The next time you find yourself in the honey aisle of your grocery store, debating between a pricy premium, artisanal honey and the store-brand nectar contained in a plastic bear, you might want to think twice before choosing based on price.
That's because a searing investigation of the honey market by Food Safety News found that 76% of all honey bought at grocery stores were treated with a process called "ultra-filtration," which removes not only impurities like wax, but also all traces of pollen. And of the types of brands at grocery stores, the ones that were far-and-away the most likely to be ultra-filtered were generic brands.
There are issues with ultra-filtration in general -- many believe that pollen, and other so-called "impurities," are actually beneficial to human health, and make honey a better choice than rival sweeteners like sugar. And there doesn't seem to be any serious benefit to the process; it's expensive and doesn't significantly improve shelf-life, even though some manufacturers claim it does.
But according to FSN, the biggest reason to avoid ultra-filtered honey is that pollen is the only sure-fire way to trace the source of honey to a geographic location. As a result ultra-filtered honey is often used to mask the shady origins of certain kinds of honey -- especially Chinese honey, which is subject to heavy import tariffs on account of its frequent contamination by heavy metals and illegal antibiotics. Chinese honeymakers ultra-filter their honey, and then ship it through byzantine paths, to sneak their sham product onto American grocery shelves without being hit with a tariff.
Many have called for the FDA to do more to prevent adulterated and smuggled honey from landing on grocery shelves, but the group has so far shrugged off the burden.
The EU, for its part, just changed labeling regulations to require that honey containers list "pollen" as an ingredient, when it is one, despite the objections of some honey farmers, who call pollen intrinsic to their produce.
In the meantime, though, worried consumers do have a good option: buying honey from farmers' markets and natural food stores. The FSN investigation found that few, if any, of the honeys sold there had been subject to ultra-filtration.