It's been almost a decade since "Honeygate," and honey continues to be one of the top three deceptive food items on the market, along with milk and olive oil. If anything has changed since Honeygate, the survival of bees has starkly declined (not gradually but suddenly since 2019), making real honey even more challenging to find. Labels, governing agencies, and policing of the honey industry exist primarily in name with almost no implementation and little compliance from honey sellers. While many food labels carry some level of deception, honey is one of the most egregious trespassers where a label that says LOCAL actually means local to China. April is one of the best times to go to the farmer's market, and honey is best bought from small-scale, independent sellers. It will be noticeably more expensive than honey in a grocery store (especially this year), but most grocery counterparts contain very little honey.
In 2013, "Honeygate" was the biggest food fraud exposure to date – or really the biggest incident where anyone got caught. It found honey launderers evaded $180 million in shipping costs by shipping honey through several different ports (mainly in Asia) and chemically altering it. Today, around 70% of honey is adulterated. It's impossible to really know because of multi-tier fraud systems within the industry and organized crime controlling honey imports/exports. The demand for honey has increased by 40% in the past 20 years. Today America consumes 575 million pounds of honey a year. With this inverse of less honey production and more demand, one would expect honey to be expensive and even a commodity. Interestingly, honey prices have gotten cheaper. This is thanks to honey adulteration that has advanced beyond most honey testing by using compounds that mimic honey. There is a lack of initiative in honey testing - so that the testing isn't evolving with the fraud.
Today it's not uncommon for honey in one container to test from 5 or 6 different countries across the globe. A sugar mixture with a little bit of Chinese honey can be dusted with pollen from Argentina and labeled as "Argentinian Honey." For honey labels to comply with traceability is voluntary, and the USDA does not require samples to give honey a grade A. So, what can a shopper do? The most surefire way for a consumer to get the real product is to source it locally. We know the bees are in jeopardy, but beekeepers are also becoming a rare breed. April is an excellent time to support beekeepers because it's the beginning of their season. Bees will collect pollen through the summer, but honey harvest doesn't happen until late summer or fall. Honey is anti-microbial, meaning it doesn't need to be in an air-sealed container; a hand-packed ball jar is fine. Honey doesn't go bad, so you can stock up if you find a good source. There is evidence that shows honey helps with seasonal allergies. For this to be an added benefit, it's important to get honey from bees pollinating the flowers causing the allergies, so it has to be local for that benefit to work. Honey Shopping 101: Color: Real honey can be very light or dark. It depends on the water content in the hive and the pollen source. Crystallization: Real honey will often crystalize; adulterated honey will be treated so that it doesn't. Raw v. Heated Honey: Honey is not milk. It does not get pasteurized. Heating is part of the adulteration process to blend it with other syrups. Heating even at low levels creates a chemical compound called HMF that may be harmful for consumption, but more research is needed. If HMF is detected, it's very suspicious that the honey has been adulterated. Additionally, the health benefits of honey are in the naturally occurring compounds in honey that even low heating will strip the honey of a lot of its benefits. So stay away from any label that says heat. Specifically, the Whole Foods 365 brand is heated. The label does not say raw or heated, but the testing reveals it's been heated. Labels: that say "clover," "wildflower," "mountain forest," or "lavender" are strictly marketing. Honeybees are usually transported across the country to help pollinate crops, and bees travel around 6 miles away from their hive on an average trip. So, even if a hive sits in the middle of a lavender field, there will not be "notes of lavender" in the honey.