Is Grocery-Store Honey Safe?

Is it or isn’t it?

A school chum sent me this: “With everything we hear about honey these days, how do we know how to pick out real honey at the grocery store?”

I answered his question and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here.

You have a reason to be concerned about some of the honey found in grocery stores. As much as one-third is believed to be either mixed with cheaper and less healthy products such as HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) and sucrose (beet/cane sugar) or the honey may be contaminated with agri- cultural pesticides – sometimes drifting in from farmers’ spraying. As of yet, I have not heard of any adult becoming ill from honey contaminants, though low-levels of unwanted chemicals from any and all food sources may have a cumulative effect.

You have probably heard that “germs can’t live in honey”. This is true for most bacteria which find the mild acidity and hygroscopicity (ie, water-sucking quality) of honey deadly. Imported honey is rigorously sampled and inspected by USDA/Customs inspectors. Unfortunately, domestic American honey is not inspected except in rare circumstances when it is already on the store shelf. Nevertheless, honey purchased in stores is almost always safe when consumed by people over the age of 2. So, the issue is really more about food quality than food safety.

The quality of most honey in stores is fine. But how can you recognize which is the real honey and which is adulterated by HFCS or sucrose? You can’t, unless it is clearly labeled as a “honey blend” as shown in this picture. (By the way, this example is legal and probably tastes fine. It sells for $2.65 US for 12 ounces, or $3.53/lb) – but a honey blend is obviously not pure honey. To be sure that most honey on US grocery shelves is good, a tiny sampling is randomly pulled off shelves in most states and is run through a battery of tests. If found adulterated, the honey is recalled and the packer is usually hit with a fine and some embarrassment.

To complicate things:

  • Honey has a range of colours. It is almost black if the floral source is buckwheat and almost white if it is high-prairie alfalfa. Goldenrod, common in the eastern states, is dark yellow – we promoted it as golden. Other flower sources yield the whole spectrum of colours. An odd colour has nothing to do with adulteration or contamination.
  • Honey has a variety of flavours and scents. Just as every flower smells different, the flowers’ nectars give differently flavoured honey. Again, this is not a good way of selecting honey – unless the honey smells fermented. Fermentation (eventually leading to vinegar or mead) happens if honey has more that 18.6% water content. Packers avoid mixing too much water with the honey they pack because it might spoil and the shopkeeper will demand a recall. Honey sold in stores is usually 18 to 18.6% moisture. Nectar from flowers is 90% water, so the busy bees remove the excess by fanning their wings inside the hive, drying the nectar.
  • Honey granulates. Usually. You have seen “sugared” or “crystallized” honey. This happens to most pure natural honey. As noted above, honey naturally contains water, making it a supersaturated solution. With time, solids crystallize. However, some honey never crystallizes – for example, the famous tupelo honey from the rivers banks of north Florida. (Watch the movie Ulee’s Gold, starring Peter Fonda, for more about that.) Granulation correlates with a higher fructose/glucose ratio. Crystallized honey can be made liquid by heating a jar in the microwave or in hot water. (Too much heat can “cook” the honey, ruining its flavour and darkening it, so be careful.)
  • Pollen in honey. Raw, locally produced honey usually has a bit of healthy local pollen in it. Some buyers use this as a test of quality, thinking that honey without pollen is not real honey. They are wrong about this. Others claim pollen in honey is a contaminant – so far governments have not seen pollen as an impurity. Most honey sold in stores has been filtered to remove pollen, but it is still honey. The amount of pollen in raw, unfiltered honey varies but is too small to detect without a microscope. Some consumers feel that those extremely low doses of pollen helps their resistance against allergies.

The real deal

Bottom line? If you can find a local beekeeper, check out his/her shop and buy direct from the producer. The honey and shop will not be inspected, but if the outfit looks clean, neat, and organized, it is probably better than the majority of (um, rather messy) honey businesses I have seen across the USA.

You might also consider buying old-fashioned comb honey. Comb honey is not processed in any way – it is taken straight from the hives in the form it is created. No suspicious mixing or handling by potentially dirty equipment. If you do use comb honey, then you can squeeze it or carefully melt it to get the liquid honey out. Or just eat the honey, natural beeswax and all. As a disclosure, my daughter’s honey farm specializes in comb honey. (She and her husband bought our Canadian farm a few years ago.) She ships all over the world. (Believe it or not, China is a big customer of Canadian comb honey!)

But I think you still might like to find a local producer to support. Check out the farmers markets and ask the vendor if you could drop by at their farm and pick up some honey. I also would not totally ignore the grocery stores. Honey in retail shops is often cheaper, convenient, and as I mentioned, even if it falls into the adulterated and contaminated group, it is ‘probably’ not going to be harmful. However, if you want to be sure it is real and imbues health, check out the local beekeepers.

Post Script: That sums up how I answered my friend, a non-beekeeper, when he asked about buying honey from a grocery store. If you are a beekeeper or honey packer reading this, let me know if you think I’ve missed something important and I’ll pass it along to readers.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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