Honey sounds so sweet, the ultimate natural balm, famed for its healing properties. But it’s beset by not-so-sweet scandal.
According to the Food Fraud Database, it’s in the top three most faked foods in the world, along with olive oil and milk. It’s not cheap either, so if you like a spoonful of honey stirred into your yogurt or spread on toast, it’s worth knowing where your money is going.
There are two main ways that honey is faked. One is adulteration: added sugar syrup, plus a bit of colouring. It’s perfectly legal as long as it’s made clear on the label, so check the small print – the other day I picked up a tempting urn-shaped jar, only to find that while it was indeed a chunk of real honeycomb, the syrup it was bathed in was a mixture of honey and corn syrup.
The other ‘fake’ is real but poor-quality honey passed off as a more expensive kind. It may contain only some of the honey advertised on the label, blended with a cheaper or heavily heat-treated and filtered variety, so it’s lost its subtlety of flavour.
According to Hattie Ellis, author of Spoonfuls of Honey, the best way to spot this is to smell it: ‘If you take the lid off and it smells of boiled sweets, you might as well have sugar syrup.’ Real honey is expensive, she admits, ‘but you need just a teaspoonful to have something quite magical.’ Think of it as a flavouring, not a sugar hit.
But yes, it is sugar, mostly a mixture of glucose and fructose. But that magic is the result of traces of minerals, enzymes and other natural chemicals that come from where the bees feed. This could be a mixture of flowers in a meadow, say, resulting in a multifloral honey, or a single species, which will make for a mono-floral honey.
The flavour and fragrance will be affected by not only the place but the time of year – what was in flower when the honey was made. Looking for a stronger-tasting honey? Choose one with a dark colour, such as chestnut or manuka, as they tend to be higher in trace elements and more deeply flavoured. Turns out that with honey you get a lot for your money.
Bee numbers are in decline. The fall is so severe that in the United States honeybee hives are driven from farm to farm to pollinate crops. In fact, both wild bees and honeybees, which play a vital part in producing three-quarters of the world’s leading crop species, are under threat.
The combined effects of disease, pesticides, climate change and increasing lack of biodiversity are to blame. Bees thrive on a wide-ranging diet, so monocultures – great fields of single crops – can lead to stress and poor health.
This, combined with the struggle to cope with weather extremes, can make bees even more vulnerable to pesticides, of which neonicotinoids are of particular concern as they hamper bees’ ability to navigate and work.
Although use of neonicotinoids has been drastically cut back, earlier this year the Government authorised their use in the east of England to counter the threat to sugar beet crops from the yellows virus, carried by aphids. But honeybees can create a problem themselves.
In cities, where keeping bees is in vogue, increased honeybee numbers are competing with wild bees for the limited numbers of flowers, causing a drop in the wild bee population.
£14.10 for 50g, expresschemist.co.uk
There’s evidence that honey is good as a wound dressing – anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and even drawing out dead cells, thereby encouraging healing – it’s even available on the NHS. Honey for applying to skin needs to be sterile medical-grade honey, not honey from the jar, which may contain botulism spores.
£10 for 225g, waitrose.com
Research in the 1980s found that an antipodean honey made from bees feeding on manuka (of the same family as tea tree) contains a number of beneficial compounds. Manuka honey varies in potency, with MGO rating running from around 55+ to over 1,000+. This is good starter manuka honey from New Zealand, imported by one of England’s oldest honey companies.
£16 for 220g, provenancehub.com
Despite the name, Bermondsey Street Bees Honey is now made in London’s Docklands, where the honeybees don’t outcompete wild populations. This limited-edition is from bees that forage on rewilded former industrial land in east London. It is not heated and is minimally filtered, for an aromatic natural honey.
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