was inside the honeycomb: the pollen, the nectar, the antioxidants, and the nutrients.
Many raw honey producers will extract honey from the honeycomb by spinning it quickly in a drum, similar to how water is extracted from lettuce in a salad spinner.
If you find a jar of raw honey, you might see that it’s crystallized. That’s a good sign! Crystallization means the honey has retained its original properties from the honeycomb.
While raw honey is a far better option than filtered honey, keep in mind the raw honey label doesn’t guarantee that it was produced with the welfare of bees in mind, and liquid honey can be tampered with.
Comb Honey or Honeycomb
Honeycomb is as close to the hive as you can get. The honey is still in beeswax cells, so it can’t be filtered or blended.
The honey within honeycomb cell walls is, by definition, unadulterated, meaning nothing can be added, and it can’t be processed. This is why Pass the Honey only offers honeycomb—the integrity is apparent.
While choosing honeycomb is a great way to make sure you’re getting the most wholesome and nutritious honey your money can buy, it’s also important that it's produced responsibly. Honeycomb produced near industrial areas may contain toxins, and harvesting it the wrong way can be detrimental to the hive.
To make sure our comb is bee-friendly, Pass the Honey only harvests the excess honeycomb—around 20%—and profits support pollinator research and habitat restoration. We also work with beekeepers located in remote areas, far from agricultural chemicals. Our beekeeper partners adhere to our standards for regenerative beekeeping.
Unadulterated honey is the good stuff, but you may not have seen it on a honey label — yet.
At Pass the Honey, unadulterated means zero questionable practices, and zero interruption to the bees as they do what they do best.
We back up our claim with the most advanced food testing technology available. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) testing confirms the origin of the comb and looks for key indicators of regenerative beekeeping practices.
All of these efforts translate into an absurdly good final product we call snacking honey.
What to Look For in a Jar of Honey
Honey labels aren’t always a guarantee of what you’re getting when you purchase liquid honey. Think of most honey labels like guidelines—they can help steer you in the general direction of where you want to go.
The honey label you can count on is comb honey or honeycomb. If honeycomb’s been tampered with, you’d be able to spot it from the dairy aisle.
Since bees are vital to honey and food supplies globally, ethical production should be a part of the equation when you’re sorting through your available honey options.Supporting regenerative beekeeping and pollinator research can help bees thrive, and help beekeepers maintain the resources they need to produce a quality product.
The best and easiest way you can support sustainable honey production and (be sure you’re getting the real deal) is by choosing regeneratively sourced, unadulterated honeycomb.