How can you tell if honey is pure?

I had an interesting follow up question to my last post about raw honey for hayfever.  It was a simple question, but not so easy to answer. I was asked how an individual can tell if the honey they see on the shelf is pure, raw and unadulterated?

The easy answer might not be quite so correct. You might imagine that if you buy from a ‘man on the market’ then you take your own chances, whereas if you buy from one of the top supermarkets then you are safe in their buyer’s hands. Wrong.

What about price? I just looked on line and you can buy a 12oz jar of honey from a top 5 supermarket for 75p, and that’s typical.  Look closely and it comes from China. Some just say ‘blend of non-UK honey’, but is that a problem?

Well, in 2002 all Chinese honey was banned from Europe because it contained illegal levels of antibiotics. Then in 2010 honey from India was banned by the EU for the presence of antibiotics and lead.

In 2016, countries previously without any significant honey production suddenly became major exporters of honey. Honey from countries like Vietnam was siezed and found to be Chinese honey.

More recently the EU has launched a campaign to fight off adulterated honey flooding the markets. As reported in the Financial Times just a few days ago:
“The drive by 20 member states, led by Slovenia, to tighten regulation against what one official dubbed “honey laundering” follows a European Commission study that found a surge in fraud. Almost half of the honeys surveyed broke EU rules, with ingredients such as sugar syrups, colourings and water, according to findings published last month.”

So, surely if you just buy from your ‘Top 5’ supermarket they will have done all the tests to make sure you have pure 100% honey in that jar you have just purchased for, erm 75p?

Perhaps not if you read this report that nearly half of honey imported into Europe is actually a sugar water mix, with added flavourings and colouring.

A report by the British Beekeepers’ Association in 2022  summarised:

  • Between 2000 and 2014 China increased its honey output by 88%, but only increased its hive count by 21%. So where is all that extra ‘honey’ coming from?
  • Well, we know where a lot of it ends up. The UK imports 50,000+ tonnes of Chinese honey a year. Take a look at the back of that 75p jar of ‘honey’ and you might start to join up the dots.
  • As part of a survey, researchers in India ‘spiked’ honey with varying percentages of sugar syrup (25%, 50% and 75%). They were sent to labs where UK style tests for adulterated honey were carried out. Scarily only the 75% sugar syrup sample failed. This suggests that ‘honey’ with 50% sugar syrup would pass UK tests for ‘pure honey’.

So where does that leave the consumer? Well, the oldest of sayings always hangs true. If the price looks too good to be true then it probably is. If you are happy to take that risk on your 75p jar of honey, or even that reassuringly expensive jar of supermarket honey, first take a look at the back and see where it has come from and ask yourself how sure you are that it is what it claims to be.

So, what do you do?

Buying direct from a beekeeper is the best way to make sure you are getting what you are paying for, as any honey which has passed through a supermarket supply chain, particularly with overseas origins and sold cheaply, might not be quite what it claims to be.