For thousands of years, honey has been widely used for both nutritional and medicinal purposes. Over 300 varieties are available in the United States alone. These range from those that are nearly colorless and bland tasting, to strains offering rich brown hues, robust with flavor. However, many store-bought honeys are processed, removing much of the pollen content.
While preserving pollen is attainable simply by using a coarse filter and minimal heat to sift bee parts, wax and hive debris, recent scientific research is throwing out some very sticky questions: Can products containing little to no pollen still be called honey? Does bee pollen really matter?
As it turns out, the answer is both yes and no.
Why Bee Pollen Still Matters
Health, definition and identity are the central issues to understanding why these tiny flower grains are of vital concern. First, many believe that bee pollen contains nutrient-rich properties that promote good health. Second, pollen is what defines honey. Third, pollen is honey’s DNA that allows its source to be identified.
Contrary to widely held beliefs about pollen’s powerful health benefits, ongoing scientific studies have shown that its quantities in the product are insufficient to have any meaningful nutritional value. According to Dr. Lutz Elflein, a honey analysis expert with an international food laboratory, amounts range from about 0.1 to 0.4 percent. Similarly, a 2004 study by the Australian government found the percentage of pollen in 32 Australian canola honey samples ranged only from 0.15 percent to 0.443 percent.
Another 2012 study by the National Honey Board analyzed vitamins, minerals and antioxidant levels in raw and processed varieties. The study revealed that commercial processing significantly reduced pollen content, but did not affect its nutrient content or antioxidant activity. The results led researchers to conclude that the micronutrient profile of honey is not associated with its pollen content and is unaffected by commercial processing.
In another study, Swiss researchers examined the general nutritional value of honey. While rich in carbohydrates, they found that bee nectar offers a low glycemic index (GI), which is vital to good health. This important GI profile varies within a range of 32 to 86, depending on the botanical source.
Additionally, the Swiss team found that this food is generally an abundant source of vitamin C, B1, B2, B3, B5 and B6. Furthermore, it contains trace minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium chlorine, calcium, copper, iron, manganese, sulphur, zinc and phosphate, which although marginal, may contribute to the recommended daily intake requirements. Also discovered was choline, a B vitamin essential for brain and cardiovascular functions, cellular membrane composition and repair, and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.
The Waikato Honey Research Unit is another facility conducting ongoing analysis. Its experts are leading worldwide research about the medicinal benefits of honey. Findings that have emerged from these investigations reveal new information and also reinforce existing knowledge, such as the following:
• Honey is a superior substitute for refined sugar. Its 69 percent glucose and fructose content makes it more digestible than sugar, and it promotes the healthy regulation of insulin.
• While having more calories than sugar – 64 calories per tablespoon compared to sugar’s 15 calories – it facilitates fat burning when consumed with warm water. Similarly, various combinations of honey, lemon juice and cinnamon have been shown to also reduce weight.
• Honey is an excellent ergogenic aid that helps boost athletic performance. Muscle recuperation and glycogen restoration after a workout are enhanced with the consumption of quality honey.
• Honey has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, often used as a natural antiseptic in traditional medicines. In particular, it has been found to be effective in healing wounds, even ones that have been dormant.
• Honey contains nutraceuticals, which have been shown to be effective in eliminating free radicals, resulting in improved immunity against many conditions including cancer and heart disease.
• The combination of milk and honey advances good skin care.
Research continues into pollen’s medicinal qualities, but even if honey’s nutrients remain intact after commercial processing, its existence in products remains crucial.
Significant developments about pollen’s characteristics began to emerge in 2011, when Food Safety News began an investigation after learning that honey of questionable identity was inundating the U.S. market. What they discovered was that 76 percent of grocery store brands had no pollen content, which was lower than the 100 percent of drug store varieties that lacked it altogether.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), any product that fails to contain pollen is not honey. Pollen is a honey’s fingerprint: without it, there is no way to determine its source or identity. Without knowing its country of origin, it is difficult to ensure that it is from a legitimate source and meets FDA and international safety standards.
There is no question that there is huge demand for this tasty commodity. Commercial honey is big business with the U.S. importing more than 200 million pounds each year. These mixtures are highly processed, using very fine filters and high heat. The result is a clear concoction of ingredients that is visually appealing to the average consumer, but also often not “honey.” Using high filtration also offers producers and retailers a more economically durable product since enhanced processing expands its shelf life.
More processing, however, means a more anemic product. Not only are natural colors removed, but also rich taste and important nutrients are lost.
More importantly, some items being sold as “honey” fail to meet its definition or comply with quality standards. With at least three-quarters of all commercial brands sold devoid of pollen, consumers are buying a brew of compounds, some of which even pose a safety risk.
About 60 percent of U.S. honey imports come from Asian countries with significant ties to Chinese honey laundering. Imports from China were drastically curtailed about 15 years ago after illegal dumping resulted in putting many American beekeepers out of business. Additionally, U.S. officials were concerned about their contamination from pesticides and heavy metals.
In order to circumvent the 300 percent import tariffs that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission imposed on Chinese honey, the product was exported to India. It was then combined with Indian varieties and other ingredients. Although the Indian adaptation was able to evade steep import taxes, it was unable to escape detection as bogus honey.
In addition to the absence of pollen that prevented a determination of its botanical or geographical source, researchers found the products were contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and antibiotics. This discovery eventually resulted in Europe banning Indian honey imports.
However, even those processed in the U.S. are suspect. Commercial brand honey is manufactured using fine filters and high temperatures that eradicate many of the phytonutrients found in organic raw versions. Additionally, some beekeepers and commercial producers use questionable practices. These include administering illegal synthetic drugs and antibiotics to prevent bee disease; the use of calcium cyanide to kill the bees in order to harvest the honey; the application of carbolic acid as part of the extraction process; and the use of pesticides on flowers from which nectar is collected.
The use of pesticides is of particular importance as bee populations continue to shrink. This decline is so alarming that in 2013, Vladimir Putin cautioned President Obama about potential global instability resulting from the bees’ eradication. As dramatic as it sounds, it is already known that diminishing resources is playing a central role in economic and political upheavals across the world. The possible eradication of bees, facilitated by the use of pesticide, could foreseeably contribute to rising global volatility – in no small way.
These interrelationships illustrate why it is pivotal to make good choices when shopping. Knowing where your product is from enables you to identify whether it is genuine or a diluted form removing it entirely from the honey spectrum. Understanding how it was processed is also imperative to good health and safety, and further supports broader efforts to ensure environmental integrity.
Where Do You Go From Here?
Although the FDA issued an industry statement that ultra-filtered honey is not “honey,” it has devoted little effort to inspecting such imports. Whether because of lack of interest or resources, the agency inspects only about five percent of all shipments. Those inspections have occasionally led officials to discover Chinese products contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics that are dangerous, sometimes even fatal.
The majority of adulterated honey passes onto store shelves undetected by authorities. The inescapable result is that most of the product sold in the U.S. is counterfeit, depriving consumers of nutrients, quality ingredients, and compliance with safety standards.
How to Choose the Real Deal
Bogus honey is often diluted with water, inverted sugar solutions, glucose syrups, corn products and high fructose corn syrup. Buying organic is one way of ensuring that you are buying genuine honey. This is especially true of locally produced varieties.
The good news is that grocery stores commonly offer organic choices. Here are some useful tips for identifying the imposters:
1. Read the Label: Honest manufacturers list all the ingredients on the container. Impure varieties can be detected by noticing any listed additives – including the percentage of real honey (if any).
2. The Thumb Test: Put a drop on your thumb. If it is runny or watery, it is probably not pure. The more clinging and gummy it is, the more likely it is to be authentic.
3. The Water Test: Fill a glass of water and add one tablespoon of honey. If it is pure, it will lump and settle at the bottom of the glass. If it is artificial, it will start dissolving in the water.
4. The Shelf Life Test: Pure honey will crystallize over time. Imitation ones will remain looking like syrup, no matter how long it is stored.
5. Light a Fire: Dip the tip of a matchstick in honey, then strike to light it. Natural honey will light the match easily. Adulterated brands will not ignite because of its moisture content.
6. The Ant Test: Ants love sweets, but will not disturb natural honey. This is because bees protect their handiwork from pests (e.g., ants) with an ingredient that repels them.
7. The Microwave Oven Test: Add two to three tablespoons of honey in a microwave-proof bowl. Heat it on high until hot. If it is natural, it will caramelize quickly and never become foamy. Artificial concoctions will become bubbly and are difficult to caramelize.
8. Use Bread: Spread honey on a slice of bread. If it is natural, the bread will harden in minutes. Artificial blends will moisten the bread because of the water content.
9. Feel in Your Throat Method: Real honey will give you a tingling feeling just before swallowing. Fabricated mixtures taste and feel more like ordinary sugar water.
10. Raw Egg Test: Beat honey with an egg yolk (no white) in a bowl. If it is pure, the yolk will look like it has been cooked. If the yolk still appears raw after beating, your product is artificial.
Extensive scientific analysis and other data continue to reinforce that buying organic is the most reliable way to guarantee that you are purchasing the genuine article. High quality product will also promote good health and nutrition. Finally, the rich taste of organic honey is extraordinary. With so many varieties to choose from, finding your sweet spot from a vast array of botanical delights is a journey that offers you the opportunity to blossom.