People have relied on honey for centuries for its health benefits and the enjoyment of its taste. Scientists have found that honey has antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus epidermidis, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Salmonella enterica.1 It has demonstrated activity against antibiotic-sensitive and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.2
It has been used to treat infected wounds, and some researchers have even suggested its use on difficult-to-heal wounds, while being careful to select those that will do well with honey.3 It's also been infused into wound dressings but only recently has evidence been presented to explain honey's effectiveness in health care.
Specifically, Manuka honey has been used in wound care products because of its ability to inhibit bacterial growth and stimulate a local immune response, all while suppressing inflammation.4
When compared to dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine in the treatment of coughs and upper respiratory illnesses, researchers found a 2.5 ml dose of honey before sleep was more effective than either drug.5 However, take care to never give honey to children younger than 1 year as their digestive system can't process some common contaminants, including botulism.
The benefits of using honey externally and internally are significant, but as I've warned in the past, do not use the processed honey you find on the grocery store shelves, as it's often little more than fructose syrup. That honey should never be used on wounds as it may increase your risk of infection.
Manufacturers Latch Onto Honey as Next Great Food Enterprise
With a growing recognition of the health benefits associated with raw honey, sales of the product have grown by over 40% in the past 20 years. In 2018, the Honey Council reported sales had reached 575 million pounds,6 a significant jump from the 350 million pounds sold in 1997.
Yet, the numbers may be artificially low as the council says, “There are reasons to believe that honey consumption is higher because certain arenas of sales are not fully captured in the data.” Part of the attraction honey holds is its use as a sugar replacement packed with enzymes and pollen to help reduce allergies.
It's become a growing luxury foodstuff in high demand, which may lead you to believe the price is rising. Yet, as Vice reports,7 the price of honey is falling, in large part due to adulterated “fake” honey that's been processed, heated, diluted with sugar or syrups and then resin-treated to remove contaminants that include unpalatable smells and tastes that would otherwise make it difficult to sell.
Resin treatments remove healthy enzymes in honey. Jim Gawenis, a biochemist and owner of the only honey testing facility in the U.S., uses up-to-date technology at Sweetwater Science. He explains how this process can take Indian gum honey that “tastes and smells like old gym socks,” and make it sellable.8
“You can't sell it because nobody wants it. Well, dissolve it in water, run it through this, now you've gone three shades lighter into an amber. You get rid of the malodors, and now you have a sellable honey.”
On the other hand, ultrafiltration helps manufacturers hide the country of origin. As Gawenis explains:9
“What they do is they would take, say, a Chinese honey, put it through that filtration, and then dust it with Argentine pollen, mix it up. All of a sudden, you have Argentinian honey.”
The production and sale of fraudulent honey is the focus of a series of class action lawsuits filed in 2019 by two Chicago-based lawyers. After testing honey from more than 50 companies they found that 50% to 60% of the product was not pure honey as advertised.
In other words, the honey on the grocery store shelves is not the honey you think you're buying. One group named in the lawsuits was created to protect the industry and has failed miserably.
Self-Regulation Results in Failure
The Inside Hook boils the situation down. On the one hand is a growing market for honey, driven by a market looking for health products. On the other hand, there continues to be a global drop and collapse in bee populations.10 It isn't logical that a rising demand and supply could be supported by a collapsing bee population.
That is, unless the honey you're buying isn't all the honey it's cracked up to be. True Source Honey is the industry certification organization founded in 2010 when Chinese honey appeared on the U.S. market after tariffs were imposed. The executive director of True Source Honey, Gordon Marks, explained to Vice:11
“This circumvented and mislabeled honey was being shipped into the United States at well below world market price, undercutting fair market pricing. Thus the need for an origin-based certification body to certify that the declared country of origin is in fact true.”
Marks qualified the organization's intent, saying they address where the honey originates and not the quality of the product. But their website says differently:12
“Other honey is found to contain added syrups or sweetener extenders that are not made by bees in the hive. As with any food, when you're not sure of the origin, you can't be sure of the quality.
True Source Certification ensures that honey is truthfully labeled as to its origin, that there is a transparent record of the honey's sources, back to the hive. Honey has earned a special place in people's hearts and minds as a wholesome, natural food.”
Beekeepers and Packagers Fear Retribution
In dozens of conversations with beekeepers, honey importers and packers, Vice reporter Shayla Love learned that True Source is being used as a shield to provide adulterated and “fake” honey without repercussions. They spoke anonymously in fear of retribution in a market that is slowly losing profitability.
Importers knew they were buying adulterated honey since the prices were lower than market value. The group said the certification agency existed in name only and not practice. But most wouldn't speak openly fearing they wouldn't be able to buy or sell honey. One importer was quoted in Vice, saying:13
“Sophisticated and large scale adulteration has thus been able to make a mockery of the honey industry's feigned attempt at ‘self-policing' through True Source.”
Kent Heitzinger is one of the Chicago attorneys involved in the lawsuits. He and his partner have tested many of the certified products. Love wrote this about their conversation:14
“One honey they tested was so fermented from all the excess water added to dilute it ‘that in my opinion, you couldn't sell this to a minor because there's so much alcohol it would be illegal,' Heitzinger said.”
Deceit Goes Deep in the Honey Industry
As of the publication of the Vice article, there have been several lawsuits filed by Heitzinger and his partner. Several companies, including Kroger, True Source Honey and Strange Honey Farms have filed court motions to dismiss the claims that the honey has been heated and sugars have been added.
The companies are scrambling to find arguments to dispute the allegations. Nature Nate's claims their honey is “gently warmed” and not heated, while Kroger alleges there is no consensus on the meaning of “raw.” The Nashville distributor for Strange Honey Farm took another step in a press release indicating the Illinois Bar Association (IBA) was investigating complaints against the attorneys.
However, Love found the IBA doesn't regulate these matters and the regulatory agency that does handle them has no record of discipline or pending proceedings. In other words, it wasn't the truth.
In an effort to get to the truth herself, Love sent four bottles of honey for testing to Gawenis and QSI lab in Germany. Both labs used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMR) to image the honey and test for 36 different components. The results were compared to a database of samples used to identify the country of origin.
Gawenis first tests the scent of the honey. Next, he observes the viscosity or thickness of the product. Pure honey is thick and sticky. Currently Sweetwater Science is the only lab in the U.S. utilizing NMR technology to test honey. At the time of the article, Gawenis estimated he was testing less than 1% of all the honey packaged and sold in the U.S.
However, when True Source Honey was asked if they use NMR testing in their audits, they said they did. Gawenis is confident in his ability to test all honey passing through customs to date, estimating there would be a minimal additional charge per pound to the honey sold.
After testing, Gawenis found the Strange Farm honey labeled from Tennessee was from Vietnam, Whole Foods honey had been heated and the Busy Bee brand honey appeared to have been resin treated, which confused test results. The only honey that tested just as it was labeled was the Great Value honey from Walmart.
In addition to originating from Vietnam, QSI lab classified the Strange Farm honey as “… basically syrup with a pinch of honey.” After reaching out to Strange Farm, Love was told “random testing from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in May of 2019 did not find added sugar.”
However, the department said no samples were collected during their safety inspection. Hagen wrote to Love in an email, saying:15
“These are not simple times. There are legal challenges and climate challenges that we have not experience[d] before and have no explanation for. We are not the criminals in this story, we are just attempting to raise bees and sell honey and support our families. Now I have to go stand in the cold to sell honey at a farmers market.”
Multiple Reasons Hives Collapse, Affect Food Supply
Hiatt Honey, in business for over 50 years, lost half their hive a year ago.16 In the 2018-2019 winter season scientists recorded a 37.7% loss in bee population,17 and in the 2015-2016 winter season the loss was a record 44.2%.18
Just a few weeks after the Honeybee Colonies survey report was released, the Trump administration stopped collecting data in order to save money. The last survey completed by the governmental agency showed nearly half of all managed bee colonies had been lost in the past winter.19
Devastating to the environment, the loss of these pollinators is also affecting crop production. Commercial beekeepers live a nomadic life, traveling with their bees to pollinate crops. For eight months each year Hiatt hoofs his 10,000 hives to California and then sends them to his brothers in Washington, all at a cost of $3.50 each mile.
His bees are responsible for pollinating almonds in California, the largest almond producing state in the world20 and apples in Washington. Each time the bees are moved it costs $250,000.21
Losses to the hives likely have multiple factors, including the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids and glyphosate. Most soybeans, corn and other GE crop seeds are coated with neonics that travel through the plant system and kill the insects that feed on the pollen, roots and leaves.22
Test Your Honey at Home
Instead of grocery store honey, seek your liquid gold from local producers at farmers markets. Since honey doesn't ever expire — even after opening23 — it's safe to purchase enough in the summer to last until the following spring. It also pays to know how to test your honey at home.
You may not have access to NMR testing, but there are precautions you can take to help determine if the honey you're buying is honey. These are some of the physical properties you may test at home:24
Scent — Your first test is the aroma coming from the jar, which should be reminiscent of the flowers and grasses the bees collect pollen from; industrial honey has an industrial smell.
Thickness — The movement should be slow and dense. Place a droplet on your thumb. If it starts to spread, the honey is not pure. Dense, pure honey will remain intact.
Taste — When eating pure honey, the taste disappears quickly, but adulterated honey is sugary rich.
Dissolving — When added to water, pure honey will form a lump and stick together, while adulterated honey dissolves. Pure honey will not be absorbed into blotting paper or cloth, but adulterated honey will leave stains as it absorbs.
Sticky — Pure honey is not sticky, even in your hands.
Heat and flame — When heated on the stove, adulterated honey will form bubbles. Try dipping the end of a match in honey and lighting it. If it lights, the honey is likely pure since the added moisture in adulterated honey makes it nearly impossible to light.
Tests — Consider these additional tests:
• Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of vinegar to a glass of water. Add honey and stir well. Adulterated honey will foam.
• Spread on a piece of bread; pure honey will solidify the bread while adulterated honey will make it wet and soft.
• Check for impurities by looking at it through a clear container. Adulterated honey will be clear while pure honey will have particles from pollen or bee parts.
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