Why You Should Think Twice Before Buying Grocery Store Honey
The unsettling truth about "honey laundering."
If you’re doing your best to eat clean, certain things seem like safe bets. Fresh produce, legumes and unprocessed whole grains may all make the cut.
Another example is honey. Many of us use it as a natural alternative to other types of sugar, and it’s a favorite ingredient in lots of drinks and dishes.
Are you, like many Americans, a honey lover? If so, you may want to brace yourself, because we have some bad news...
Turns out, some of the honey that you’ll find on grocery store shelves is not actually real honey. It’s a product of an unethical yet widespread practice called “honey laundering.” Let us explain.
What Is “Honey Laundering?”
Honey laundering can mean many different things, explains Frances Largeman-Roth, NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eating in Color, but in broad terms, it describes honey that has been altered to contain less of the real product in lieu of cheap fillers like water, synthetic sweeteners, and potentially harmful chemicals—without being clearly labeled as such.
How Does “Honey Laundering” Happen?
Natural honey can be expensive and difficult to harvest, says Ginger Hultin, Seattle-based registered dietitian and Arivale coach. As a result, certain major honey producers, including several in China, rely on unsavory practices to create cheaper, more shelf-stable knockoffs.
“It’s well-documented that China has been flooding the U.S. market for years with honey that has had its beneficial pollen removed through ‘ultrafiltration,’” says Largeman-Roth.
Ultra-filtration is a process that does two things: it gives honey a longer shelf-life and also makes it impossible to trace the country of origin, she explains. [An important note on filtration: all honey, including the real stuff, goes through a regular filtration process to remove debris and bee parts, explains Largeman-Roth. But the added step of ultra-filtration is what separates legit honey from imposters.]
In certain cases, ultra-filtration isn’t the only modification made to honey.
“Some samples of Chinese honey have tested positive for illegal antibiotics and have also been watered down with high fructose corn syrup,” Largeman-Roth adds. “Honey imposters may also be made from cane, corn or beet sugar, rice syrup, or other cheaper sweeteners.”
To stop the surge of this pollen-free, chemical-ridden honey, the U.S. established high tariffs in 2008 on honey imported from China. But companies have found workarounds by sending altered honey to “middle men” countries where it is then repackaged and shipped to our shores.
In 2013, one of the nation’s largest honey packers, Michigan-based Groeb Farms, confessed to purchasing millions of dollars of laundered honey.
Some U.S. states, including Florida, California and North Carolina, have imposed a standard of identity for honey, but as there is no current federal standard, honey laundering continues.
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Why Should You Care?
The murkiness of honey laundering causes consumers to unknowingly use a product they may not want to purchase or put in their bodies, explains Hultin.
The chief concern: imported honey may contain chemicals banned in the U.S., like chloramphenicol, a broad spectrum antibiotic that has been linked to cancer as well as possible development of aplastic anemia, a rare but serious blood disorder, Hultin says.
Ultra-filtered honey may also be mixed with things like water or high fructose corn syrup, which further diminishes the natural benefits of honey, explains Largeman-Roth.
Pure honey has a natural antibiotic property thanks to special enzymes that the bees produce. Its pollen also contains good-for-you antioxidants and is purported to help with the effects of seasonal allergies, says Largeman-Roth.
Laundered honey will contain none of these health benefits.
What to Know When Shopping for Honey
Because there are few regulations and several loopholes surrounding honey production and labeling, it can be difficult to know if the sweet stuff you see on your grocery store shelf is actually authentic, explains Hultin.
That said, there are certain keywords that can help steer you in the right direction.
For starters, avoid the term “ultrafiltrated” because that means the original source of the honey isn’t traceable.
Also, don’t be fooled by the nomer “pure honey.” It’s not a meaningful description, explains Hultin, and doesn’t prevent against a contaminated product. Instead, look for the label “True Source Certified,” which indicates that the honey was voluntarily traced using a third party auditing system.
Price can also be a tip-off. “Producing real honey is a time and resource-intensive process and the costs will reflect that,” says Largeman-Roth. “You shouldn’t expect to pay just a few dollars for a jar of honey.”
Perhaps your best—and safest—bet is to purchase honey from a local farmer.
“You can ask them about their bees and harvesting practices which will help ensure that you are getting the real deal,” says Hultin.
Note: This article has been updated.