by Christine Nelson
When I want a sweetener for myself or my family, honey is my first choice. It not only tastes great, it provides antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. I feel good serving such a wholesome product — and yet, once I became a beekeeper, I learned that the honey we often buy in stores isn’t always so wholesome.
First, the bad news…
Find any average beekeeper, and chances are good they use a range of chemicals on their hives. Pesticides are used to kill the varroa mites that can take over a hive and kill the honeybees; antibiotics are used to treat certain diseases. The type and amount of chemicals will differ from beekeeper to beekeeper: One Pennsylvania State University test on beehives in 2008 found 70 different pesticides existing in the hives they tested and unprecedented levels of fluvalinate and coumaphos — pesticides used to combat the mites. Not so wholesome. In addition, honey can be overly processed, destroying its health benefits (more on this later).
While there’s no scientific evidence linking these chemicals in honey to health problems in humans (which would be difficult to prove anyway), it makes sense to me to limit my family’s exposure to them. Just as I try to avoid unnecessary chemicals in foods like vegetables and meat, it makes sense not to have them in my honey as well.
What to Look For
The good news is, there are beekeepers that treat their honey well and use chemical-free methods to keep their bees and hives healthy. So how do you find their wholesome honey? It may require a little work up front, but once you find honey that is healthy and delicious, you can become a regular customer. You really want to look for two things in particular:
1) Honey should be raw, which means unheated and unfiltered. Did you know that honey is naturally antibacterial and doesn’t need to be heated to be a safe food product? Unfortunately, many beekeepers — especially those with lots of hives — will often heat their honey so it flows more quickly, which makes the processing faster, too. Heat can also make honey less cloudy and more clear — something consumers generally look for. But heat can destroy the beneficial antioxidants and enzymes in honey and change the flavor. Cloudy honey can be good honey!
2) Honey should be free of unnecessary chemicals, or as free as possible. You don’t want to choose honey where the beekeeper uses chemicals on the hives on a regular basis. The word “organic” is generally not used for honey like it is for other foods; instead, beekeepers who use no pesticides or antibiotics may call their honey “treatment-free.” The best way to find out is to ask the beekeeper if they use chemicals on their hives, and if so, how often. Depending on your area and its honey market, you may or may not have to pay more for “treatment-free” honey.
Where to Find It
I first look to my local beekeepers (a farmers’ market is a great place to start). Many times, smaller beekeepers won’t use the terms “raw” or “treatment free” on their labels; you have to talk to them personally, just like you might talk to a farmer about his produce. Ask about what treatments, if any, they use for their honey, and whether their product is raw. Don’t be afraid to press if the answers are not forthcoming — in a friendly way, of course!
Local honey is a great choice, because you know more about the environment in which it was made: If a farm uses a heavy dose of chemicals on its produce, bees will likely pick these chemicals up as they collect nectar and pollen — and you might want to avoid the honey that results.
Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for foreign honey to have been tampered with: The FDA has found numerous cases where honey imported to the States from foreign countries included added sugar and other ingredients. (Manuka honey from New Zealand, famous for its health benefits, is often not the pure stuff being advertised.) And then there’s the report from a couple years ago showing that a great deal of honey in American grocery stores is not real honey at all.
Most mainstream supermarkets carry honey made by large commercial beekeepers and their bees. Even if it’s real honey, the larger beekeepers are more likely to use pesticides and antibiotics: With a large number of hives, they don’t have the time to inspect each one for disease or pests, so they simply treat them all. If you have a favorite store brand, call the company and ask how they take care of and process their honey.
It’s unrealistic to expect a 100% guarantee of pure unadulterated honey, because bees can fly far and pick up who knows what in the environment. But by being an educated and discerning consumer, you can find honey that’s much closer to the way Mother Nature intended.
Do you shop around for wholesome honey already? Where have you found it? Would you spend the extra time and money to find raw, untreated honey?
Images: Christine Nelson. Christine is a stay-at-home mom in central Massachusetts. She shares her home with one husband, two kids (ages 14 and 9), one dog, two cats, a rabbit, chickens — and honey bees.