Honey Fraud: Without Pollen, the Origin Is Unknown

Categories: News

Photo courtesy of bbum
The only way to determine honey's origin is through the pollen.
Whenever we buy products from a grocery store, we usually don't second guess where it came from. If a sign for shrimp says that it is from the Gulf of Mexico, we believe it. We are a very trusting society when it comes to purchasing food or drinks from a supermarket, farmers market or grocery store, but there's one product's origin we should definitely question, and that's honey.

Honey comes from all around the world and there are hundreds of types of to purchase. Just as there are different types of apples that taste different from one another and can be used in different ways, there are a variety of honey flavors based on the pollen from certain flowers.

Dr. Vaughn Bryant, professor and director in the anthropology department at Texas A&M University has conducted much research with detecting pollen in honey, in fact, in a 2011 study sponsored by Food Safety News, Bryant found no pollen in more than 75 percent of the honey he tested from stores around the country.

Bryant says that no one can determine where honey came from or even what was used to make the honey if the pollen is removed.

"People can say anything they want," Bryant says. "If you went into a liquor store and wanted to buy a really good quality Bordeaux, don't you think you ought to get what you paid for?"

Photo courtesy of roboppy
Buckwheat honey is a special type of honey used for health benefits.

To some, honey is just a sweet condiment they like to spread on a biscuit, use when baking or add to their tea, but to others, honey is more than that; they care about the origin and will pay extra money for their favorite flavor. But, what if that special flavor of honey is not really where its label says it is from? What if it is cheaper honey?

Bryant has visited a number of health food stores and supermarkets to only find that the source of origin claimed on the bottle is not where it truly came from, which causes the consumer to pay more for something that is a lot cheaper.

Honey provides excellent health and nutritional benefits, but the pollen needs to be present; the quality of health benefits depends on the plant of origin -- each plant provides different benefits. The propolis, a mixture of resins and materials from a beehive to protect the hive from intruders, has shown to help prevent cancer and tumors. Honey helps maintain blood sugars and insulin sensitivity, increase immunity, and more specifically, Buckwheat honey has capabilities of reducing coughs in children above the age of 2.

Even though honey has many healthy benefits, it is useless without the pollen. Unfortunately, you can't tell just by looking at a bottle if it has pollen or not, and even if it did have pollen, you couldn't determine where it came from just by looking at the bottle, either, Bryant says.

The FDA doesn't have a procedure for inspecting honey for pollen. AKA, there are types of honey being sold in the country without pollen, and those honeys are falsely labeled. There is no law in the United States that says you have to label honey from its true origin.

"It's my understanding that what Customs does is that they do not test the honey for pollen," Bryant says. "They are more concerned with where the shipments came from."

Photo by Molly Dunn
Honey being sold without pollen hurts the beekeeping industry.

Bryant explains that to a degree that is OK, but it isn't a strict enough inspection for honey. Importers can simply put any label they want to on a jar of honey, and just as long as it came from a legal source, it can be sold in the states.

Because there is no law or procedure in place for determining the source of honey before being sold in the states, many individuals have proposed a Senate bill that would create a standard for analyzing honey to figure out from where it originated.

Not only does the removal of pollen affect the honey industry for consumers, it also affects the beekeeping industry. With more and more types of honey coming into the United States without proof of origin, the more difficult it is for beekeepers to survive in the industry, causing less of a demand for their products, which majority of the time have pollen.

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paval topcommenter

There is a few other things that are wrong with our honey. 

1. The feeding of cheap substitute sugars (such as HFCS and refined sugar) in order to harvest more honey over the winter (bees need a supply of honey to last through the winter). This of course adulterates the quality of any "pure" honey as such should be gained from flower nectars enriched with pollen and enzymes of bees. Besides of probably destroying any health benefits honey may have, specially in case of people that consume local honey to combat allergies (if there is no pollen, there is no desensibilizing effect due to the consumption of honey), the consumer is purchasing and paying for a natural, pure product and getting an adulterated, cheap mix that you can get in any supermarket in the baking aisle (KARO for instance) 

2. The extensive use of pesticides and herbicides in modern agriculture lead to the consumers of honey absorbing all those ingredients with their "pure" product. The existence of Organic honey is put in serious doubt as well due to the widespread use of these pesticides. 

3. What will the effect of GMO corn and soy be on the honey quality. As is known, quite extensively I reckon, pollen of GMO plants spread the same way other pollen does and infect even non-GMO fields. So even bee-keepers that place their hives far away from GMO fields, will still be affected by those GMO crops. and hence also the honey. 

I only know of two solutions to this dilemma:

a) know the bee keeper, visit the farm where they extract honey from and see how they do it. If they have less supply of honey during winter it is most likely a good sign as they do not simply feed sugar water or HFCS to increase harvest rates. Also check around the fields to see if they have any corn or soy farms (almost all corn and soy is GMO. So a farm with those crops nearby means bad news) 

b) foreign honey from Germany for example. Germany has very stringent standards in honey and if there is not enough pollen prices for honey go up as supply dwindles. The percentage of supplemental feed is regulated to a max of 7-10% I believe. So all the rest is pure pollen and GMO is almost not present in Europe. European honey may not help with the allergies in Houston but it is healthier and purer than most honey from the US. Be prepared for a sticker shock though. I have seen prices for German honey in the 20 USD per lb range. 


KaitlinS topcommenter

This is a totally great article, Molly!

MadMac topcommenter

Thank you, Ms. Dunn! I read about this in Bon Appetit and I've been begging local news sources to cover it. I try to buy local--Wabash, when I can get to it, Good Flow when I can't. Finding trust worthy food suppliers is gonna become harder and harder without a certain "dirty" R-word.

del.martinis topcommenter

Always something to worry about!  Is our EVOO watered down and on and on...

MadMac topcommenter

About the best Consumer reports can advise is look for a harvest date as well as an expiration date. I buy California Ranch olive oil as it's the most trust worthy in my budget.

MadMac topcommenter

De nada. The world's in trouble when you can't get food advice from a fat man.

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