Honey, we have a problem

UPDATE: Hey guys, I screwed up on this one. NPR points out that the story I wrote about here is pretty heavily biased, produced by a website that's run by a law firm specializing in food poisoning cases. And the claims made here don't line up with evidence. Apologies. I normally manage to avoid being suckered in by stuff like this, but we all have bad days. Thanks to those in the comments who pointed out the flaws.

Honey that comes from large grocery stores, big-box chains, and individual packet servings in restaurants may not be honey you can trust. That's because the vast majority of this honey has had all the pollen filtered out of it, effectively preventing regulators from knowing where the honey came from.

Food Safety News purchased honey in 10 states, and the District of Columbia, and had it independently tested by scientists at the University of Texas. Roughly 76% of the honey from grocery stores and big box stores was lacking pollen. 100% of the honey purchased at drugstores and distributed at restaurants in single-serving packets lacked pollen. Only the samples that came from farmer's markets, co-ops, and smaller niche stores like Trader Joe's and PCC all contained all of the pollen they were supposed to.

Why do you care? This really isn't about the pollen, itself. Instead, it's about what the pollen (or lack thereof) represents. There aren't a lot of reasons someone would want to filter honey so aggressively that they remove the pollen. It adds costs to production, lowers the quality of the honey, and doesn't produce much of a benefit for businesses. In fact, according to research by Food Safety News, there's really only one benefit you could get from filtering out the pollen: Without the pollen, nobody can tell where the honey came from.

This is the part you should care about. A desire to hide the origins of honey is a pretty big red flag that the honey might be coming from places with potentially dangerous production practices. Honey from China, for instance, can be contaminated with animal antibiotics that are illegal in the the U.S. and Europe because they are fatal to a small percentage of people. Honey from India has turned up laced with heavy metals. Without pollen, there's no way to verify that the honey you're getting is safe. It might well be. But no one can tell. And if it does hurt you, there's no way to connect it to other honey from the same source, which makes it harder to recall all the dangerous honey.

Via Sally J

Image: Honey Jars and Their Tops, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 5wa's photostream


  1. Whether it was placebo or not, I cannot say, but I will tell you that buying raw local honey at the end of summer/beginning of fall and consuming it did GREATLY help my seasonal allergies.  Seems logical that my body would adjust to all the pollen in the raw honey, but I dunno if science would back me up there.

  2. “There aren’t a lot of reasons someone would want to filter honey so aggressively that they remove the pollen.”

    WRONG. There is a gigantic reason to aggressively filter honey, it reduces the likelihood the honey will crystallize which prolongs the shelf life because a lot of consumers assume crystalized honey has “gone bad”.

    1. True that.  It also makes it much easier to increase volume, and therefore profits, by mixing it with cheap high fructose corn syrup.

    2.  So you’re saying that ONE reason is “a lot of reasons”?

      We must not be speaking the same version of English.

      1. Except the original statement, while still technically accurate, is now more misleading than informative.  It’s become like, “There’s not a lot of reasons not to drink poison right now.”  There’s only one… that it’ll probably kill you.   But that’s only one reason, so… why not?

        The point he was disputing may not be officially refuted, but it’s been answered well enough. 

    3. I never got that. Honey that’s too clear and flows too smoothly sticks out as ‘fake’. Or overprocessed, if you’d rather.

      Where do these customers get their ideas about honey anyway?

  3. I buy most of my honey from a small family-owned farm in central Wisconsin.  When I can’t get it from this source I buy from farmer’s markets.  The honey is generally cheaper than the  stuff sold in supermarkets (average cost about $10 a quart but I’ve paid as little as $5/qt in the last couple of years) and by far has better flavor.  It’s a win-win for everybody.

  4. I’m glad I live in Florida, and have a ton of wonderful local honey available at my farmers’ market and shops.  I first tried some local honey a few years ago, and would never go back — it’s so much more flavorful, comes in a ton of different varieties (based on what plants were in flower when the honey was produced), and supports my local honey-makers.

  5. Why didn’t they do the next logical thing and test those honeys with no pollen for aforementioned “bad things”?

  6. This is very interesting but I’d like to hear from the other side especially as to why they are filtering the honey.  The article didn’t mention honey made from toxic plants such as rhododendron and saliva.  Are toxic plants not a problem in commercial honey production?

    1. Salvia, or sage, makes what many consider a premium honey, not toxic to humans in the least. Rhododendron, as you say, is an issue. Most commercial honeys are produced in apiaries where the surrounding floral constituents are well known (and bees preferentially harvest nectar from non-toxic plants, generally speaking) or from farmland during pollination season where only a single type of plant is in bloom at once.

      Filtering (and the heating that usually comes with it) improves the shelf life of the honey as mentioned above, minimizes the probability of crystallization, increases the clarity of the honey (there’s no visible “bits” for people to notice even subconsciously), and even improves the ease of packaging. Since many major packers wind up combining lots from a variety of beekeepers when they package things like orange blossom or clover honeys, it also improves the consistency of product as far as color and consistency so consumers can expect a predictable color or flavor when they reach for their favorite brand.

      While raw honey is arguably better for a variety of reasons, claiming “There aren’t a lot of reasons someone would want to filter honey so aggressively” is misleading and erroneous. The folk I know personally at the California State Beekeepers Association have been ripping their hair out about the misrepresentations the original article behind this has been spawning. While the filtering makes it harder for them to find out when they’re facing illegal competition from Chinese imports, the filtering does NOT make domestic honey treated in this way somehow unsafe.

    2. “Filter” is on of those words that is misused. Cigarettes are filtered, lenses can be filtered, so is noise. Advertisers want people to think “filter” as in “filter out the bad stuff”. That’s impossible. Boiling is the best way to kill bad stuff, not filtering. A filter is a membrane. The membrane openings have  to be designed to filter out the stuff you don’t want through. 

      But, many good things are can actually be filtered out. Take Molasses for instance, it’s nothing but leavings from the processing of brown sugar. One form of molasses is very good for you. But don’t tell anyone, the price will go up.

  7. While I understand that pollen can be used to track the source of the honey, and so assess potential risks, why the study didn’t test for the actual presence of harmful substances? That would have given far more substance (pun intended) to the matter.
    PS: Raw honey is dangerous for little babies (IANAM)

  8. I only buy raw unfiltered honey, be it local or from some exotic area with specific types of flowers. Blueberry flower honey from Maine, or lavender honey from Provence for example, or my local NY state stuff. They all have distinctive flavors and little bits of crunchy/chewey stuff in them. Filtered honey has the same unpleasant texture as corn syrup, and almost as little flavor.

  9. “Honey from India has turned up laced with heavy metals. Without pollen, there’s no way to verify that the honey you’re getting is safe.” So the only way to know if honey has heavy metals in it is to see where the pollen came from?

  10. I think that it is unreasonable to make the leap from “no pollen in this honey, not as good quality as country bought” (wow what a revelation – your tastebuds could tell you that) to “evil chinese antibiotic honey of death”. Much more likely that the processing is to make the product more consistent for longer shelf life or something banal like that.

  11. When I read an article like this, my first thought is “who produced it?”  The overheated rhetoric about death metal honey makes me suspect it’s local food people and that the actual danger is pretty remote.  They’re just trying to scare you into buying the expensive stuff. 

    1. Right. Everything is a conspiracy, because we all know that corporations never ever engage in unscrupulous practices to help their bottom lines.


      1. So, lets see, a number of people (corporation), potentially engaged in a nefarious act (polluted honey).

        Sounds like a conspiracy to me.


        con·spir·a·cy   [kuhn-spir-uh-see] Show IPA
        noun, plural -cies. 1. the act of conspiring.
        2. an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot.

        1. Jandrese is implying that “local food people” are conspiring to besmirch the good name of massive international food conglomerates, because as we all know, they only ever act in society’s best interest and not out of concern for their bottom line.

          1. Seems like the second half of your statement doesn’t have anything to do with what jandrese actually said.  Nobody — whether international conglomerate or the beekeeper down the street — can rationally be assumed to never have motive to lie.

      2. Yeah, only an idiot would question fear-mongering with a clear profit motive and no actual evidence backing it up!

        No excuse me, I have to go buy some homeopathic remedies…

      3. Wow! That was pretty rude and uncalled for.  Way to keep the discussion civil when someone says something you don’t agree with.

        BTW, LMAO, now that the self serving nature of the original article and the sketchiness of the claims behind it have been acknowledged by so many (including Maggie) can we all agree who the idiot is now?  (Spoiler: it’s you.)

        1. If you read the NPR article linked to, while it does modulate the claims in the original piece pretty heavily, they still at the end note that:

          a) Chinese honey is barred from importation to the US
          b) Chinese honey has had safety issues
          c) Chinese honey is sometimes ultrafiltered, sold to India, and mixed with Indian honey before export

          What I found dumb was the assumption that someone with a profit motive wrote the original article. Who would have a profit motive to write an article expressing those concerns?

  12. I always try to buy my honey from a local farmer’s market. In Burbank, where I live, the FM there often has two honey vendors, whom I can ask about their honey and where it came from (who knew such good honey could come from Topanga Canyon?).

    As an aside, with annual sales in the billions, on a par with Whole Foods, I’m not sure Trader Joe’s is really a “niche” store. The Armenian market down the street from me is a niche store, but not TJ’s which is run by one of the world’s largest supermarket companies.

    1. Yep. Estimated $8 billion in annual sales for Trader Joe’s, and owned by the German chain Aldi. That you really can’t tell that from being inside a TJ’s is part of what makes them great.

      1. Yea, and just to be clear I’m not complaining about TJ’s. I shop there regularly. Several family members and friends have worked there and all say it’s a terrific employer. But I always wince when it’s referred to as a small business.

  13. Hey Doran! I’m also in Burbank, but I generally buy my honey from the folks at the Backwards Beekeepers.  Then I’m guaranteed to know that the honey came from someone’s backyard hives. I attend the meetings at Atwater Xing and the lovely and brilliant Kirk is always fun to listen to.

    1. And not knowing the difference is a hanging offense, even in liberal Austin. And another minor nuance of the article: H-E-B is *not* a big box retailer; it is a regional grocery retailer with a very significant organic/natural food presence in Texas. It’s called Central Market.

      1. *hi5* to other Texan.  (man, I love the massive assortment of stuff we can get (finally) in our local brand-new HEB…)

  14. This is garbage. There is no helath impact to filtering honey. Testing for heavy metals and antibiotics shows whether the honey is safe and is needed regardless of the pollen content. Pollen only helps the Feds determine the import duty to impose on imported honey. (Imposed beacuse Chinese farmers produced honey cheaper than American farmers). Chinese producers filter their honey, and send it thorugh India (or Argentina, etc) in order to avoid import duties on Chinese honey.

      1. Morning Edition recently ran a story explaining that one reason for pollen being filtered out of honey imported from places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan is to get around the steep import tariffs imposed on inexpensive Chinese honey. The Chinese export it to other countries, who sell it as their own. Since the pollen’s removed, there’s no way to prove the honey came from China.

        Apparently Chinese honey is so inexpensive, for whatever reason, that it was undercutting American producers.

      2. Excuse me, but do you seriously doubt that China can produce $PRODUCT cheaper than the US? (At least for now.)

        Also, the US is pretty much an expert at handing out market-distorting subsidies itself. Just sayin’.

      3. The federal government has supported honey production since 1950. The program was enacted after honey prices dropped following World War II because of reduced demand and excess inventories. During the war, the government declared beekeeping war-essential and encouraged heavy production.(1) Beeswax was used in place of petroleum to waterproof ammunition and other equipment, and honey replaced tightly rationed sugar.

        When demand decreased after the war, beekeepers and honey packers found it difficult to cover costs, and the number of honeybee colonies began to decline.(2) Congress reacted by introducing price supports for honey in the Agricultural Act of 1949. The basic purpose of the legislation was to ensure that enough honeybees would be available for crop pollination. However, since receipts from honey and beeswax far exceeded revenue from pollination, Congress subsidized honey production at prices that would allow beekeepers to maintain viable operations.

    1. In American supermarkets, Honey is typically sold in squeeze bottles, not jars, for the convenience factor. If the Honey recrystalizes, it can’t be squeezed out of the bottle.

      1. Gently warming the squeezy bottle of honey in a pan of warm water for a while will fix that. But somewhere, some marketroid just said “but that’s too hard for the consumer!” :-/

      2. I can see that being frustrating, but I’m Canadian so our honey is sold in jars. To be honest, I’ve always thought of honey as a spread. I find the idea of squeezing it out of something a little strange.

        1. Oh, my God! You don’t know the first thing about how honey is produced, do you? It’s squeezed out of wild, honey-eating bears! Of course, if they’re awake when you squeeze them, you’re in trouble, which is why most honey is harvested during the wintertime.


  15. Guess what?  I don’t want honey from China for whatever reason.  I don’t want “organic” broccoli from China either.  Come to think of it, I don’t want any food from China.  A bigger story is the lack of labeling on food identifying its country of origin.

    The same goes for vitamins and other nutraceuticals (ugh-that term but I still imbibe).  Does this make me a possible xenophobe?  Maybe, but its an ugliness I will shoulder in the continual struggle to know what I put in my body.

    Now if you will excuse me, I need to find a lighter to smoke this cigarette I am holding betwixt my fingers while I type.

    1. I don’t want any food from China either. Country of origin should be what this article is about. All of my shirts say ‘made in Indonesia’, shoes say ‘made in Vietnam’, gloves are all made in Pakistan for some reason (extremely smooth goats?). I’m sure the clothing companies didn’t want that regulation passed, while the textile companies that are still around in the US did. US Farmers would gladly stand behind a country of origin bill, but the major distributors probably would not. 

      1. I thought we already had this.

        All of my produce at the grocery store has little stickers that say where the apple came from. Some canned food says it’s from China, as does some cheap candy I’ve seen.

        A work friend used to work in the grocery industry and he said that this was a new rule/law/regulation in the produce department a decade or so ago. It caused a lot of grief at first until it got figured out, as new things tend to do.

  16. I returned a jar of what was supposed to be mesquite honey to Trader Joe’s about six months ago because it was obviously alfalfa.  There’s something to be said for picking a strongly flavored honey since it makes it easier to notice a substitution.

    1. A local seller at our farm market said that we wouldn’t be able to buy star thistle honey for much longer because it’s considered an invasive plant here in Michigan and they’ll be working to eradicate it, like they’ve been doing for purple loosestrife.  Bummer. That’s some tasty honey right there. :(

  17. I buy Totally Raw Honey, from Walt Broughton in West Grove, PA, just over the state line from me.  The label says “unheated, unstrained HONEY containing BEE POLLEN, PROPOLIS, BEESWAX, and possibly unavoidable bee parts”.  It’s delicious, much tastier than supermarket honey.

    Crystallization simply isn’t a problem.  Yes, if you don’t use up a jar in a year or so, it may crystallize.  So what?  It’s sold in a wide-mouth glass jar with plain paper labeling.  If you need runny honey for some reason, you can pop the jar in the microwave for a couple of seconds, or into a bowl of hot water for a few minutes.  If you’re having tea you can just gouge out a spoonful and let the heat of your tea melt it for you as you stir.

    Myself, I’d rather not eat honey shipped halfway across the world in a vessel burning bunker fuel and crewed by pressed men.  I dislike the lingering flavor of oppression and pollution.  I’d rather buy direct from my neighbors.

  18. I keep my honey in a 1.5 liter swing-top mason jar and use a long sundae spoon to get it out of the jar for coffee or whatever. I used to heat the jar in warm water to de-crystalize it, but this winter I tried something new and much faster: I made a little 2-ended hook from a bit of coat hanger, and now I hang the jar by its hinge on my apartment’s gas wall heater for a while (removing the rubber seal ring first). I have the heater on at night anyway, and this clears the honey in about a half an hour and makes the apartment smell bee-lightful!

  19. Of all the photos that could have been used, that’s exactly where I get mine–Eden’s Nectar co-op at the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market.  Bottled by the season so you can get honey sourced from what’s blooming right now to (maybe) help with allergies.  And the guys there will talk your ear off about making honey.  One point I’ve heard from them is that commercial packers heat the honey so they can fill bottles faster, something Eden’s Nectar doesn’t do.

  20. I read somewhere that honey from Australia (usually eucalyptus honey from small producers) attracts a tariff in the USA of one cent per pound, while honey from China attracts $1 per pound, and there is a brisk business of honey laundering Chinese honey in Australia for resale to the USA.

    In my home town there was a big Nestle factory. Before it was run down and sold off to Soprole my brother-in-law worked there as a lab assistant. Part of his job was testing 40 foot tanks of Chinese honey that was used in the baby formula, which (of course) contained no added sugar.

  21. Even if you’re not concerned about getting honey with antibiotics in it, mislabeling cheap honey as a more expensive variety is still a problem.  Although I suppose that if you can’t tell the difference, there’s not much point in buying the more expensive one. 

  22. I’m not used to my news sources admitting their mistakes.

    What am I feeling right now?

    (Good job!)

  23. I just don’t see the point in supporting a business model where the honey I’m buying in the grocery store has been shipped from China and Thailand. Given what HAS been proven in recent times about these products coming from China, it’s silly to even risk it. Buy local, and if it crystalizes, pop it in a bowl of warm water or in the micro for a bit to warm it up. How can it possibly be cost effective to ship honey from China, with a stiff tariff, than to just buy it from a local company? 

    1. How can it possibly be cost effective to ship honey from China, with a stiff tariff, than to just buy it from a local company?

      Simple, don’t pay the workers a fair wage and don’t worry about sustainability.  Cuts costs remarkably!

      We all vote on the world we want… with our wallets.

    2. You almost certainly buy Chinese food products (or food that contains ingredients from China). China is a leading exporter of apple concentrate (think fruit juices from concentrate and “no added sugar” foods, almost guaranteed to contain Chinese apple concentrate), garlic, grains (millet, barley), seeds (flax seed, pine nuts) and lots of other things. All of those things could be grown in the US and Europe, yet it’s more cost-effective to import them. For many items you just don’t have a choice.
      In the same vein, we here in Europe get to buy American lentils, beans, nuts and peanuts (cause the US does it cheaper), even though US food safety is somewhat lacking (think frequent cases of food poisoning). Frankly, that’s just the reality of living in today’s world. Not so sure our quality of life is any worse because of it.

  24. Stupid trade tariffs mean you can’t get cheap honey. Same reason why the USA uses so much high fructose corn syrup. You’re going to have to keep on buying the honey titled with the Papyrus font like in that picture.

  25. Per Wikipedia:

    Despite the potential cardiac problems the condition is rarely fatal and generally lasts less than a day. Medical intervention is not often needed but sometimes atropine therapy, vasopressors and other agents are used to mitigate symptoms.

    There. You’re child or pet is more apt to be killed by consuming one of your own house plants.

  26. Thanks for updating, Maggie.

    Still worth knowing that most supermarket honey is probably from halfway around the world, though.

  27. It’s interesting that people prefer the clearest honey. Personally, I search out the cloudiest stuff, with the most particulates. REAL honey, from local farms. Then I “cream” the honey, encouraging micro-crystallization. That makes the honey a semi-solid, that spreads onto hot toast without dripping, dribbling or melting. Also makes the homey sweeter … but that part could be my mind playing tricks on my tongue.

  28. that ultra-clear clover honey is crap – you may as well save money and buy corn syrup.  buy locally produced, minimally filtered natural wildflower honey or find a local flavor you like.  tupelo and orange honey from the southeast are my favorites.

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