varietal honey

The color of honey

The USDA classifies honey into seven categories of color. These are named as follows:

  • Water white
  • Extra white
  • White
  • Extra light amber
  • Light amber
  • Amber
  • Dark Amber

“White” is one of those odd words. In this case it means “colorless,” in the same way that white vinegar is colorless. White honey is no more white than green, so we just have to deal with the naming scheme.

And it gets even weirder. Color is actually graded on a continuous scale, called the Pfund scale. A Pfund color grader is just a standard amber-colored glass wedge that goes from light to dark. The honey is placed in a wedge-shaped container and compared to the scale, and the place where the color matches is measured from one end of the wedge. So honey color, then, is expressed as a length ranging from 0 to 140 mm. Huh?

Other methods are also used to measure color such as the Lovibond visual comparator used by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. In this type of measurement, a beam of light is passed through the honey and the color is compared to a standard. This is basically the same system used to determine the color of beer.

Although color is not included in the USDA grading system, many producers, packers, and end users of honey are interested in the color. Honey color is a result of the floral nectars that go into it. For the most part, lighter honeys are mild flavored while darker honeys are stronger. However, there are exceptions to the rule. A light honey such as basswood is generally considered strong flavored while the darker tulip poplar is considered mild.

From a human health perspective, darker honey is usually higher in antioxidants than lighter honeys. For example, in a study done at the University of Illinois, buckwheat honey was found to have 20 times as many antioxidants as sage honey.

It turns out that Americans like light honey—the lighter the better—and so water white honey commands a much higher price than the darker honeys. This consumer preference is similar to the American preference for the lightest maple syrup—not the stuff with all the flavor. Go figure.

At any rate, I’ve attached a color conversion chart so you can see how “long” your honey is.

Pfund Scale of Honey Color. From Table 1. United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service. Effective May 23, 1985.

Rusty

35 Comments

  • My mom just pulled out a gallon of honey stored in a plastic container for 20 years.
    The honey has turned black. The lower half of the container has turned to sugar and the top half is liquid. The honey looks like molassas and has a tang to it.
    Is this still edible??

    Why would it turn black? It was an amber color when it was first stored.

    • I don’t know why it’s black. Often when honey crystallizes the part that hasn’t crystallized is darker than the crystallized part, but black is uncommon. When you say it has a tang, do you mean it tastes fermented?

      It is possible the liquid part fermented years ago but, seriously, I don’t know what twenty-year-old fermented honey looks like. Some people like the taste of fermented honey, but I’ve never heard any reports on aged fermented honey. I think you are on your own here. It’s probably safe enough. Taste it and decide whether you’d want to eat it or not.

  • Hi Rusty,

    My name Zahari Zainal (male) from Penang, Malaysia. I am a seller of honey bees. The information you provide is very interesting and can help me distinguish between Southeast Asia and the honey from your country. Thank you

  • Hi,

    I’m really confused about water white honey . This honey came from where? This colour natural or not. Give me some detail,

    • Abraham,

      “Water white” means the honey is nearly clear; it almost looks like water. Nectar of this type comes from certain plants, such as fireweed and some kinds of clover. Many different plants produce it and it it very popular, especially in the U.S.

  • I wish to a picture of honey in bottles. Can you say that it’s white honey coz the color is cream? How do I attach the photo?

    • Green honey can come from a variety of place, anise flowers for example. Growing up beekeeping we would find green honey (it uncapped green and then turned clear overnight). My grandfather said it was from purple loosestrife, although I don’t know if that is accurate.

  • Rusty,

    I was wondering which type of honey has the most nutrients. I have bought clover, straight from the hive, and wildflower honey. The hive was very light in color but the clover and wildflower kindle d was more dark amber.

    • Linda,

      The darker it is, the more nutrients it contains. In fact, the nutrients are at least part of the reason for the color. The most nutrient-dense honey is buckwheat, which is almost black.

  • Hi.
    We just pulled honey that was so dark you can’t see thru it. It smells wonderful and taste strong. It has a slight bitter aftertaste. Is this common?

    • Belinda,

      Sounds delicious! I love dark honey. What you describe sounds similar to buckwheat or tamarisk. Fairly common.

  • I’m skeptic of these bottled honey from a farm in china they look translucent white as cream. Are they safe? I wonder….

    • Vynnze,

      I have no idea what’s in the bottle. But if you are uncomfortable with it, don’t eat it.

    • Linda,

      You are lucky! The color of honey is dependent on what flowers the nectar came from. Dark, molasses-like honey can come from a number of different plants. The darker the honey, the more flavor and the more nutrients it contains. I always look for the darkest honey I can possibly find because I think it is the very, very best.

  • I bought a bottle of black honey from the market. they claim it came from Cambodia. When I taste it, it got a bit of alcohol taste. Is it safe to take this type of honey?

    • James,

      I have no idea what is in your bottle. Honey can be very dark, depending on the source of the nectar. An alcohol taste could mean the honey is beginning to ferment, which means the water content is too high. Those things alone will not make the honey unsafe, but if the honey was adulterated with something else, all bets are off. You really have no way of knowing if it is pure honey or not.

  • I bought some honey that was ordered light amber. It is dark and a strong taste. What I ordered was more on the order of a clover honey color. Where can I find pictures of the range of color grades?

    • Mike,

      I don’t know about photos but the USDA recognizes 7 color categories. From lightest to darkest they are:

      Water white
      Extra white
      White
      Extra light amber
      Light amber
      Amber
      Dark Amber

      So, light amber is definitely on the dark end, although it shouldn’t look black.

  • Hello Rusty,

    I bought a honey and it has an after taste of tamarind… the seller said it is because the bee farm is surrounded with tamarind trees. Is it possible?

    • Dave,

      I suppose anything is possible but, to me, orange blossom honey doesn’t taste like oranges, and apple blossom doesn’t taste like apples, so I kind of doubt tamarind trees would flavor the honey. But who knows? Flavors are very subjective.

    • Hi,

      Black current honey tastes like blackcurrents! There are some floral sources that confer “nasty” tastes to otherwise pleasant honey e.g quintinea, penny royal & phacelia. We look for these pollens to make sure they are used sparingly in blends.

      Thyme honey has a very potent & unique smell that is unpleasant to some & pleasant to others – we can smell it throughout our factory when thyme honey is being handled.

      • I agree about the blackcurrant honey! Several years ago we had hives situated right next to about a dozen blackcurrant bushes. We were very pleasantly surprised to find that the honey tasted ever so slightly of blackcurrant. It was BY FAR my favorite honey that our hives have ever produced.

  • Just brought back some rambutan honey from Vietnam its a dark thick syrup consistency and slight molasses flavor and a slight bitterness like dark chocolate or a stout.

  • Hi,

    I was wondering if the Pfund scale in any way can be connected with the Brix level of honey (how many % sugar the honey consists of), or if you know a way to find out how much of the honey is actually sugar (in a percentage)?

    This interests me since brewing alcohol with honey (mead) would be made much easier to calculate possible end results of flavor and level of alcohol if I could pinpoint how much of the honey that is infact sugar.

    I do have to admit I just ended up on this blog for reasons I do not understand myself, but the question popped up in my head when I saw this thread and I figured I’d just shoot.. Apologizing ahead if this information can be found elsewhere on this website – I can’t admit to have searched for it properly.

  • Rusty, at the end of filtering (stainless sieve over bucket) my sage\buckwheat honey, the last jar after scraping all remains turned out very hazy (no last letter in the alphabet on my key pad sorry) blurry or unfiltered looking. Could it be the capping fines and is it inferior than the rest. Thanks for sharing information.

    • W Byrne,

      That usually results from air bubbles caused by the scraping and handling. Wait a few days and it will probably clear.

  • Hello,

    I’m fascinated with your articles. I’m wondering if you could put another article for the differences in the moisture content of honeys. Thanks

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