The Buzz about Natural Honey

The sweet stuff's at the center of a sticky controversy

Jun 29, 2012

Winnie the Pooh taught us about more than just sharing. In infinitely sticky situations, the cartoon bear was constantly wrapped up in honey. And where did that honey come from? Beehives. 

These days, the origin of the sweet stuff in your own honey jar is a little more controversial.

Since processed honey has a longer shelf life, grocery stores are likely to carry it instead of locally made honey. But oftentimes these mass-produced brands are made from an ultra-filtering process that involves heating the honey to high temperatures and sometimes even adding water or corn syrup. Once heated, it is filtered at strong pressures to remove the pollen.

Pollen serves as honey’s only fingerprint. Without it, it is impossible to detect the origin of the honey, leaving consumers vulnerable to purchasing illegally imported honey. Industry leaders are particularly concerned about honey imported from China, which has a reputation for poor-quality honey containing additives and lacking pollen.

A recent study conducted by Texas A&M University demonstrated how warped the honey situation actually is in the United States. Vaughn Bryant, a professor at the university and well-known melissopalynologist, measured levels of pollen in honey samples taken from various merchants.

His results indicated that seventy-six percent of grocery store samples had no traces of pollen, while one hundred percent of samples from drugstores and fast-food joints were pollen-free. On the contrary, one hundred percent of samples from farmers’ markets, co-ops and more earthy food stores such as Trader Joe’s had honey chock full of pollen.

Mary Celley, owner of the local vendor The Bee Charmer, stands by the local honey. Speaking of commercial honey, she comments, “A lot of it’s made from a blend of different honey, so you get a mediocre honey. Some of it comes from China, and we don’t know what they do to it, of course. With my honey I don’t use chemicals, but you don’t know what commercial people do to their honey.”

The Food and Drug Administration admits that ultra-filtered honey without pollen is not honey. But even so, their definitions of honey allow for loopholes in the market.

Filtered honey, according to the FDA “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.” But FDA regulations often refer to filtered honey as “honey.” Without proper versing in FDA honey definitions, consumers may not be aware of what they are buying. 

One helpful rule of thumb? Only buy honey with an address. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, law mandates that those selling honey in the state of Wisconsin must include a label on each package they sell. The label must include an address, net weight, grade and any additional ingredients.

Hailing the local honeybee is easy at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Each Saturday, several vendors come to the Capitol Square to sell exclusively honey and honey products. The market is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. from April 21 through July 7, and July 21 through November 10. Read on to find three vendors with obscure honey products worth buzzing about.

Gentle Breeze Honey, Inc.

Owner Eugene Woller knows the buzz about honey—he’s been producing it since 1965. The business, which has a presence at the intersection of West Washington Avenue and the Capitol Square, takes pride in their old-fashioned honeycomb.

Mardsen’s Pure Honey

Dale Mardsen, a thirty-four-year Farmers’ Market veteran, appears on Main Street, across from Park Bank. His claims to fame include cream honey and knottweed honey.

Knottweed is obscure in Madison, as it is typically made in northern Wisconsin. “It’s a nutty flavor, real thick. One year I forgot what I called it and called it hazelnut,” Mardsen says. He anticipates an especially good batch this year due to the increased moisture in the northern part of the state.
Mardsen’s cream honey has the consistency of cream cheese, and is easily spreadable. The flavor is dependent on the honey it comes from, but Madsen describes it as a “sweet, frosting-like flavor. Some has a lemony flavor, wildflower has kind of a butterscotch.”

The Bee Charmer

With thirty years of honey-making experience, Mary Celley, a vendor located on East Main Street, takes pride in her water white honey, particularly of the basswood and black locust varieties, the latter of which she calls the “champagne of honey.” The “sweet and delicate, almost minty” flavors are not easy to come by. “It’s hard to get. A lot of it’s timing, weather and the bee population has to be pretty good to get the nectar,” Celley says.

Photo courtesy of gentlebreezehoney.com.

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