The term “raw honey” doesn’t officially mean anything, so it causes a lot of confusion among consumers. Either they want to buy only raw honey, or they want to avoid it entirely. Sadly, the only difference between two packages may be the label. The whole mess reminds me of the “all-natural” debacle: everyone has an opinion of what natural means, but no one knows for sure. The FDA website says, “FDA has not engaged in rule-making to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural.’”
What we mean by “raw honey”
Because of all the confusion, the National Honey Board has come up with its own definition. They describe raw honey as “honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat.” But as the honey board points out, this definition carries no legal weight.
The FDA website says, “It is widely accepted that raw honey is honey which was not filtered or heated above normal ambient temperature.” This, too, contains lots of ambiguity. Does “ambient temperature” mean outside on a hot day or can it mean inside a heated building? And where does straining stop and filtering begin?
Other sources say that raw means unpasteurized, and that the slight amount of heat used to facilitate straining and bottling doesn’t count. Wikipedia says that some “minimally processed” honey is sold as raw. Other sites argue that warming the bottled honey just before sale to make it liquid again also doesn’t count. So where do we draw the line? Is heated honey raw or not? How do you define “heated?” And what is “minimally processed?”
Pasteurized honey is not botulism free
But the confusion runs deep. Due to concerns that honey is unsafe for young infants, many consumers want to buy only pasteurized honey. But that reasoning is flawed. Pasteurized honey is just as unsafe for infants as raw honey because pasteurization does not kill botulism spores.
In situations like these, the word “raw” is construed to mean “not cooked.” With that thought in mind, these consumers reason that if it’s not raw, it must be cooked, and cooking makes it safe for infants. None of this is true. Pressure cooking is required to kill botulism spores, and no one pressure cooks honey.
Raw honey is not like raw meat
While most consumers think raw honey is a good thing, others believe raw honey is somehow unfinished and unsafe—like raw milk or raw meat—or not quite ready to eat, like raw asparagus. I would like to see the word “raw” dropped from honey labeling, but I’m sure it’s here to stay. If beekeepers can sell more honey by calling some of it raw, how can you blame them?
Ambiguous labels are nothing new. I saw some apples at the farmer’s market labeled “gluten free.” They were nearly twice the price of the ones that didn’t mention gluten, even though they probably came from the same tree. Curious, I read the guidelines and discovered that the FDA allows you to label something gluten free even if it is naturally gluten free, like apples.
According to the FDA website, you can even label bottled spring water gluten free. So yes, you can label your honey “raw, all natural, and gluten free” and you’re not breaking any rules, even if you heated it a wee bit now and again.
A sticky subject
Confusion over honey seems to be getting worse, and it sometimes leaves me speechless. Last weekend a women asked if I produce raw honey. I explained that I produce comb honey exclusively. She shrugged and walked away saying, “Oh, too bad. I only eat honey that’s raw.” (Hmm. I wonder if she knows something about my bees that I don’t.)
While I don’t favor government interference in these things, it would be nice if we beekeepers could better describe our product. From the questions I get, the confusion is obvious. Some want it raw, some don’t, but few can say what that means.
Honey Bee Suite