So is it honey or not?

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.




  • Yuck. My honey extracted in August is still runny, clear honey without me needing to do anything to it other than ooze it into a jar and then ooze it on top of porridge.

  • 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.
    Where do they say this? Would you please mention a source?

    • The statement was made in a letter from FDA press officer Tamara Ward to honey industry leaders. It was meant to clarify the definition of adulterated food, which can be found in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act Section 402(b)(1). That citation reads, “A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if any valuable constituent has been in whole or in part omitted or abstracted therefrom.”

  • While asking my original question, I had “United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey published in the FEDERAL REGISTER of April 23, 1985 (50 FR 15861)” in mind. It can be downloaded from USDA’s Website. There states, very openly, that you can excract pollen from honey and its still honey: "§52.1393 Styles. (a) Filtered. Filtered honey is honey of any type defined in these standards that has been filtered to the extent that all or most of the fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have been removed." And even further, the more you filter the higher grade you get, for “filtered honey”. While this federal standard is in effect it would be interesting if FDA –another federal body–has stated something similar to “you can not extract all the pollen from honey and still call it honey”. From your answer, I get the impression that FDA is not officially claiming such. The clarification, the comment of the press officer, even it’s not comparable to a federal standard, would be valuable, for sure, as a standing point for further debate and maybe for altering the standard I mentioned above. So, please forgive me if I’m insisting too much, but is there an easy way for us, the ordinary Internet user, to reach that letter of the press officer?

    • I have spent several days looking for that letter. Even before you wrote I searched for it to no avail. I’m sorry I can’t help you with that.

      You bring up an interesting point about our government. When I was researching for my thesis on pollen contaminants and honey bee health, I frequently found statements coming from either the USDA, FDA, or EPA that directly contradicted statements from the other agencies. It is truly amazing. I believe it is one reason so many companies and individuals “get away” with bad practices. If you don’t like what one agency says, just go to another. It’s one of the downsides to our system of government. Lawmakers are supposed to make laws, so we have layers and layers of rules and regs written for various purposes by different agencies, and no one ever gets rid of those that (should) no longer apply or those that contradict each other.

  • I found this website earlier today. I am looking for some real honey south of Seattle, Washington. I don’t really know where to look for it. Any ideas?

    • Joel,

      By “real honey” I assume you mean raw or comb honey. I would try farmers’ markets. I know down here in Olympia the farmer’s market has several honey stands and the market is open on weekends until Christmas. I don’t know how far south you are, but you could try to find a local beekeeping club and they would surely know someone who will sell their honey.

  • I preload my aquarium filter with diatomaceous earth to “polish” the water. It really clears it up. I can’t imagine honey passes through it very easily.

  • Can any one please tell me how can we use ultra filtration for honey? Is there any machine for it? Or simply choosing the filters of pore size less than 0.1 micron?

  • Dear Rusty,
    Please share with me the method of ultra filtration. How to do it? please tell me if you know. we are looking for ultra filtration and micro filtration of honey. How can we do it? can we do it by simply reducing the pore size of filters and where can we get these filters please share.

    • I know very little about ultra-filtration, but the way I understand it, the honey is forced at high pressure through ultra-fine screens. It’s not something you can do at home because it requires a lot of expensive equipment. You will have to go elsewhere for more information.

      • We are running an industry so I don’t need to filter it at home. Plz share with me some sources or machines for ultra filtration if you know. Or for micro filtration. Thanks.

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