A conversation with an acquaintance yesterday made me realize that many urban residents have never known what it is to eat real comb-fresh raw honey. They've grown up knowing only the pasteurized, filtered (and frequently adulterated) product sold by most supermarkets under the label of 'honey'. The 'real deal' is about as far from the mass-produced product in terms of taste, quality and health benefits as you can get. Those of you who've eaten honey produced from the pollen of a particular plant, and which has never been pasteurized or filtered, will know exactly what I mean. The taste is so superior to the mass-market product that it's in a class of its own.
What many people don't know is that there's a major international honey smuggling racket. All too often what we buy from supermarket shelves is a mass-produced, chemically 'enhanced', additive-laced concoction that comes from unknown (and possibly untrustworthy) sources, and may even be damaging to our health. The Globe and Mail reported last year:
As crime sagas go, a scheme rigged by a sophisticated cartel of global traders has all the right blockbuster elements: clandestine movements of illegal substances through a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.
What makes this worldwide drama unusual, other than being regarded as part of the largest food fraud in U.S. history, is the fact that honey, nature’s benign golden sweetener, is the lucrative contraband.
Honey has become a staple in the North American diet. Those that do not consume it straight from bear-shaped squeeze bottles eat it regularly whether they know it or not – honey is baked into everything from breakfast cereals to cookies and mixed into sauces and cough drops. Produced by bees from the nectar of flowers and then strained for clarity, honey’s all-natural origin has garnered lofty status among health-conscious consumers who prefer products without refined sweeteners (think white sugar and processed corn syrup). About 1.2 million metric tons of honey is produced worldwide each year.
What consumers don’t know is that honey doesn’t usually come straight – or pure – from the hive. Giant steel drums of honey bound for grocery store shelves and the food processors that crank out your cereal are in constant flow through the global market. Most honey comes from China, where beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste.
None of this is on the label. Rarely will a jar of honey say “Made in China.” Instead, Chinese honey sold in North America is more likely to be stamped as Indonesian, Malaysian or Taiwanese, due to a growing multimillion dollar laundering system designed to keep the endless supply of cheap and often contaminated Chinese honey moving into the U.S., where tariffs have been implemented to staunch the flow and protect its own struggling industry.
. . .
Industry insiders began tracking the questionable cargo years ago when low-priced honey from surprising countries infiltrated the market. But federal law enforcement officials have only begun to home in.
Savvy honey handlers use a network of Asian countries to “wash” Chinese-origin product – with new packaging and false documents – before shipping it to the U.S. for consumption in various forms.
Fifteen people and six companies spanning from Asia to Germany and the U.S. were recently indicted in Chicago and Seattle for their roles in an $80-million gambit still playing out in the courts. That case has been billed as the largest food fraud in U.S. history. But American beekeepers, already suffering from a bee death epidemic that is killing off a third of their colonies a year, say the flow of suspect imports has not let up.
“We see a flood, an avalanche of [laundered] honey continuing,” said Ron Phipps, a global honey markets expert. “It has created a two-tier market where cheap, illegal honey … has a huge competitive advantage,” he said, adding: “It’s really putting the domestic industry on the verge of crisis.”
At stake is more than just a sweet industry.
Honeybees are responsible for pollinating millions of acres of agricultural crops, including fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and legumes, worth $20-billion annually in the U.S. alone. More than a quarter of the human diet hinges on those crops.
“If we lose our honey industry in the U.S., there’s going to be massive food shortages like we haven’t seen before,” said Richard Adee, a South Dakota beekeeper who owns 80,000 honeybee colonies, the largest operation in the U.S.
Mr. Phipps said the worry is not overblown.
“It’s really an issue, for America, of national security,” he said. “It concerns the security of the food supply and the ability of the nation to feed itself.”
There's more at the link. I highly recommend reading the whole article. In its own way it's reminiscent of the ongoing olive oil scandal, which we discussed in these pages a couple of months ago.
I can't urge you too strongly to be very careful of the cheap honey sold by most supermarkets. The low-cost stuff is highly likely to have been adulterated in some way(s). If it's pasteurized and/or filtered, the same caution applies. Filtered honey is almost impossible to track back to its point of origin, because filtering removes all traces of pollens and other unique identifying factors. The flavor is often modified by adding sweeteners to disguise the taste of other additives. Furthermore, many of the health benefits of honey (including its antibacterial and antiseptic properties) are removed or destroyed by such processing.
Miss D. and I recently bought two large (2½-pound) jars of natural honey from the local Farmers' Market. Both were from small, private US producers, one in Florida, one local. One jar contained honey produced by bees fed on orange blossom pollen, the other was simply labeled as 'wildflower' honey. They were guaranteed - both on the label and by the seller, who assured us that she knew the suppliers - to be 'natural', without additives. Most important of all, neither jar's honey had been pasteurized or filtered. We absolutely love the taste! Both work really well as sweeteners in tea or coffee, and on bread they're sublime. There's absolutely no comparison between their flavor and the sickly-sweet blandness of mass-market pasteurized, filtered, adulterated so-called 'honey'.
If you've never tasted that difference for yourself, do please take the time to seek out a jar of the real stuff. You may have to go out of your way (e.g. to a local farmers' market or a small private supplier) to find it, but it's worth the effort and the higher price. In this as in so many cases, you really do get what you pay for - and once you've experienced what honey should taste like, you'll never want to buy the cheap stuff again!