New year’s resolution - be healthier, be more natural. Remove the negative and live more 'aligned' with nature. This slightly cringe-worthy clichè sounds like it was lifted straight from a teenagers Instagram profile, but this sentiment speaks to the part of us that wants to make better choices. And a good place to start is with our food. When It comes to honey, there Is a wealth of health and ethical things to take into consideration.
Not all honey is equal. Standards can vary around the world and due to increased demand, honey has become the third most counterfeited product, globally. Cheap additives such as corn syrup severely compromise the quality and health benefits for unsuspecting consumers. Add to this the global trend of declining bee numbers due to varroa infestation, mono-culture and pesticide use, and choosing the healthiest and most sustainable honey option can become a little daunting.
Terms like 'pure', 'natural' and 'organic' may seem like fluffy adjectives coined by the marketing department, but these words have specific meanings and guidelines. In this post we look at some of the more common honey varieties and what each qualification means.
Organic / Bio
Organic honey has gone through a strict certification process to assure each stage of the production and processing meets rigorous ‘organic standards’. While the certification process is different in each country, there are several commonalities. Firstly, the bees have foraged from organic plants only. This means that all crops within a 3 to 5 km radius of the apiary location, must be free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. As bees can travel a radius of 10 KM in search of food, you can imagine that the qualification process is not always perfect. In addition, in-hive miticides must be approved for organic use.
As varroa infestation is one of the leading contributors to bee fatality, for some beekeepers, organic miticides are simply not an option. But technology is helping with this fight, as there are natural and innovative products that are protecting bees against varroa. There is often no specific rule that states organic honey must or mustn't be pasteurised, but artificial aromas, colours or extenders cannot be added.
Raw honey is honey that has not been heated to the point of pasteurization. While the process of pasteurization can make honey more homogenous, it can also negatively affect the health benefits by destroying nutrients, enzymes and bio-active plant compounds. These plant compounds or ‘polyphenals’, have anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and slow the development of certain cancers. Raw honey can be filtered, but usually doesn’t go through the process of ‘ultra-filtration’, that regular honey goes through.
There is a risk to consuming raw honey however, as it can contain spores of the bacteria ‘Clostridium botulinum’. This can be particularly harmful to babies and infants and can lead to Botulism poisoning. In adults and older children, Botulism poisoning is very rare, as the gut builds a natural immunity with age.
Pure or natural honey means that the honey doesn't contain any preservatives, artificial flavour or colour additives, or extenders. It Is 100% honey. It may be pasteurised and filtered and is likely not to meet the same standards as 'organic' honey. Most people would think that this not such a big deal. Isn't most honey 100% honey after all? This Is surprisingly not the case. Honey standards vary upon region, and there is actually not a lot of policing around this. Honey fraud is also a huge problem, and as there are many ways of adultering the product, it is difficult to detect. Learn more in our article about honey fraud.
What constitutes 'honey' in the EU, UK or Switzerland, may not be the same as another country. As the demand for honey grows, local supply often cannot satisfy the appetite (or, at least they cannot meet the competitive pricing of imported honey). The industry has been plagued with accusations of imported honeys not meeting domestic standards, whether by fraud or simply adhering to a different set of standards. This creates an unfair landscape for beekeepers who need to be competitive but are in fact held to domestic controls. In light of this shadowy underbelly, pure honey is actually a positive thing.
So which is the best option? Sorry to take the diplomatic route, but It really depends. It is more about making better informed choices. If you have a local market, talk to the beekeepers. Ask them how they keep bees, and the agricultural practices in the area. Talk to them about their processing, and what they use to control varroa. Who knows, you may just be making a lifestyle choice that lasts longer than that new gym membership.