In September of 2013 a story broke which would turn out to be the single largest incident of food fraud in our nation’s history. Who would have thought that it would involve a product as innocent and seemingly wholesome as honey? It’s no secret that food packaging can be misleading. But how could honey be the subject of an $80 million food import scandal that shook honey production and food processing industries?
Chinese honey imports are banned due to frequent adulteration with antibiotics. That didn’t stop unscrupulous producers from shipping Chinese honey to Indonesia, Malaysia and India where it was relabeled and then shipped to the US. A sudden spike of honey imports from these countries alerted investigators who proceeded to uncover the multimillion dollar case. Before this action, tons of potentially adulterated honey were sold in US markets. Although noted as the single largest incident of food fraud, it actually represents the largest case where someone got caught.
Honey does not require official inspection to carry USDA label grade marks and there are no existing programs that require inspection and certification. Without regulation or oversight, the quality of honey cannot be guaranteed. In any grocery store, several brands of honey can be found. Consumers might be buying a quality product or they could be paying for a blend of corn syrup with a little honey added. There are few federal standards for honey, no government certification and no consequences for making false claims. According to the USDA almost 70% of honey sold in the US is imported.
The USDA and FDA do not define terms used on hone packaging. Without defined terms, it is impossible to regulate a product. For example, the American Bee Keeping Federation says that honey must contain pollen. But some producers ultrafilter their honey in order to keep it from crystalizing. Ultra-filtering removes pollen as well as potential health benefits and flavor. So, we are trading a visual characteristic – honey that remains liquid – for health and flavor. Real honey never spoils. It will crystalize over time. Mrs. Rachel Payne, a local bee keeper advises to store honey at room temperature and when it begins to solidify, to place it in a pan of warm water – never in the microwave.
Standards promoted by the Texas Beekeepers Association include defining terms such as: Honey is a sweet substance produced by honey bees strictly from plant nectar; Raw Honey has not been pasteurized or even heated significantly because excessive heat can weaken or destroy natural enzymes that provide health benefits; Unfiltered Honey naturally contains small particles like bits of wax while leaving pollen grains in the honey; Pure Honey is 100% honey with no additives; Local Honey is produced in the same geographic area and contains the same pollens as local flowers and plants. The best way to insure getting quality honey is to buy directly from local beekeepers or at your farmers market. The Piney Woods Beekeepers Association is a local resource.
Raw unfiltered honey contains vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and phenolic acids that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants play an important role in the body’s defenses against chronic diseases. Honey has been shown to be an effective cough suppressant as much so as over the counter medicines. The belief that honey provides benefit for allergies is a debated question that has not yet been finally proven. Two notes of caution: Never give honey to children under age one. And if you have diabetes, honey will spike your blood sugar the same as table sugar. Honey can be used in place of sugar in any recipe. Its delicate sweetness balances the flavors very well in a mustard vinaigrette. “Honey, would you please pass the honey?”
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.