Honey: Beyond the Bear

Honey variety with bee's comb in a glass jars with flowers and fresh herbs.
Photo: THINKSTOCK/AnnaPustynnikova

Honey may be the earliest sweetener used by humans — it can be traced back about 8,000 years, as long ago as the Stone Age. More than 300 types of honey exist in the United States alone, with countless other varieties abroad.

What’s the Deal with Honey Fraud?

Honey fraud can occur in a number of ways, including bees that are fed syrup instead of foraging nectar from flowers, falsified country of origin documents or the dilution of honey by blending it with a sweet syrup, such as high-fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup or saccharose syrup, a.k.a. beet sugar. “Most adulterated honey isn’t going to hurt you if you eat it, but the consumer is being cheated because good honey will cost about $2 a pound, and high-fructose corn syrup costs about $0.12 a pound,” says Vaughn M. Bryant, PhD, professor and director in the department of anthropology at Texas A&M University. Some of these syrups, such as beet sugar, are especially difficult to detect via testing.While it is in the retailer’s best interest to sell real honey, consumers can do their own policing. The True Source Certified label is an independent third-party certification program in the United States that allows participants to show their sourcing practices comply with both U.S. and international trade laws. Additionally, some brands have their own quality control.

Some so-called fraudulent honey isn’t really fraudulent. Over the years, plenty of filtered honey has been called out as “fraudulent,” but it’s normal for honey to be filtered to remove pollen, along with dust, bees’ wings and other fragments.

Honeycomb comes straight from the hive, while liquid honey is extracted from honeycomb and filtered to remove crystals and wax. Whipped honey is crystallized honey that is spreadable and creamy.

While honey contains 15 calories more per tablespoon than granulated sugar due to its greater density, differences in micronutrient content are so small they are virtually inconsequential. Honey is considered an added sugar, which the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting.

What about the perceived health benefits of honey? Let’s see what the science says.

Myth or fact? Many flavors of honey exist.

FACT. Honey comes in a variety of colors, aromas and flavors — much of which has to do with the plants from which the nectar came. Bees can forage up to five miles from their hives, so honey often contains flavors from a combination of varietals. The exact color, aroma and flavor profile of honey also can vary by environmental factors, such as temperature and rainfall, that affect the nectar source, much like ever-changing growing conditions for wine grapes. Honey color ranges from almost clear to dark brown. A lighter hue generally indicates a milder flavor, while a darker color means a stronger flavor. Research also suggests darker honey may contain more antioxidants than lighter-hued varieties.

Some types of honey are better flavor matches for specific recipes and applications. For instance, wildflower honey is great for baked goods and salad dressings; orange blossom honey works well in dressings and marinades; and buckwheat honey is a tasty addition to barbecue sauces. When baking with honey, lower the oven temperature by 25°F to prevent over-browning. One cup of white sugar may be swapped out for ¾ cup honey in a baked-good recipe. For every cup of honey, other liquids in the recipe should be reduced by one-quarter and add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda.

Myth or fact? Honey never expires.

FACT. A jar of honey can last for many years, even after it’s been opened. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consuming honey within two years of purchasing if it’s stored in the pantry, you don’t necessarily need to toss the honey jar after that. After all, archaeologists have found pots of honey — about 3,000 years old and still edible — in Egyptian pyramids. The sweetener’s long shelf life likely is due to its antibacterial nature, thanks in part to its high sugar content and low pH. However, the age of honey may affect its consistency and taste; older honey likely will thicken and lose flavor over time.

Older honey and honey that is refrigerated may crystallize, which is easily reversible: Place the glass honey jar in a pan of hot water over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring until crystals dissolve; or warm the honey in its jar in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until crystals dissolve. Honey in plastic containers should be scooped into a glass jar before heating.

Myth or fact? Honey contains probiotics.

MYTH. You may have heard rumors about honey’s probiotic properties, but research in this area is extremely limited. Although some claim honey may be used to remedy diarrhea and gastroenteritis, there isn’t sufficient reliable evidence to rate the effectiveness of honey for these conditions, according to the Natural Medicines Database.

What we do know is that honey contains oligosaccharides that may have a prebiotic effect and might help stimulate growth of health-promoting gut microbiota. However, any effect likely is very small, and foods such as bananas, onions and asparagus have much more substantial prebiotic benefits.

Myth or fact? Honey is a cure-all for allergies.

MYTH. Despite widespread claims that honey helps reduce allergy symptoms, the research is contradictory. In one preliminary study, volunteers complaining of allergy symptoms were asked to eat one tablespoon of local honey, pasteurized honey or honey-flavored corn syrup daily for 30 weeks. No significant benefits were noted. Conversely, a more recent preliminary study found significant benefits for allergy sufferers who took an antihistamine medication and 1 gram of honey per kilogram (0.45 grams per pound) of body weight daily for four weeks, compared to people who ate the same amount of honey-flavored corn syrup and the allergy medication on a daily basis. Still, there is a lack of sufficient reliable evidence to rate the effectiveness of honey for hay fever, according to the Natural Medicines Database.

Honey Grading 101

In 1985, the USDA set voluntary grading standards for honey, giving weight to its flavor, aroma, absence of defects and water content.

U.S. Grade Solubile Solids Defects Clarity Flavor and Aroma
A ≥81.4% Practically free Clear Good; free from caramelization, smoke, fermentation and chemicals
B ≥81.4% Reasonably free Reasonably clear Reasonably good; practically free
from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation and chemicals
C ≥80% Fairly free (may only contain air bubbles and a trace of pollen) Fairly clear Fairly good; reasonably free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation and chemicals
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Amy Gorin
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is the owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. She blogs at AmyDGorin.com, and her writing frequently appears in publications such as FoodNetwork.com, NBC.com and EverydayHealth.com.