Is there a difference between the honey quality of generic supermarket honey and that of specialty honey?
Yes, there is. And with exceptions (such as manuka), honey quality doesn’t greatly affect price. As a result, most people don’t care that much about the quality of the honey they buy as long as it is sweet. And certainly, unless you have sampled the good stuff, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
I grew up on generic store brands like Billy Bee, which are mixed-source, highly filtered, and pasteurized. Often, these store brands aren’t even honey (see recent article: “Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey“). After years of eating real honey, I have had the opportunity to taste generic store ‘honey’ again, and it doesn’t much resemble actual honey to me. I’ve had similar reactions to generic, big brand peanut butter with bizarre ingredient lists and real peanut butter that contains nuts and only nuts. I am not sure how I ever ate the other stuff – all I can taste now is the sugar and butter and chemicals in it. Just so with honey. The taste is bland and sugary, with little reminder that honey comes from plants originally.
In general, the lower the moisture level, the better the honey quality. Honey starts out as nectar – sugar water. Bees add enzymes of their own and put the nectar through an elaborate process that removes water from the nectar until the result is the sticky substance with a water content of between approximately 14-18%. This is unprocessed honey.
Why should we care about the water content of honey? Raw honey contains sugar-tolerant active yeasts, such as osmophilic yeast. With sugar, water and warmth, it will survive and ferment. The resulting increase in acidity is an indicator of poor quality honey.
Do a quick and dirty test of water content when you are buying honey by turning the jar upside down. The faster any existing bubbles in the honey flow to the top, the higher the moisture content, and therefore, the lower the honey quality.
Pasteurized vs Unpasteurized
Pasteurization is a process that makes food ‘safe’ and increases shelf life by reducing the number of bad micro-organisms (pathogens) that can cause disease when consumed. There are various methods described for pasteurizing honey, but generally, you heat it quickly to 63 Celsius (145 F), hold the temperature for at least 4 minutes (some say hold at 30 minutes), and then cool it down quickly.
Is pasteurization of honey needed though? In high-sugar environments, most bacteria growth is not supported. Yes, honey can contain the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum. Under stressed conditions, such as extreme temperatures or pH levels, this bacterium will create spores (spore development in bacteria, fungi and yeasts is a survival mechanism). The spores give off a toxin, botulinum, which produces the rare illness, botulism, when consumed. These spores are not killed through the pasteurization process. You need much higher temperatures to kill spores.
Basically, the process kills off sugar-tolerant yeasts. It also kills off all helpful enzymes that exist in honey. The colour is often darkened, and taste and odour of the honey can also be affected. So, in a nutshell, to extend shelf life, pasteurization reduces overall honey quality.
Monofloral vs Multifloral
During very specific times of year in specific locations, especially when you have very large crops of specific types of flowering plants, it is possible to collect honey from bees that have visited only one type of plant. The resulting honey is ‘monofloral’ or coming from one type of flower. These types of honey are often more expensive and can often have a specific taste, colour and/or other quality simply because you can only get them at certain times of year and there is a limited amount available. Depending on the plant, the honey quality can be exquisite, and there are certain types that are coveted and much sought after. Multifloral honeys are still excellent, but more common. It is impossible to tell the exact composition of these honeys without analysis. In fact, each batch processed is a little different as the foraging of bees is neither within a beekeeper’s control nor intentional on the part of the bees themselves.
High Demand, Crop-Specific, Monofloral Honey
: (New Zealand) from the manuka bush/tea tree plant, dark colour; intense, rich flavour.
: (Hawaii) from the ‘Ohi’a Lehua tree, light golden colour, gentle flavour, creamy in texture.
: (Southern Appalachians, USA) from the sourwood tree, light to medium amber colour; deep, spicy flavour.
: (warm climates, worldwide) pale, golden colour; mild, flowery taste; does not crystallize.
White Tupelo Honey
: (southeastern US) from the tupelo gum tree; light amber with greenish tint;
Organic vs Chemical Honey
I am a great supporter of organic farming and gardening, and I believe, wherever possible, buying organic is best. And that doesn’t mean that it has to be government-stamped, as of course, this stamp doesn’t mean that chemicals are not present in or on the food.
I’d be hard-pressed to say that I could tell the difference between organic and chemical honey just by taste. For me, it is the principle. I don’t like to support chemical farmers, and likewise, I don’t like to support chemical bee farmers. I believe it is bad for the environment, bad for the health of everyone (of all species) living in the environment, and bad for food or honey quality. This is mostly an ethical issue for me – organic honey = high honey quality.
Grade – Colour
Different countries grade honey by colour and clarity. The following designations are used in some countries. I’ve included some examples of honeys that fall into each category. In general, North Americans tend to value water white honeys. They are clear and quite mild. It is a matter of personal taste however – there are many dark, monofloral honeys that have unique, wonderful flavours.
Color Standards Designations
: Basswood, Clover, Lehua, Fireweed, Vipers Bugloss
: Acacia, Alfalfa, Clover, Orange Blossom, Sage
: Alfalfa, Clover, Cotton, Sourwood, Summer Thistle
Extra Light Amber
: Alfalfa, Clover, Macadamia, Mesquite, Orange Blossom, Sourwood, Star Thistle, Wild Rose
: Alfalfa, Blueberry, Clover, Eucalyptus, Palmetto, Raspberry, Sourwood, Sunflower, Tupelo
: Clover, Cranberry, Goldenrod, Pumpkin, Tulip Poplar, Wildflower
: Avocado, Buckwheat, Heather, Soy Blossom, Tulip Poplar