14 November 2011

Is the honey you are eating "ultrafiltered" ? Is it even honey ???

You learn something every day.  I didn't know that honey is sometimes "ultrafiltered" - and that the process has some ominous implications.  Here are some excerpts from an article at Food Safety News:
More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn't exactly what the bees produce, according to testing done exclusively for Food Safety News.

The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled "honey." The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world's food safety agencies.

The food safety divisions of the  World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
honey-without-pollen-food-safety-news1.jpgIn the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that's been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn't honey. However, the FDA isn't checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.

Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey. It is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey - some containing illegal antibiotics - on the U.S. market for years...
Food Safety News purchased more than 60 jars, jugs and plastic bears of honey in 10 states and the District of Columbia...
Bryant, who is director of the Palynology Research Laboratory, found that among the containers of honey provided by Food Safety News: 

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...
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.

"In my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it's even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law," he added...
Chinese honey has long had a poor reputation in the U.S., where - in 2001 - the Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff import tariffs or taxes to stop the Chinese from flooding the marketplace with dirt-cheap, heavily subsidized honey, which was forcing American beekeepers out of business.
To avoid the dumping tariffs, the Chinese quickly began transshipping honey to several other countries, then laundering it by switching the color of the shipping drums, the documents and labels to indicate a bogus but tariff-free country of origin for the honey...
The FDA -- either because of lack of interest or resources -- devoted little effort to inspecting imported honey. Nevertheless, the agency had occasionally either been told of, or had stumbled upon, Chinese honey contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics which are dangerous, even fatal, to a very small percentage of the population...
"The removal of pollen will make the determination of botanical and geographic origin of honey impossible and circumvents the ability to trace and identify the actual source of the honey," says the European Union Directive on Honey.
The Codex commission's Standard for Honey, which sets principles for the international trade in food, has ruled that "No pollen or constituent particular to honey may be removed except where this is unavoidable in the removal of foreign matter. . ."  It even suggested what size mesh to use (not smaller than 0.2mm or 200 micron) to filter out unwanted debris -- bits of wax and wood from the frames, and parts of bees -- but retain 95 percent of all the pollen.

Food Safety News asked Bryant to analyze foreign honey packaged in Italy, Hungary, Greece, Tasmania and New Zealand to try to get a feeling for whether the Codex standards for pollen were being heeded overseas.  The samples from every country but Greece were loaded with various types and amounts of pollen. Honey from Greece had none...
Food historians say that in the 1950s the typical grocery might have offered three or four different brands of honey.  Today, a fair-sized store will offer 40 to 50 different types, flavors and sources of honey out of the estimated 300 different honeys made in the U.S.. And with the attractiveness of natural food and the locavore movement, honey's popularity is burgeoning. Unfortunately, with it comes the potential for fraud.
Concocting a sweet-tasting syrup out of cane, corn or beet sugar, rice syrup or any of more than a dozen sweetening agents is a great deal easier, quicker and far less expensive than dealing with the natural brew of bees...
Much more at Food Safety News; I've borrowed enough already.


  1. Transshipping can also occur with seafood from China -- the seafood is shipped to Thailand/Indonesia/Vietnam, and possibly to Australia and New Zealand, where it can again be reshipped to Canada and other countries before being shipped to the US.

    Caveat Emptor

  2. Okay... now HONEY is on the list of things I have to buy from Whole Foods too... sigh.. or maybe the local farmers market. Damn Chinese.

  3. In the article, they never offer a reason for the ultra filtering. While researching why my farmers market honey always crystalizes, I discovered that it's because of the high pollen in the honey. I imagine the filtering gives it a longer shelf life since grocery stores would have a hard time selling cloudy or crystallized honey.

  4. "No one can say for sure why the FDA has ignored repeated pleas from Congress, beekeepers and the honey industry to develop a U.S. standard for identification for honey."

    Here's the reason: lobbying (and probably worse) in the interests of corporations which benefit from the sale of Chinese honey has more sway over the FDA than its stated purpose of regulating products.

    You can blame the Chinese - particularly for being sneaky enough to give the packing companies plausible deniability - but they're not the ones packing and stocking the dubious honey.

  5. My family is fortunate enough to live in a city with several farmer's markets. We can get local honey for cheaper than the box stores sell it. Even buying food from Whole Foods won't guarantee that you're getting the best food available or even that you're getting what you think you're paying for. Unless you're going to grow your own food, the next best thing is to get it directly from the farmer who did make it.

  6. @ Becky - odd, in the UK I'd estimate (from the amount on the shelves) that solid honey sells in rough proportion to runny honey.
    Certainly in this house we prefer it, it's easier to spread for a start, and doesn't make such a mess.

  7. OK... comments on comments from a beekeeper. (Well, my brother is, I just lug hives around and get stung on his behalf for a couple quarts of it per year).

    If at all possible, honey should come from your local beekeepers (even major cities like New York have balcony beekeepers!) Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or whatever doesn't support your local beek, and getting very local pollen might help some people with seasonal allergies (though studies vary widely).

    Crystallization is more a function of the plant it comes from than the pollen content. For example, late fall honey here in Western New York has lots of wild aster in it, so it crystallizes very quickly. Want it gooey again? Boil a pot of water, move it off the stove, and set the container of honey in it. Repeat as needed until it's liquid again -- it should stay that way for a few months or more, and you can repeat the process as needed. Only those ignorant of how to de-crystallize it fear crystals.

    That said, very finely crystallized honey that spreads wonderfully (and honey in the comb) are very popular in Europe, but are uncommon in the U.S.

    Buy local! =)

  8. On a related note, when did ultra-pasteurized milk replace ALL of the pasteurized milk in stores? The ultra-pasteurized stuff doesn't work for making yogurts and cheeses. It wasn't until I started looking for regular pasteurized milk that I realized it was no longer readily available.

  9. "solid" is not the same as "crystalised" honey. Think gooey sugar...vs the creamy solid honey that spreads nicely.

  10. By solid honey do you mean honey with the comb in it?

  11. No, I think the commenter was meaning creamed honey vs thin clear "runny" honey.

    But comb honey's nice too! ;)

  12. @Becky, the reason for filtering out the pollen is to remove trace evidence (pollen) of the source of the honey. Every area will have a distinct pollen makeup. Filtered honey is almost certainly from China, according to the article, since the is little other incentive to undertake the process beside hiding the source.

  13. Sounds to me like a protectionist US honey industry happened on the fortunate fact that pollen acts as an innate country-of-origin marker, making it easy to block imports. They don't mention any taste, nutritional, or safety benefit that makes pollinated honey "real honey" -- it sounds like the only benefit is to the American producers at the expense of the Chinese ones. Sign me up for some ultra-filtered honey, please.

  14. @Noumenon- This article DOES mention a safety concern about Chinese honey: it may be "contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics."

    Other articles I've read on this subject say that Chinese honey has also been known to contain heavy metals.


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