I noticed yesterday that Netflix added a new documentary series to their stable; it's called "Rotten" and is all about fraud in our food supply chain. There are episodes about chickens, milk, and peanuts, but I have only watched the first one so far, which is about honey.
The problem of adulterated honey came to my attention a few years ago, when I saw a news piece about it. The demand for honey has increased substantially in the last few years, as many folks feel it is a healthier alternative to sugar. I'm not sure I can speak to that claim, but it is true that raw, unfiltered, unheated honey has lots of great nutrients and pollen included. This same honey can also be used on wounds, as it is a natural antibiotic and antifungal. (Many folks feel that eating pure raw honey can help with allergies. My feeling on that is that most of the pollen folks are allergic to are from trees, most of which are wind-pollinated, so don't end up in honey. But it certainly can't hurt.)
So, the demand has increased tremendously, but the supply has decreased steadily in that time, due to all of the problems honeybees are having. Some of these problems come straight from us and our decimation of the environment, and some of these problems are related to new pests and diseases. Regardless of the cause, honeybee colonies are failing (still) at a rate of 50% per year.
Which begs the question: Just where is all our honey coming from?
Well, the greatest exporter of honey is China, with Germany coming in second. It became clear to our country early on that China was adulterating their honey, cutting it with corn syrup to increase bulk (classic drug-dealer move). Once we realized that, tests were developed to determine if a product was tainted with fillers, and then China found a way around that, by using rice syrup, which can't be detected. At that point we banned honey coming in from China, but they found a way around that, by sending it through other countries. At the present time a huge amount of honey is coming in from Asia and Europe, a lot of it originally from China.
Some of the honey is diluted with other plant syrups, but it's also often contaminated with hormones and antibiotics that are not allowed here in the United States, some of them toxic in large doses. Scientists are getting smarter and smarter with their detection of these substances, but a good amount of it still gets through, and it ends up on our grocery store shelves.
Maybe this doesn't concern you, and if that's the case, you can stop reading right now and continue to enjoy your fake honey. However it does concern me. For one thing, I want to know that the food I'm eating is labeled correctly (seems a little thing, but more and more I'm realizing that it's not). But an even greater problem is that the small, local honey bee farmers are being priced out, because people think honey is honey is honey. So they buy the cheap stuff.
Your small, local producer knows nearly every plant from which his or her bees are feeding (a large area, but we know our neighborhoods, and most of us provide gardens nearby from which our bees mainly forage). They are completely hands-on, checking hives daily. They extract and bottle the honey by hand, no small job. If they label it raw and unfiltered, that means nothing has been done to it, except for screening out a few dead bees and a stray wing or two. If it's labeled organic, that means that farmer had control of 3 -5 square miles of territory, as the bees can forage that distance if they need to. That's a huge area, if you consider a mile is 640 acres. It's not easy to find organic honey, simply because most farmers can't afford that kind of land, especially in California. Your neighborhood beekeeper probably won't be able to say he or she is organic, but that's ok - in this case it's more important to know that you're buying real honey rather than the fake stuff.
Buying local means that your average jar of honey at the farmer's market is going to cost twice as much, if not three times as much, as that bear-shaped container in your grocery store. And most of us don't like to pay that much for food. We have become accustomed to thinking that our food should be cheap. I've said it before, with regards to eggs and meat, and I'll say it again: Your food should not be cheap. Stop buying $4 cups of coffee and new iPhones, and instead put that money into pastured, organic food. Support your local farmers. Budget more for the stuff you put in your mouth, because it really matters, not only to your health and your conscience, but also to keeping the little guys in business.
We personally don't sell our extra honey (and we do get more than we need from just one hive), because we like to give it as gifts to our neighbors, teachers, family, and friends. I know they are all grateful for those small gifts, but I often wonder if they know how precious this stuff really is, considering that what is in our food supply chain is so inferior. The honey that comes from local hives tastes different depending on the season and what the bees were foraging on. It's different colors and has different scents. It has just as much terroir as a bottle of good wine. I'm sure those who drink milk from their family cow feel quite the same way about that milk. These things need to be better appreciated. You deserve to drink good wine, right? You deserve just as fully to eat good honey.
So buy local. Find your farmers market. Get to know your neighborhood beekeeper. Buy from small local groceries. Ask questions. Know the providence of your food.