What is honey? You’ve probably got this mouth- watering image in your mind of the last jar of scrumptious sticky amber food that you bought at your local farmer’s market. Luckily, it is highly unlikely to have been anything other than the real thing, writes Ann Chilcott, Scottish Expert Beemaster.

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Sunflower (yellow) and Buckwheat Honey in A Kiev Street Market, Ukraine. Photo by Cynthia May.

You may think you know what honey is, but, as you read on, you will realise that things can be far from simple when it comes to buying pure natural honey. Using the WHO (World Health Organisation) definition of honey,  The Honey Regulations for England and Scotland, revised in 2015, tell us that “honey” means “the sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from the secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

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Correctly Labelled Honey Complying with UK Regulations. Photo by Linton Chilcott

Unlike many countries across the world, we have robust food safety regulations in the UK which go some way towards protecting us from charlatans in the food industry. However, some honey might not be what you think it is because recently there has been a surge of counterfeit honey spilling into the global markets which has been devastating for beekeepers, especially in Canada and the US where local honey prices have been pushed down by imported honey selling for ridiculously low prices. Not only that, in some countries, antibiotics are used prophylactically to prevent disease in honey bees leading to widespread resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a dangerous problem for humans, and all too often we hear in the media of outbreaks of MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staph Aureus) in hospitals adversely affecting patients, especially babies, with vulnerable immune systems.

Antibiotics are routinely used in Chinese beekeeping and a sophisticated honey treatment called Resin Technology is employed to hide all traces of this unsafe activity. Not only can this technique mask antibiotics present in honey but it leaves carcinogenic resin residues which are consumed by the unwitting customers of very cheap “honey”.

Food fraud is big business on a massive scale with honey up there, after milk and olive oil, as the third most adulterated food. Globally, food fraud is worth around $52 billion each year and is among the high flyers of crime when you compare with heroin, worth $30 billion, and the illegal firearms trade around $8.5 billion annually.

At the end of last century, the US was flooded with adulterated honey from China which sold at very low prices and hurt the local producers who abided by the rules and produced pure honey without adding corn/rice syrup/ other sweeteners, or antibiotics. After “Honey gate” in 2001, high anti-dumping duties were placed on Chinese honey and only a few containers of honey have been imported each year to the US since then. Netflix show an interesting series on food fraud called “Rotten” that includes honey adulteration and that is well worth watching in my opinion.

Honey can be highly filtered by fraudsters to remove all traces of pollen which means that it cannot be identified. Melissopalynology is the study of pollen in honey which can tell us where the honey originated according to the identification of pollen grains. For example, if honey sold in the UK is labelled as a product of Scotland and is found to contain acacia pollen then it would constitute a crime because acacia is not grown in the UK on a scale large enough to produce honey. Besides, it is not warm enough for that plant to produce nectar as it does profusely in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe known for Acacia honey production.

Honey can be bulked out by adding sweet syrups such as corn or rice. Other illicit modes of honey production include extraction of immature honey which happens when beekeepers remove honey from the hive before the bees have fully ripened it. In a future article I will explain how the bees make honey, but nectar is dilute with a concentration of sugar to water of 80%/20%. The bees must evaporate the nectar till the water level is below 20% and then it becomes honey. The greedy beekeeper can remove unripe honey and place it in a warm room with a dehumidifier to reduce water content thus enabling the honey supers to be placed quickly back on the hives for re-filling by the bees. This malpractice reduces the workload of the house bees and so they go out foraging earlier than they normally would which upsets colony dynamics. It also prevents the addition of some of the 200 different substances which are added to honey during the evaporation and ripening process and which cannot be artificially emulated. These substances contribute to the unique flavour of honey.

Pollens can be removed from honey by ultra-filtration and then local pollens can be added to con anyone testing honey into believing that the honey is local. Other honeys may be added to premium products like heather honey to bulk out the heather honey which is often in short supply depending upon the weather. More Manuka honey from New Zealand is found on the market than is actually produced in that country which is a dead give-away and illustrates what happens when you have such highly priced products and customers willing to pay. Fraudsters worldwide engage in faking manuka honey. As I write, a New Zealand honey packer is going to court charged with adding a substance to honey that is used in tanning lotion.

So, what can be done about honey fraud? Well, fortunately nuclear magnetic resonance technology (NMR) has been developed to detect adulteration of honey and other foods. It is one of the most advanced, sophisticated and robust data driven technologies available that can measure more than 36 parameters in honey.

This technology is used all over the food industry where fraud is suspected.  Did you know that it is common for robusta coffee to be blended with high quality arabica coffees and sold fraudulently under an “Arabica” label? In the past it would have been impossible to detect this fraud but today NMR can pick it up and expose the racketeers.

In the future, all beekeepers in the UK may be required legally to register their apiaries which would make it easier to monitor beekeeping practices and ensure that honey could be traced to individual hives. For example, if beekeepers don’t follow carefully instructions for using chemicals in honey bee management potentially harmful residues can linger in honey and wax. Schemes could be set up whereby honey is tested and producers given accreditation for producing pure safe products. This could be reflected in labelling, which would guarantee local honey, enabling customer to have immediate brand recognition and make better choices.

Education of the public about honey is a good starting point for beekeepers with farmers’ markets and farm gates being the ideal fora. It is costly to produce real honey and so prices must reflect the high-quality luxury food, and it is not unreasonable to pay £8-10/ lb honey. In fact, I would be highly suspicious of honey costing only a few pounds per pound.

Customers can learn to be more discerning when shopping for honey. Any honey sold in the UK must show the country of origin on the label so it is worth scrutinising carefully. If you read, “Blend of EU and non-EU honey” then you know that this honey could come from any part of the world and there is no way of knowing how it was treated. When you see a list of ingredients on the label this means that the honey has been so highly filtered as to have removed the pollen. UK law demands that such labelling is required for this product which will alert the discerning customer.

It is not illegal to heat honey and most packers do this so that it remains runny for longer thus giving a good shelf-life of around six months. However, when honey is heated to any temperature higher than normal hive temperature, there will be some degradation of enzyme activity and loss of flavour. If this is important to the customer, they will buy honey that has not been heated and which may granulate within a few weeks of purchase. It soon warms up and spreads easily on breakfast toast!

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Unprocessed Honey on The Comb at The Beirut Hilton Hotel, Lebanon. Photo by Linton Chilcott

American journalist, author and activist Michael Pollan advises, “You shouldn’t eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.”

If you buy honey on the comb you know that it hasn’t been heated or had pollen removed. Buying from small producers is good, and a sure- fire way to eat pure food is to know the first name of the grower. I hope that this article might inspire you to get to know more about your customers, or honey sellers, and promote pure local honey.

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This article was written for Smallholder by Ann Chilcott. To read more articles like it subscibe to the magazine by calling 01778 392011.