The USDA classifies honey into seven categories of color. These are named as follows:
- Water white
- Extra white
- Extra light amber
- Light 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.