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Are you sure that's honey?!

Fuzzy Math Alert: New Zealand produces 1700 tons of Manuka honey each year. But 10,000 tons are sold globally! [1]


On a giant shelf in a local restaurant stands a sign advertising “Local Honey.” Upon closer inspection, the substance proudly on display is labeled “Honey Syrup,” and its chief ingredient is corn syrup….with “pure (!!!) honey” listed shortly thereafter. On the shelves of an anonymous local retailer whose name rhymes with Smallmart, one can find “sugar-free imitation honey.” (Spoiler alert: If it’s sugar-free, it’s not honey.) On the bright side, these Frankenstein-like concoctions tip their hands. In the very-fine fine print, you can ascertain that you are not buying real honey. The larger problem lies with other products where the labeling isn’t quite as forthcoming. Indeed, considering that honey is the third most fraudulently sold food in the world (after seafood and olive oil), one can forgive even the most conscientious consumer for falling prey to wily tricksters who provide much of the non-honey “honey” sold in this country.

An excellent essay by M.E.A. McNeil in the American Bee Journal (cited below) examines the scope of the problem. Consider this: American beekeepers fulfill only a quarter of the nation’s demand for honey. The rest must be imported. Because the FDA and USDA have historically been squirrelly about nailing down a precise, legal definition of real honey, enforcement of what comes over the borders (or what is sold herein) becomes complicated. That’s why one can label a product “vegan honey” and claim that it is produced without bees! (I’m not making this up.) and that “sugar-free imitation honey” can be legally (albeit ironically) attached to a product that is decidedly not honey. According to McNeil, “labeling in the U.S. is at best misleading. U.S. Grade A does not mean that it is American honey or that it is any grade other than the voluntary choice of the packer. There is no enforcement, so there is no Grade B or C. Organic honey is all but a grandfathered Hawaiian brand, foreign and scarcely regulated, whereas bona fide American producers on wild land cannot use the term.”[2] (emphasis mine)

At the World Beekeeping Awards, part of the Apimondia conference in 2019, a full 46% of the honey contest entries were found to be adulterated. (Imagine how brazen one would have to be to enter fake honey into an event in which every submission is tested!) Tests of grocery store honey frequently show high percentages of adulteration; and since only about 1% of the honey entering this country is sampled annually, one can well imagine that a lot of mystery juice is flying under the radar.

Unfortunately, simply testing more imports is not quite as easy as it sounds. The honey fraudsters are getting ever more sophisticated in their technology and bio-engineering, and one would need to subject a sample to a battery of high-tech tests to determine which method of adulteration is being employed. The solutions are time consuming, expensive, and impractical.

In a buyer-beware kind of world, we are often at the mercy of what appears on our local shelves. We would like to believe that there is a legal mechanism in place to ensure that we are getting what is advertised on the package, but it ain’t necessarily so. As American beekeepers struggle to compete with the fake honey delivered to the nation’s doorstep for pennies a pound, foreign substances masquerading as honey populate the shelves at attractive prices. How many consumers would even notice?

There are many advantages to buying from a trusted local beekeeper. On top of everything else, real honey tastes a whole lot better than the fake stuff. Don’t believe me? Come visit the bees, and taste it right out of the comb. You’ll never go back. And you can feel confident knowing that you are getting exactly what is advertised. Honey syrup? Beeless vegan “honey”? Chinese honey laced with broad-spectrum antibiotics? Ain’t nobody got time for dat!

[1]. The statistics related to food fraud are drawn from M.E.A. McNeil, “Cat and Mouse Game: An Update on Honey Fraud from Apimondia 2022 and the American Context,” American Bee Journal 162, no. 12 (December 2022): 1309-14.


[2]. Ibid., 1314.


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