Featured food: honey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHoney: it comes from bees.  What more do we need to know?

That it really is honey, apparently.  Several years ago, honey producers petitioned the FDA to establish an official standard of identity for honey.  They were concerned that some products labeled “honey” actually contained other sweeteners.  Most of the suspect products are imported.  In fact, almost 2/3 of the honey sold in the US is imported.  Wow!  And in fact some imports were found to be adulterated with cheap sugar sweeteners.

The FDA didn’t create an official standard, but labeling of real honey is pretty straightforward:

  • Honey is made by bees
  • The word “honey” is all that’s needed to identify real honey in a food product
  • The floral source of the honey isn’t necessary on the label, but many producers include it.
  • Any added sweeteners must absolutely be listed on the label.  Any product that also contains added sweeteners cannot be labeled “honey”.  A product labeled “honey”, that is found to contain added sweeteners is considered adulterated.  The FDA takes enforcement action against such products, if they’re discovered.  US honey producers are concerned that these adulterated fake honeys are slipping through the inspection system.

How does a consumer recognize real honey?  If you’re concerned about possible adulteration, the only sure way to know you’re buying real honey is to buy from a known trusted producer.  Local producers usually have products in local grocery stores or at farmers’ markets.  The honey is probably thicker than that generic stuff, in some cases so thick you can spread it with a knife.  It also will not be cheap.  Bee keeping is labor intensive, dependent on bee health, weather and all kinds of variables that aren’t well controlled.

Honey’s health halo

Fructose has recently been blamed for every disease known to humans.  Yet, despite all the hysteria over supposedly evil high fructose corn syrup, high fructose honey gets a pass.  Why?  Honey is about half (50%) fructose.  HFCS ranges from 42 to 55% fructose.  Not much difference.

Also not much difference in calories.  Honey has 64 calories per tablespoon.  Table sugar has around 50; HFCS has 53.

The only possible benefit for using honey instead of sugar is the sweetness.  You can use slightly less honey to get the same sweetness effect as table sugar, and perhaps save a few calories.  Emphasis on few.  The difference in calories is trivial in the scheme of things.  But a word of warning: it’s really easy to use more honey than you think, which means more calories than you think.  One tablespoon isn’t very much, and may not go far in your bowl of yogurt.  And because it’s thick, it may not mix easily.  So you may end up with 2-3 TB in your tea or yogurt or fruit salad before you know it.

No significant nutrients other than calories from sugars.  No protein, fat, fiber, vitamins or minerals.

As for any other alleged benefits of honey, most of the claims are unproven.

Take Away Message

  1. If you want to be sure you’re buying the real thing, look for locally made honey.  It won’t be cheap.
  2. Use sparingly for sweetening.  It has calories.
  3. Different floral varieties are nice, but they don’t mean anything in terms of alleged health benefits
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