A lot of press has surrounded a story that recently appeared in Food Safety News. The writer of the piece insisted that 76% of all supermarket honey is not honey at all. The reason? It contains no pollen. And it contains no pollen because it is processed by ultra-filtration.
The article claims that ultra-filtration is used to disguise cheap imported honey that is often contaminated by heavy metals and antibiotics. When pollen is removed from honey, it is no longer traceable to its geographical region of origin. This is because the flora—the combination of plants growing in different areas of the world—is easily traced by identifying the pollen grains.
As so often happens in the press, details were missing and others were incorrect. The best re-cap of the problem I have seen is in an NPR article entitled “Relax, Folks. It really is Honey After All.”
Part of the confusion stems from the definition of honey used by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That organization states that if honey has been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen, it cannot be labeled as honey. In fact, this is true. And the resulting product is so unlike honey that in some countries it is used as a flavorless sweetener for soft drinks.
However, other processes—not nearly as drastic as ultra-filtration—are also used to filter pollen. One of the most popular of these uses diatomaceous earth. The diatomaceous earth is added to the honey before it is pressed through filters, a process that removes insect parts, dust, and wax bits, as well as the pollen and diatomaceous earth.
Honey packers claim that removing all particulates from the honey delays crystallization because crystals form easily around a nucleus, which is merely a solid piece of something or even a bubble. Consumers—especially American consumers—want their honey clear and flowing, so filtration is a marketing tool that increases shelf-life. American honey packers say they remove pollen not to disguise the honey’s origin but to provide the product Americans consumers want.
All the confusion has arisen from the missing pollen. The Food Safety News article implied that if the pollen is missing, the honey was ultra-filtered, but the honey packing industry insists it removes pollen in ways that do not destroy the honey.
So there you have it. My personal take on the entire issue is simple: Diatomaceous earth? Really? Buy your honey from a beekeeper.