Is your honey really honey?
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHAN J.INGLES-LE NOBEL/FLICKR

What’s Your Honey Hiding?

That amber fluid may look innocent, but the situation is sticky.

April 8, 2015

Shopping for honey should be simple. After all, it contains just one ingredient. But imported honey can be contaminated with antibiotics and heavy metals, and is often ultra-filtered—removing the pollen that’s said to help seasonal allergy sufferers with symptom relief. Sometimes, it isn’t even honey at all but a weird concoction made from water, sugar, and rice or corn syrup.

Most adulterated honey comes from China, which should make it easy to avoid. Except: The product label won’t always tell you its provenance. To understand why, you need to look back to 2001, when the government enacted a higher tariff on Chinese honey. “To get around the higher import tax, Chinese producers began ultra-filtering their product to remove the pollen, making it almost impossible to determine where a batch actually comes from,” says Jill Clark, a spokeswoman for the trade organization and ethical certifier True Source Honey. With the geographical fingerprint erased, it was reported that the Chinese began smuggling their honey into the U.S. through other countries that weren’t subject to the same tariff rates, like Latvia, Germany, and Turkey.

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The missing pollen problem might be more widespread than you think. In 2011, Food Safety News tested honey samples from shops across the U.S. None of the honey samples purchased from drugstores contained pollen, and more than three-quarters of the samples from supermarkets and big-box stores, were also pollenless. Honey found in co-ops and natural food stores (including Trader Joe’s), however, all contained pollen. The reason? Those stores are more likely to be selling locally produced goods instead of stuff from abroad. Another tactic producers use to cut costs is diluting the honey with sweeteners like sugar, malt, or corn and rice syrups. “If it is more than 51 percent sugar, it’s imported as sugar sweetener. But then importers here still sell it as honey,” says Tim Tucker, president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

Pollen-free honey and added sweeteners are disturbing enough, but some imports could contain stuff that’s really bad for you. After a bacterial epidemic began killing Chinese bees in the late 1990s, producers began treating their colonies with chloramphenicol, an animal antibiotic that the FDA lists as a carcinogen, and has never approved for food-animal use. Some honey has also been found to contain heavy metals like lead from being stored in unlined lead drums.

That doesn’t mean all honey from China is tainted. “China does have some good production facilities, but they have others that aren’t,” says Tucker. “It seems to be the people trying to circumvent the rules that provide us with poor product.” To help, last year, the FDA established new guidelines saying that honey isn’t allowed to contain chloramphenicol or additional ingredients like sweeteners or flavorings. And scientists at Customs and Border Protections are developing sophisticated tests that can trace a honey’s country of origin based on trace metals found in local soil. U.S. customs agents have been fighting smuggled Chinese honey since the 2001 tariffs; they seized over 16,000 tainted gallons in Houston over the last two years alone.

The best way to get safe, unadulterated honey is simply to buy it locally—at a farmers’ market or sometimes even super market. When you buy from beekeepers in your area, you’re supporting neighboring producers, whose products are unlikely to be contaminated, and, because they’re not trying to hide their origin, their jars will contain the local pollen strains that many people use to ease their seasonal allergy symptoms. Just check that the label says “100% pure, raw honey.” Simple and sweet.

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