Honey: a great reason to eat local

Honey is the perfect feel-good sweetener.  It’s made by bees, so it’s got a “natural” Health Halo.  It’s linked to flowers — clover, wildflowers, lavender, acacia, tupelo, you name it.  It’s got a unique flavor and a lovely amber color.  What could go wrong?  As noted in a recent article in The Economist, honey is the 3rd most likely food to be adulterated.  Only milk and olive oil rank higher.  The problem is that honey consumption in the US has doubled in the past 25+ years while production has fallen.  The gap is being filled with imported “honey”, which increasingly is cut with cheap sugar syrups made from corn, rice or beets.

As you peruse the honey display at the grocery store, you probably notice that some brands seem extremely inexpensive compared to others labeled “local”.  You might also notice that if you buy one of the cheap brands, the honey itself seems more liquid and less prone to harden or crystalize compared to boutique brands.  Then there’s the flavor, or rather lack thereof.  I’ve found that those cheap varieties don’t have that rich honey flavor, although they are certainly super sweet.  If you like honey, you probably want honey flavor, not a treacly sweet non-entity.  You can get that by buying really inexpensive clear corn syrup.

If you’re a big user of honey, sticking to local probably means considerable expense.  Which could bring raises the question: how much honey are you using?  Honey is after all a high fructose sweetener.  We’re all terrified by high fructose corn syrup these days, but the fructose content of honey is very similar.  The main difference between the two is that corn syrup is more purified and lacks the characteristic flavor of honey.  Otherwise they’re both a blend of fructose and glucose, and can be considered added sugar foods.  Baking or cooking with honey rather than sugar might make you feel good, but it’s not particularly healthy.  The one thing honey does have is that unique flavor, so if the flavor is a key part of a recipe, honey it is.  Hopefully real unadulterated honey.

The word “honey” was in the news recently, although I doubt any real honey was involved.  Kelloggs was forced to recall all Honey Smacks cereal products due to potential salmonella contamination.  That a dry cereal product would be contaminated with salmonella seems unusual.  We typically associate these problems with foods that have a higher moisture content and short shelf life, like raw meats or fresh produce.  How much actual honey is in this cereal?  Honey is listed as the 4th ingredient after sugar (the first ingredient!!), wheat and glucose (dextrose) syrup.  Assuming it is real (not adulterated) honey, it’s unlikely the honey contributed to any contamination, since honey itself resists spoilage.  By the way, one measly 3/4 cup serving of this cereal has 4 teaspoons of sugar.

Take Away Message

  1. Honey is a sweetener.  It has significant fructose content, and should be consumed like any other sugar sweetener, in limited amounts.
  2. If you buy local honey, you’ll pay more, but you’ll be supporting hard-working local bee keepers.  You also are likely to avoid paying for “honey” that has significant corn syrup content.

Are all cheap honey brands adulterated?  Probably not, but how do we know which ones are OK?  Given the adulteration problem, you might be wondering what is being done to prevent this type of food fraud.  Honey can be analyzed for purity using chromatography to assess the sugar isotope concentrations.  It’s a complicated process, and unlikely your local grocery store will be running such tests anytime soon.  So your best defense is to buy local.

For more information about honey, beekeeping and recipes, check out The National Honey Board website.

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