Navigating honey labels

Outside of its purity and source of origin, the main criteria to consider when buying honey is whether the honey has been irradiated (see more on this here) and the extent to which honey has been filtered or heated which should be evident from the label to the discerning customer; provided always that the relevant honey producer complies with applicable labeling regulations with any failure to do so being an indictment on the honey producer which warrants assessing the quality of the product with a healthy degree of scepticism.  Irradiation, sudden heating, or excessive heating and unnecessary filtration will destroy most of the honey’s beneficial properties.

Honey labels can be confusing in that it is often not so much about what is being said on the label but rather about what the label does not say –

Is the honey local?

Honey production in South Africa is estimated at about 2 000 tonnes per year (or less) but consumption is estimated to be at about 7 000 tonnes.  On this basis, 70% or more of all honey on shelf in South Africa is imported with more than 88% of the imports likely to be from China.  South African honey is generally considerably more expensive than imported honey which creates an incentive for unconscionable producers to pass-off honey as South African honey when it is not or contains only a negligible amount of South African honey.  Obvious examples of that are honey labels which refer to the country of origin being “South Africa and Zambia” or include a reference to “South Africa” followed by a whole long list of other countries names.

Our Peel’s products are proudly South African with all our honey being local honey – see our labels below.

Has the honey been irradiated?

Look for the country of origin on the label and know that substantially all honey imported into South Africa has to be irradiated by law and, if the honey has been irradiated, the label needs to state as much (see more on this here).

Has the honey been heated?

Almost all honey is heated at some stage during processing in order to extract or bottle the honey and retard crystallisation of honey to prolong its shelf life in liquid form.  Heating in itself does not affect the beneficial properties of honey negatively provided that the honey is heated gradually and not too much.  Heating honey excessively destroys the beneficial properties of honey and is directly linked to an increase in hydroxymethylfurfural levels (HMF) in the honey which increases significantly if honey is heated above 55 degrees Celsius – the HMF levels are thus generally used as a proxy to determine the extent to which honey has been heated.  Also, any honey that has been heated above 38 degrees Celsius (being ‘hive temperature’) can no longer be sold as “unheated honey” and any honey that has been heated to more than 55 degrees Celsius can then no longer be sold as raw honey. 

Unless honey is labelled as unheated honey, you should assume that it has been heated to more than hive temperature at some stage during processing and unless honey is labelled as raw honey, you should assume that it has been heated significantly.  In terms of applicable laws, honey sold for consumption should be labelled as either “choice grade” or “raw” depending on the extent and type of processing it has undergone.

Has the honey been filtered? 

Although beehives are naturally exceptionally clean, honey is a natural product and harvesting and extraction of honey is a messy process. A degree of straining is, therefore, necessary to clean honey and remove fine particles, including bee parts, beeswax and solids.

However, all forms of filtration result in a loss of some of the honey’s beneficial properties (including pollen content) and in order to classify honey as raw honey or unfiltered, the honey must only have been strained through a sieve by its own weight – honey that is not specifically labelled as raw honey or unfiltered honey has most probably been filtered and you should assume as much. 

There is no good reason for excessive filtration of honey other than to achieve the ulterior motive of disguising the true geographic origin of honey (by actively removing pollen) to avoid the honey being traced to particular flowers and thus their geographic origin.  Any honey that has abnormally low pollen count should therefore be treated with some suspicion.

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