Did You Know: Grocery store honey and the raw honey you get from your local beekeepers can be two very different things.
Let's talk about why, and why it matters.
How raw honey is made: a quick overview
Bees extract nectar from flowers and store it in their special honey stomach. Along with the nectar comes all sorts of trace elements such as grains of pollen or other substances unique to that plant. Enzymes in the bee's honey stomach begin to change the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars.
The bee returns to the hive, and regurgitates the nectar into a cell designated for honey production.
A new worker bee continues to process the nectar and significantly reduces the water content. As the excess water evaporates, what remains is pure, raw honey.
Once satisfied with the consistency, the bee will close the cell with a little wax on top, and the honey is ready for harvesting!
When beekeepers extract honey (check out our process here), the honey still has those trace elements, including grains of pollen and bits of propolis and wax, inside it. Ideally, the honey is then simply strained to remove any large chunks of wax or other stray bee bits, and is then bottled and sold to consumers.
So what’s up with commercial honey?
Outside the hive, raw honey begins to crystallize. The natural temperature inside a hive is about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but at lower temperatures the low water content simply can't hold that many sugar molecules. With the bits of pollen, propolis, or wax acting as "seed" particles, the sugars start to crystallize and become solid, changing the color and texture of the honey. This process can take weeks to months, depending on the honey.
Unfortunately, many people are not familiar with the crystallization process, and often mistake it for honey that has “gone bad,” despite that almost never happening. Still, commercial producers decided to find a way to ensure that their honey remained clear, liquid, and looking picture-perfect on store shelves.
How they achieve this look, however, is the defining difference between commercial, grocery-store honey, and honey from local beekeepers. First, they heat the honey to around 160 degrees F, then they filter the honey to completely remove any bits of pollen, propolis, or wax. These steps dissolve any sugar crystals that already started to form, and remove those "seed" particles so the crystallization process can't restart.
Unfortunately, this heating and filtering process also removes or kills the beneficial enzymes, other proteins, antioxidants, pollen, etc. that makes honey such an incredible product. What’s left is just sugar and water.
Some international commercial producers have also been found to cut their honey with corn syrup or other bulk sweeteners, which are then bottled by packaging companies (who may or may not know that the honey has been altered) before being sent to American grocery stores. Removing the pollen also makes it impossible to trace the honey’s country of origin, so regulators can’t tell if the honey in your bottle is single-source or has been mixed in with this lower-quality honey from other countries. This altered honey is then able to be sold at stores for a fraction of the cost of pure, raw honey, undercutting American honey producers.
When altered honey goes really wrong
In 2008, samples of honey from China were found to contain not only corn syrup or other sweeteners, but also illegal antibiotics. The U.S. government imposed high tariffs on importing Chinese honey in an attempt to stop the flow of this altered honey, but Chinese companies found workarounds: shipping their altered honey to other countries where it was repackaged and then shipped to the U.S. anyway. In 2013, Michigan’s Groeb Farms and Honey Solutions of Texas were both fined for illegally importing this Chinese honey, re-labeling it, and selling it in grocery stores around the country. Groeb Farms has since declared bankruptcy, but was later purchased by a private equity firm and rebranded. Honey Solutions is still in business.
Pure, raw honey vs. commercial honey: it’s not even a contest
As beekeepers, and also as people who love the complexities and richness of pure, raw honey, this altered honey just isn’t acceptable. Not only is it missing all the enzymes, pollen, and other nutrients that make honey beneficial, but it’s also missing a ton of flavor!
So what do you do if you want to avoid altered honey? One way would be to inspect the honey itself; if you can see bits of wax or pollen in the honey, or if it is already starting to crystallize, you likely are looking at pure, raw honey. Additionally, some grocery stores have begun to stock honey from local apiaries.
Of course, the best place to get your honey is always directly from a trusted beekeeper (including our online store). We may be biased, but the many folks who have tried and love our pure, raw, local honey know the difference.