Home What Are You Eating? Supermarket Swindle: Is Your Honey Really Honey?

Supermarket Swindle: Is Your Honey Really Honey?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Just caught a glimpse of this:

If you’ve been feeding your kids spoonfuls of honey for their coughs this fall, you might want to think again about where that honey comes from. Food Safety News, a site set up by food safety lawyer Bill Marler, reports today that lab tests show that most honey sold on supermarket and drug store shelves today isn’t really honey, according to safety requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration.

That’s because it’s been so ultra-filtered that it’s largely pollen-free. Pollen is a key ingredient in real honey, and thought by some people to have medicinal and allergy-fighting properties.

Let me interject, here – it’s not that all honey (well, obviously not all honey, now) has allergy-fighting properties. It’s that honey made from flowers local to your area from your area’s bees has the ability to immunize you against pollen. It has to be pollen from the flowers in your area, because the flowers in your area are the ones that trigger your allergies. As I shared before…

The idea behind eating honey is kind of like gradually vaccinating the body against allergens, a process called immunotherapy. Honey contains a variety of the same pollen spores that give allergy sufferers so much trouble when flowers and grasses are in bloom. Introducing these spores into the body in small amounts by eating honey should make the body accustomed to their presence and decrease the chance an immune system response like the release of histamine will occur [source: AAFP]. Since the concentration of pollen spores found in honey is low — compared to, say, sniffing a flower directly — then the production of antibodies shouldn’t trigger symptoms similar to an allergic reaction. Ideally, the honey-eater won’t have any reaction at all. [source]

[…] if you have to buy at major grocery chains, the analysis found that your odds are somewhat better of getting honey that wasn’t ultra-filtered if you buy brands labeled as organic. Out of seven samples tested, five (71 percent) were heavy with pollen. All of the organic honey was produced in Brazil, according to the labels.

The National Honey Board, a federal research and promotion organization under USDA oversight, says the bulk of foreign honey (at least 60 percent or more) is sold to the food industry for use in baked goods, beverages, sauces and processed foods.  Food Safety News did not examine these products for this story.
Some U.S. honey packers didn’t want to talk about how they process their merchandise.
One who did was Bob Olney, of Honey Tree Inc., in Michigan, who sells its Winnie the Pooh honey in Walmart stores.  Bryant’s analysis of the contents of the container made in Winnie’s image found that the pollen had been removed.
Olney says that his honey came from suppliers in Montana, North Dakota and Alberta. “It was filtered in processing because North American shoppers want their honey crystal clear,” he said.
The packers of Silverbow Honey added: “The grocery stores want processed honey as it lasts longer on the shelves.”
However, most beekeepers say traditional filtering used by most will catch bee parts, wax, debris from the hives and other visible contaminants but will leave the pollen in place.
Ernie Groeb, the president and CEO of Groeb Farms Inc., which calls itself “the world’s largest packer of honey,” says he makes no specific requirement to the pollen content of the 85 million pounds of honey his company buys.
Groeb sells retail under the Miller’s brand and says he buys 100 percent pure honey, but does not “specify nor do we require that the pollen be left in or be removed.”
He says that there are many different filtering methods used by beekeepers and honey packers.
“We buy basically what’s considered raw honey. We trust good suppliers. That’s what we rely on,” said Groeb, whose headquarters is in Onstead, Mich.
Removal of all pollen from honey “makes no sense” and is completely contrary to marketing the highest quality product possible, Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told Food Safety News.
“I don’t know of any U.S. producer that would want to do that. Elimination of all pollen can only be achieved by ultra-filtering and this filtration process does nothing but cost money and diminish the quality of the honey,” Jensen said.
“It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China,” Adee added.
“There is a significant difference between filtration, which is a standard industry practice intended to create a shelf-stable honey, and ultra-filtration, which is a deceptive, illegal, unethical practice.”
“The FDA has sent a letter to industry stating that the FDA does not consider ‘ultra-filtered’ honey to be honey,” agency press officer Tamara Ward told Food Safety News.
She went on to explain: “We have not halted any importation of honey because we have yet to detect ‘ultra-filtered’ honey. If we do detect ‘ultra-filtered’ honey we will refuse entry.”
Many in the honey industry and some in FDA’s import office say they doubt that FDA checks more than 5 percent of all foreign honey shipments.

That’s the long version. The short version:

• 76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.
• 100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.
• 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.
• 100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald’s and KFC had the pollen removed.
• Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.

Now, I’m curious. What I’ve learned about honey is that its effects on the blood stream were similar to that of regular granulated sugar, but if most “honey” in the US that isn’t raw and heavily filtered is cut with high fructose corn syrup, then how do we know that the tests that were done to determine the effects of “honey” on the blood stream were done with real honey? Are there any tests done with raw honey – and that can be confirmed – that can say as much? It seems like the change in ingredients would make a big difference.

I have my thoughts, but I’m saving them for a separate post. All I’m gonna do is drop this little link right here. That’s it.

What are your thoughts?

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Starry November 8, 2011 - 1:12 PM

That made me sit up! I get most of my honey from my local organic grocery store but I have, in the past, just bought standard honey from supermarkets. I had no idea that the supermarket honey was so heavily filtered and absolutely no clue about the removal of pollen in it.

Something that might be of interest: I live in London and the last few years have seen a real growth in Londoners (individuals as well as places like Fortnum and Mason) creating their own beehives at the tops of their buildings. The honey tastes really good, is filtered only very basically to remove any debris (from bees and the like as mentioned in your post) and, furthermore, because the bees collect pollen from the flowers in our own neighbourhoods, it has local pollen in it too 🙂 Actually, an added bonus really is the taste too… so many of the flowers in the city are exotic blooms so you get a completely unique taste and it is gooood!!

Admittedly, this honey isn’t as cheap as in the supermarkets (what really good food is?) but I figure that I’d rather have the occasional bit of honey on my toast or in my tea than lashings of cheap, tasteless stuff.

As an aside – I recently visited a friend’s home for her birthday and she had two beehives in the garden!! It was the first time I had ever been so close to one and keeping bees is definitely on my ‘to do’ list in the next few years 🙂

Starry November 8, 2011 - 1:14 PM

Ohhh – I completely forgot to ask about the honey cut with HFCS that you mentioned… I only saw that in your own comments and not in any of the articles that you quoted. I just wondered which particular brands do this? Honestly, I had never heard of that before and it’s pretty darned shocking!

Erika Nicole Kendall November 8, 2011 - 1:51 PM

In the Food Safety News article,

“Eventually, some honey packers became worried about what they were pumping into the plastic bears and jars they were selling. They began using in-house or private labs to test for honey diluted with inexpensive high fructose corn syrup or 13 other illegal sweeteners or for the presence of illegal antibiotics. But even the most sophisticated of these tests would not pinpoint the geographic source of the honey.”

“Some honey packers…” not all. Which leads me to believe – and I have no reason to doubt – that there is honey in the US that is being cut with HFCS. The FSN article goes into deeper detail about the illegal importing, but a manufacturer that knows his product won’t be tested for purity has no reason to do what he’s gotta do to save his profits, even if that includes this. Maple syrup is the same way. 🙁

Starry November 8, 2011 - 1:57 PM

Thanks for clarifying… *shakes head* I mean, really, I have no words…

I’m so glad I came across your blog. It reinforces, every single day, my gradual shift away from such meddling in our food to a life that embraces knowledge, greater awareness and *real* unadulterated food.

Brandi November 8, 2011 - 1:29 PM

So what is the best honey out there?

Erika Nicole Kendall November 8, 2011 - 3:23 PM

Whatever you can get that is grown locally in your area with as much pollen in it as possible. Not only for flavor, but for its nutritive/medicinal benefits.

Melissa November 8, 2011 - 1:59 PM

I used to buy honey from the grocery store without much thought. But then…..my boss brought in honey from the bees she keeps in her weekend place and let me tell you, I cannot say how hard pressed I would have to be to buy from a store. This honey is so, so, so, so delicious. It’s honey. Pure, plain and simple. I’ve never tasted the flavors that come through in conventional store brought honey. She graciously gives eveyrone in the office a jar and let me tell, I stalk looking for those who don’t want it. I don’t bother to tell them what they’re missing out on because they may keep it lol. But more seriously, it was a huge part of me looking at what I consume and how it’s made and what it’s made with. I felt and still do feel kind of dupped with what is on the store shelves.

Betti November 8, 2011 - 2:18 PM

This is why I get as much of my food as I can from the farmers market. If I have any questions or want to know anything about where the food was grown and how it’s processed/prepared, the producers are right there. I started giving store bought honey the side eye when I looked at the ingredients list and it was diluted with corn syrup!

another Erica November 8, 2011 - 3:47 PM

I initially thought maybe they were removing all the pollen for allergy reasons (wanting to keep people who ate supermarket honey from sneezing a lot or something, IDK), but this makes a lot more sense:

“It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China,” Adee added.

Ugh. Buy local, buy local, buy local!

heavenleiblu November 8, 2011 - 5:00 PM

My neighborhood farmer’s market + raw local honey (w/the comb!) for the win once again!

JoAnna November 8, 2011 - 5:21 PM

I’ve been eating raw honey everyday with breakfast to relieve my seasonal allergies. It looks like solidified grease, and had many “specks” of pollen throughout the honey. The “honey” farm and fruit orchard is located about 40 miles from my house and offers tours.

One morning I had a brunch and put some of the raw honey on the table with some of my homemade jams and my cousin wouldn’t touch the honey because it looked “dirty”. That’s the same reason she won’t go with me to the Farmer’s mkt: too many people and it’s too dirty. I tried to give her a few vegetables and onions from my backyard and she had a fit because they still had dirt around the bulbs. Well, yeah! I just pulled them out of the ground!

I just don’t understand why people feel the need to be so far removed from the source of their food. Lettuce doesn’t “grow” wrapped in cellophane. Tomatoes aren’t supposed to be pretty red balls you can bounce of a wall, and still slice up into a salad. But I’m digressing…

Gloria November 8, 2011 - 6:02 PM

I started buying local honey because I knew that it helped with my allergies. I continued to buy local honey because the taste was phenomenal, lol. I simply thought that it was because I liked a variety of flavors in my different honeys (sage, orange blossom, other wildflowers) more than I liked the flavor of clover honey. I didn’t know that it was because the store bought stuff isn’t always real! Everything makes sense now…

Lakisha November 9, 2011 - 6:55 PM

Try Agave nectar! It taste similar to honey but sweeter and slightly thinner. It comes from a plant grown in Jalisco, Mexico. Its all I use now.

Dalila November 11, 2011 - 1:19 PM

This post reminded me that I need to go to the farmer’s market before they close up for good and stock up on raw honey. lol

I noticed something was up with the supermarket honey when I bought raw honey from the farmers market for the first time. I mainly sought the local raw honey for my allergies to try out the rumors (NJ Raw honey did help with the allergies) Back the the point, the texture and consistency of the raw honey is thicker than the supermarket honey I was used to. Raw Honey to me tastes WAY better than the supermarket honey.

Since I’ve tried the raw honey, I’ve stopped buying honey from the supermarket and this post just made me feel better about my choice. 🙂

Erika November 11, 2011 - 2:14 PM

I try to buy local or at farmer markets. Plus they give us free honey sticks to snack on with food discounts with other farmers/markets.

Karyn March 18, 2012 - 8:29 PM

I happen to live near downtown Detroit, Michigan and have actually seen the bee keeper with my own two eyes, but still, up until about a couple of months ago, continued to buy my honey from a local grocery store chain, don’t know why..well yes I do, because it’s much cheaper. As I become more conscious of supporting and keeping my money in my neighborhood, as well as cutting back on my honey consumption, I decided the extra cost would no longer be a factor. So now when I don’t consume it fast enough I see crystals forming at the bottom of the jar that let’s me know I have the real deal. There keeps being an up and downside to this comment, the downside is my fingers get puffy as if I’ve consumed too much salt when I drink it in my tea, not sure why this is happening.

Mish Clark April 21, 2012 - 5:47 PM

A chef friend told me the same info. His hotel and a few others formed a cooperative to support a local beekeeper. The taste difference is amazing. I’m partial to clover honey but also use the local honeys for allergy relief.
Thanks again E for putting the word out.

Krista June 22, 2012 - 8:31 AM

My children’s pediatrician told me about this YEARS ago! She told me exactly where to buy it, what to look for, and even had an empty jar in her office so I could see it! She will not prescribe medicine for seasonal allergies! Love her!

Aleshia July 17, 2012 - 9:21 PM

WOW. This made me literally gasp. I had no clue. And I LOVE honey. I’ll definitely be buying honey exclusively from the local farmers market from now on!

Renee H. December 19, 2012 - 9:01 AM

Because of the info from website I am considering giving my 11yr old daughter local honey in order to relieve her horrible seasonal allergy symptoms. I had no idea about this use for honey. (I’m a City girl) I even found a website for a local beekeeper to buy it. But before I give anything to my kids I usually do the research. One, to show that it is safe, Two that it works. The only study I saw says it doesn’t work. Have you tried it? Does it work for you? I’m willing to try b/c come April my daughter will need an inhaler and strong allergy medication.

Erika Nicole Kendall December 19, 2012 - 10:08 AM

Not only have I tried it, but I’m an avid user and have been since 2010. I swear by it, but that’s me.

I’ve seen the one study that says it doesn’t work, but they just used regular store-bought honey, as opposed to local, wildflower honey.

Wildflower honey “works” because it’s honey created from local pollen of various flowers. Since it has small amounts of pollen from the local array, it allows the body to slowly build up immunity against pollen, thereby lessening the allergy. I wrote about this in another post on the blog, but can’t search for it now. LOL

I also have to admit, I don’t expect to see any research come out and stand definitively in favor of honey; the pharm industry can’t really profit from that.

junglebabe January 10, 2013 - 9:13 PM

yes i was aware of the local pollen helping allergies but i didn’t know that stores wanted honey that didn’t have any pollen. or about the hcfc. i know that some honey says “all natural” on the jar even if it’s been cooked. do those also have the hcfc and it’s just not on the label?? i don’t buy much honey but when i do, i specifically look for local farmers market type.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 11, 2013 - 6:50 AM

“do those also have the hcfc and it’s just not on the label??”

All natural isn’t a regulated term like “organic” is, so don’t take it for meaning too much. Your best bet, as always, is that honey from the farmer’s market.

Tina March 15, 2013 - 4:19 PM

“lasts longer on the shelves”??? Honey is the ONLY food that doesn’t spoil! It does crystallize, but gently heating smooths it right out. I must be odd-the BEST honey I ever ate came from a patient who gave me a quart of honey as dark as black-strap molasses! Now, I get it from my aunt, or people selling on the road, or, if necessary, from the health-food store. Our Ace hardware has local honey, too. Lol

Erica March 17, 2013 - 2:05 PM

There is a natural food store called Bell Bates in lower Manhattan that sells fresh bee pollen. It is kept in the refrigerated section. I’ve been using this as another alternative to honey and sprinkling a little pollen in my oatmeal. I read about using local honey and/or bee pollen in the Eating Clean book/magazine a few years ago.

Elena June 25, 2013 - 4:16 AM

Part of the reason they do this of course is to cut costs for THEM. The other aspect imo, is this CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) going on (relevant article here:US Approves Bee Death Pesticide as EU Bans It). Don’t remember how many years on now, but to my knowledge it’s affecting only non-organic hives. Interestingly, many stringent international agricultural standards are not observed at all in the U.S.; I can’t help but wonder why that is?

Anyone who knows anything about bees knows they are our most important pollinators and any threat to their survival is a real threat to human survival. As other posters mention: either buy local or buy organic.

On the topic of bees: Illinois Ag. Department Illegally Seizes Privately Owned Bees Resistant to GMO Poison

Comments below that article are also interesting. Remember, Monsanto makes GMOs; no one loves you or children quite like Monsanto!

jojo bak August 1, 2013 - 2:54 PM

i could buy pollen from a health store,but i cant tell the difference between plain ole honey and a small percentage of honey mixed with syrup sugar…the honey ive tasted as a child growing up and what they are selling now is way diff.it tastes like sugar.honestly….i dont know how to tell if im being ripped off.

KaLa December 27, 2013 - 8:05 PM

Me oh my…I usually buy my honey from Sam’s Club and did not know the difference of quality until my aunt from Jamaica brought some fresh honey…. and my goodness it had THE MOST SWEETEST FLORAL fragrance and it made my foods and drinks taste so much better. Until I can find the real deal, I have been using Agave for sweetener.

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