What is fake honey and how to spot it
Stories about fake honey have been in the headlines several times over the last 5 years. In most cases the term 'fake honey' is used to describe small amounts of real honey that have been mixed with various other less expensive sugars and syrups. Not only are these syrups, such as corn or rice, much less expensive to produce, they are also much easier to produce than real honey. In a Mail Online article published in December last year, it was claimed that factories in China are making more honey than the entire bee population of the world! Something is clearly amiss if that is the case.
You might think that the law should prevent such products being mis-sold in the UK but it's an extremely complicated picture that involves large global supply chains and difficulties in testing and poor or confusing labelling. In this blog we'll outline the issues and look at ways we might be able to tell what products are and where they have come from.
Before I started writing this blog I took a trip to my local Aldi supermarket and bought a jar of 'Everyday Essentials Clear Honey'. The cost of this 340g jar was just 72p. I'm sure a similar product can be found in all supermarkets at varying prices. With the cost of living rising and many people concerned about paying their utility bills this year, it's not difficult to understand why we might be drawn to lower cost products. But is it real honey or fake honey? Is it even possible to produce real honey for 72p a jar? The factory that fills and labels the jars needs to be paid, the transportation costs taken into account and the supermarket needs to make a profit too. The actual cost of the 'honey' in the jar must be literally pence and knowing the time and costs involved in producing real honey, the price seems extraordinary to say the least.
The label clearly states 'Clear Honey – All Natural' and anyone would be forgiven for thinking that it's a jar of pure natural honey, but it doesn't actually say that. Does it mean that the honey was naturally made (by bees) or just that the 'honey' is made with natural ingredients? Would a highly watered down honey still be 'all natural' as water is a natural product? It doesn't seem at all clear to me.
On the side of the label it states 'a blend of non-EU honey' and the supermarket's website describes this as the legal name of the product. In a Guardian article from November 2021, British beekeepers called for stricter labelling on supermarket honey to help identify the countries of origin because of the concerns of the quality of honey imported from China. The UK is one of the world’s largest importers of Chinese honey. Supermarkets claim that all the honey they sell can be traced back to the beekeeper, but there is no requirement to identify the countries of origin so it's impossible to tell if it has come from an area of concern.
According to the food safety divisions of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission (EU) as well as numerous other regulating bodies, in order for honey to be considered “real”, it must contain pollen. Without the presence of pollen it's almost impossible to determine whether the honey is from legitimate source. Honey that has gone through a high temperature and ultra-filtered process, removes all the pollen and beneficial enzymes that make honey a special and unique product. This heavily processed honey is almost impossible to test in any meaningful way that would reveal its origin or quality.
How can I tell if my honey is fake?
'Fake honey' doesn't taste like pure honey. Pure honey will have a complex flavour, with floral notes. The flavour of the honey should linger a little longer than the taste of the sweetness but if you put a small amount in your mouth both the taste and sweetness should dissolve away with the honey itself. Fake honey has very little in the way of complex flavours and the sweetness will stay in your mouth long after it's dissolved leaving a sugary aftertaste. Of course, as real honey is a natural product, the taste may vary so it's difficult to rely on this alone.
Despite honey often being described as 'sticky' if you take a small amount and rub it between your thumb and finger you'll find that is doesn't actually feel that sticky to the touch. It will feel smooth and more like a cream or balm. If you've never done this, try it with a jar of our Just Bee Honey, you might be surprised that it doesn't feel sticky like glue feels sticky. If your honey does feel very sticky then that is a good sign that it has a stickier sugar syrup blended into the honey.
As you will know if you've used any of our Just Bee honey products, crystallization can start very quickly, especially once the pot has been opened. Fake honey will never crystallize in the same way. You may see some sugary mess around the top of the jar or bottle but the actual contents inside won't crystallize in the same way as real honey.
The best way right now to avoid buying a product that could be considered fake or partially fake is to avoid honey that's labelled as “blend of non-EU honeys”. It would seem almost all the honey labelled as such is originating, in some part at least, from China and may not actually be what it claims to be.
Real honey is an increasingly expensive product to produce, unfortunately there is no getting around that and it takes a lot of time and work from both the bees and beekeepers to produce even a moderate amount to sell. It is, by its very nature, a luxury product and not a cheap commodity.
For us, the problem isn't that these cheaper products exist. Both certified real honey and honey flavoured syrup blends can exist side by side on the supermarket shelf and there is a place for both. As consumers, we should have clear options and clear labels so we know what we are spending our money on. Companies may hide the origin of honey, because they don’t want consumers to know that it likely came from China. A place where the chances of it being diluted with corn syrup, water or tainted with other products appears to be the highest.
At Just Bee, our unpasteurised honey comes only from trusted UK and European beekeepers and is prepared and hand-blended in the UK. If you would like to learn more about our honey and some of the fantastic beekeepers across the UK and Europe that we work with, check out our information page here!