First off...all honey is not all the same. Most people think of honey as a natural, healthy sweetener, but the color, taste and processes of pure, raw, and unfiltered honey differ. And while it is definitely healthier than white sugar or artificial sweeteners, not all honey is created equal.
Most of the honey you find in big box stores have been adulterated with other ingredients, like corn syrup, to make it cheaper. This type of honey is often imported from foreign countries and treated with high heat and ultra-filtering to make it look and taste the same. So how can you be sure you're getting the real thing?
Many people don’t realize that there are different types of honey, each with their own unique set of benefits. Raw honey, for example, is unprocessed and contains all the nutrients of the hive. Pure honey is just that – pure, without any additives or flavors. And organic honey must meet stringent guidelines in order to be certified as organic.
So what’s the difference? For starters, pure honey is not clear. It's cloudy and opaque because it contains tiny particles of pollen that have not been filtered out to create a cleaner look. Most store-bought honey has had the pollen removed so you can't tell where it came from, but real unprocessed honey should be more opaque.
Here’s how to read the labels like a boss!
HONEY: This simple word isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface. Yes, it does indicate honey, but this honey is most likely mixed (aka adulterated) with other ingredients, most often corn syrup, to “cut” the cost. This is the cheapest honey one will find - think plastic honey bears, the $1.99 end-cap special, the plastic packets. It is almost always imported from a foreign country of unknown origins, treated with high heat and ultra-filtered to make it all look and taste the same.
(Learn more about the underbelly of the honey industry from this great NetFlix documentary: ROTTEN: Lawyers, Guns & Honey)
PURE HONEY: A “pure honey” label means that you are getting 100% honey, without any other ingredients used to “cut” the cosT BUT it may be ultra-processed by heating and filtering. Additionally, “Pure” honey alone doesn’t always tell you much about the source/varietal or how the honey is produced, so it’s good to look for more information to make sure you’re getting all the benefits you can from honey and that it’s produced in the most body and environment-friendly way.
RAW HONEY: What is raw honey, exactly? Raw honey (also called “unpasteurized” or “unheated” honey) is real honey that has not been heated above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The heating process destroys many of the enzymes that make raw honey so beneficial, so it’s important to look for honey that is raw if you want the full nutritional benefits.
- Raw honey contains all of the pollen, propolis, and waxes from the hive, as well as the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients present in the nectar.
- It also has a higher enzyme content than pasteurized honey – meaning it can help your body digest food more easily.
- Raw honey has anti-inflammatory properties and can be helpful in treating allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems
Many beekeepers who produce raw honey are also aware that the methods of how they care for the bees and to handle the honey has a big impact on the honey you eat, so it’s a good bet the process has been handled with care. Choose raw honey vs regular honey, raw honey is a better choice for health, taste, bees and the environment.
UNFILTERED HONEY: “Filtering” honey means highly processing the honey to remove very small particles, often even as small as the pollen. Filtering honey is not the same as straining honey, which is commonly done to remove bee parts and other large debris prior to jarring while still retaining the pollen and other beneficial qualities of honey. With filtration, honey is also often heated to become more liquid in order to make the filtering process easier, meaning that the honey is no longer raw.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT ORGANIC HONEY: Organic honey is produced from the pollen of organically grown plants, and without chemicals to treat the bees. Buying organic honey ensures that you avoid contact with pesticides that may be sprayed on or near the plants visited by honeybees. The problem is, bees usually fly up to 3 miles from the hive looking for flowers, which means that all the flowers within this 3 mile radius must be certified organic in order for the honey to truly be organic. As you would expect this can be almost impossible to control!
It’s also important to remember that honey labeled “organic” is not necessarily raw or minimally processed unless labeled as such. The US does not have an Organic designation for honey, therefore certified organic honey available in the United States is imported in large quantities from Brazil or other foreign countries and undergoes pasteurization and heavy filtration.
Knowing what these words mean will help you choose the best honey for you and for the environment. Unfortunately there is little regulation on honey labeling. To make sure you get exactly what you’re looking for, the best thing is to look for small, artisanal or honey producers who are transparent about their production processes.
Best option: make friends with a local beekeeper or apiary, or try visiting your local farmers market, checking natural foods shops, or visiting grocery stores that carry a good variety of honey.
And remember, choosing raw, unfiltered honey ensures the most properties have been preserved!