Honey so bland it’s boring

Phillip over at Mudsongs.org wrote a post titled, “What Makes Honey Taste Bland?” after he purchased a container of local honey that was labeled “Pure liquid Canadian honey — Canada No. 1 White.” He questions why the honey tasted like “a bottle of Elmer’s Glue.” For now I will sidestep the obvious question—how he knows it tastes like glue—and get back to the honey.

I know nothing about Canadian food laws, but here in the states you can make all kinds of statements on your label. Certain words are practically meaningless, including “pure” and “natural” and “healthy”–which is some kind of perverted synonym for “healthful.” As far as I know, we have no numbers, as in “No. 1” but you can claim it on your label. We do have grades A, B, C but they are seldom used.

The word “local” is probably the same, after all, what is local? Who defines it? Who monitors it? Remember that you can buy boxes and boxes of labels from your handy bee supply catalog that claim all these things and more, and then you just stick them anywhere you want.

Again referring to the states, “white” is a color description that is defined by the USDA and refers to honey that is virtually clear. North Americans like light-colored foods and actually pay more for white honey than darker honeys. In my opinion, that is the chief source of the bland problem.

Light-colored foods generally have fewer “optional extras” in them—and this is especially true of honey. A dark honey is packed with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, and random particles that cause it to explode with flavor. As the honeys get lighter they become sweeter and less flavorful. The same can be said for maple syrup: the darker Grade B stuff is definitely more flavorful than the more expensive Grade A. Brown sugar is more flavorful that white sugar. Dark bread is tastier than white bread.

In his post Phillip doesn’t say what the honey container was made from, but most things stored in plastic eventually taste like plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum and a bunch of chemicals, many of which eventually leave the product and end up in your food or water or air. Things that are warm or highly acidic seem to accelerate this problem, so if you put warm honey in a plastic container, it’s eventually going to taste like plastic. No contest.

Warming honey drives off some of the flavor compounds and destroys others. Filtering removes the bits and pieces of stuff—including wax and pollen—that gives honey its nuanced flavors. And then there’s mixing. The most prized honeys in the world are varietals, and even though they contain more than one type of nectar, they taste like the predominant nectar. Once you start mixing everything together, those unique tastes are lost or disguised. Even if you are not producing varietal honey from your own hives, your honey has a signature taste based on the available forage. Mix that with twenty other sources of honey and the magic is lost.

McDonald’s and many of the other fast food giants made it big by producing flavors that were 100% re-producible. They want people to feel secure that wherever they buy their next Big Mac it will taste just like the last one. The big honey packers do this as well. The average consumer wants his honey to taste just like the last honey—bland and sweet–and by heating, filtering, mixing, and plasticizing, the packers can make it happen. And from what I learned yesterday, you can even throw in some diatomaceous earth and remove all the pollen. Somehow, I can’t imagine the process does much to enhance the flavor.

So that’s my answer to the first question. Now, Phillip, about the glue . . .




  • About Canadian Rules and Regs: The label “Canada No. 1 White” has three parts. First “Canada” means that the majority of the honey is of Canadian origin (being “local” honey, I should hope so). If the majority of the honey is imported, we would use “Grade No. 1 White” this is a recent shift to make it easier to identify Canadian honey on the shelf. Before this they were all labeled “Canada No. etc”. . .

    The second part of the label “No. 1” indicates the grade in terms of moisture and foreign material. For the No. 1 designation the honey must be no more than 17.8% moisture and leave no residue after passing through a US National Bureau of Standards standard 80-mesh screen. This will remove all the wax, bee parts, etc. but leave all or the majority of the pollen in the honey. Most grocery store honeys are filtered somewhat finer than this.

    The third part of the label “White” is a colour grade. White is the lightest colour class we have available for packaged honey, although bulk honeys can be graded “extra white.” As a general rule of thumb, the lighter the honey the less flavourful (although there are some delightful white honeys available). Most of what’s available in Canada, at least in our major honey producing areas is a mixture of clover and alfalfa, and sometimes canola, all of which are particularly boring honeys, although, if you’re going for a blend with consistency, this is it.

    If you want a bit of an expansion of this comment, checkout my blog beekeepereric.blogspot.com later today


    • Eric,

      Thanks for the information–it makes the post a lot more meaningful for my Canadian readers, of which there are many.

      I’ll be sure to check out your post.

  • What red blooded North American male doesn’t eat glue at some time in his life? Where I grew up in Nova Scotia, everyone ate glue. It was great. Ain’t no glue like Elmer’s glue we used to say.

    Thanks for expanding on this topic for me, by the way. I’ll drop by again next week when I have more time.

  • Maybe the bland flavour comes from the malt sweeteners or rice syrup mixed into the honey to hide the acrid taste of the contaminated Chinese honey possibly imported as rice fructose. In 2010 Canada imported $15 million of honey mostly from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Chinese honey launderers have been using Australia for some time and we know how Chinese honey is being imported to North America. The CFIA “encourages” packing facilities to test their imported honey but say due to poor compliance in the past they may test honey from “suspect” countries (http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/honmiel/cdnreqe.shtml). The CFIA only tests a small amount of the imported honey and one wonders what countries it considers “suspect”.

  • He’s right about the “big chain” brands, those little squeeze bottles you buy at the supermarket do taste “unnatural” and “unpleasant” with none of the exciting body that real local honey presents. We have a few large local producers in the area (1000+ hives) and their honey tastes just fine; it seems to be that multi-province / national stuff that gets to tasting like glue. Just like bread once you start making your own, you can’t go back to the store stuff. “Shudders.”

  • Oh hey guys – how do I get you some of our local “White Honey” from Black Locust blossoms? I wouldn’t call it bland – it is delicate, but also intense, and floral. The top prizes at our country fair always go to the beekeeper with the best White Honey.
    We tasted some drips of it last week checking hives. Awesome.

  • There are lots of options for tasteless honey but not so many choices where the beekeeper gently handled the crop and then had the financial wisdom to NOT sell his hard work to a middle man (who then rakes off half to two thirds of the proceeds). This business strategy of course requires marketing skill, perseverance and building a client base. Imho even the grading system is totally designed to bilk the producer. No need to bring your pretty tasteless honey here since the customers here will not buy that tasteless sweet stuff. May be wrong… but much of the honey sold in stores in Canada is pasteurized and tasteless.

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