Sprue News: What’s Funny About Your Honey

Photo © Ano Lobb | Flickr

Photo © Ano Lobb | Flickr

Do you buy local honey?

I don’t. I buy the cheap stuff, the kind that comes in an anonymous plastic bear. Every time I go to the store or farmer’s market to stock up, I go with the intention of upgrading this time around. And every time, the price differential meets me halfway and knocks me right back down to the generic bear priced juuust right.

Despite knowing I don’t buy it that often and that I can probably afford to pay a few extra bucks when I do, and despite the insistence of every locavore ever that the taste difference is worth it, I just can’t seem to make myself fork (spoon?) over the extra money for my honey.

But that might have to change.

Mark Bittman posted about “honey laundering” in his This Week in Food post last week. He linked to this summary of the issue on the Business Insider blog. Apparently, he and I are both a bit late to the party; this story has been unfolding for years. Back in August of 2011, the headline being picked up by every blog was “Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves.” (By the way, am I the only one who hears honey is “flooding” the shelves and immediately imagines a viscous tidal wave of honey verrrry sloooowly and stickily overtaking the grocery stores? Is that the whole point of the headline? I don’t know; it took me an embarrassingly long time to get the “honey laundering” joke, so maybe my pun-dar is on the fritz today.)

According to the Food Safety News article, “A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.” Yikes.

According to that same 2011 article, “Another favorite con among Chinese brokers was to mix sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn or rice syrup, jaggery, barley malt sweetener or other additives with a bit of actual honey. In recent years, many shippers have eliminated the honey completely and just use thickened, colored, natural or chemical sweeteners labeled as honey.” As of February of this year, sophisticated laser technology has confirmed that your “honey” bear may be another beast entirely.

Photo © brixton | Flickr

Photo © brixton | Flickr

Apparently much of the “Chinese” honey back in 2011 was actually from India, where it was known to be produced in such a way as to include these dangerous contaminants. Although the EU was firm in rejecting it (apparently they’re more grossed out by tainted honey than horsemeat), the FDA made excuses to welcome it in. Honey contamination is an issue made difficult to control by its international scope and all kinds of export and import regulations that I’m not qualified to explain (read the real news coverage).

If you search the United States Department of Justice archives for honey, you turn up stories about honey smuggling dating back to 2009 and earlier. (You also learn about such fascinating things as honey oil, which is apparently another name for hash oil, “a concentrated, honey-colored liquid” that is “produced by steeping cannabis in liquid butane” and was seized by police in a drug bust in 2005, along with “cheesecake, nut ball, 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies, cookie dough, and 10 pounds of butter”—enough munchies for the entire squad.) Now, finally, the Department of Justice is recognizing the issue and dealing out some charges.

And I’m finally thinking about making some changes to my personal honey consumption, too. Why? Is it because buying cheap honey supports an international smuggling operation? Not really. Is it because the cheap honey might contain antibiotics or lead?

No! It’s because it might contain GLUTEN!

Let me roll that one back for you: cheap honey may be largely composed of sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn or rice syrup, jaggery, barley malt sweetener or other additives. Barley malt? That has gluten! It’s why I can’t eat regular Rice Krispies (though I tried the brown rice ones recently and they’re fine by me).

Since I don’t know whether or not my container of honey includes barley, and this is clearly not a case where I can call the manufacturer directly (since the manufacturer could be in Thailand, or China, or India, or just about anywhere), I’m tossing that silly old bear from my cupboard and replacing it with a brand I can trust.

Is it totally backwards to care more about potential gluten contamination than potential lead poisoning? Maybe. But whatever gets you there, right?

Have you been following the honey controversy and have you ever had a problem with contaminated honey? Do you avoid generic brands and if so, what kind do you prefer to buy? Do your purchasing decisions in general take this kind of issue into account?

P.S. I focused on this particular news story today because it actually relates to the theme of my blog. I did want to note that I’ve been following the story of the explosions in the Boston Marathon and that, thankfully, none of my Bostonian friends and family were anywhere near there. If your loved ones were affected, know that my thoughts are very much with you.

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14 thoughts on “Sprue News: What’s Funny About Your Honey

  1. Anthony says:

    Your honey tidal wave comment gave me flashbacks to the Boston molasses flood of 1919… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Molasses_Flood

  2. I don’t buy generic honey either. I have read about the controversy.

  3. I have a lot of local honey producers and due to the problem with Colony Collapse Disorder, I started purchasing from the locals to help them “stay in bees”. THEN I started to read about the asian “honey”. I am very glad I made the switch. I also switched to local, real maple syrup, too!

  4. Ethan says:

    Whoah! In the DEA bulletin it says direct contact with butane in its liquid form can cause frostbite! That’s cool. What’s not cool is that because hashish, marijuana and other illicit substances aren’t regulated, you never know if your almond flour weed double espresso brownies are *really* GF.

  5. Amanda says:

    I don’t even actually eat honey because it bothers my stomach SOOOOOOOOO RIDICULOUSLY BAD, like worse than gluten. But that’s crazy that it may be contaminated with gluten, though it doesn’t surprise me!

    • Molly says:

      Amanda, just curious—have you experimented with a low-FODMAP plan/gotten checked out for fructose malabsorption? Honey is basically straight fructose, I think.

  6. Mary Kate says:

    I buy local, and switched a few years ago. There’s one local producer that’s reasonably cheap (between the high-end local and the contaminated bears), but I do get the local raw honey most of the time. And I switched primarily because local honey is supposed to help somewhat with environmental allergies, though I think you’d have to eat way more than a spoonful in a cup of tea every few days for that to work. It does taste good. I hadn’t read about this particular issue, but no, I don’t trust the FDA to correctly regulate much of anything for safety. Not because I think that the actual employees are evil or lazy or bad, but more because the people making policy for the FDA do not have food safety at the top of their minds.

  7. Holy crap, that sucks. My husband actually mentioned that to me recently, saying something like, oh by the way, if the honey container doesn’t say 100% honey than it probably isn’t. I was like, awesome. But this really hits it home. Sigh. Going to have to shell out the big bucks. The local stuff does taste better, though. And now I know why. Ha!
    -Dana

  8. Laurie C says:

    I never trusted the stuff in the bears to be unadulterated, but I figured it was just added corn syrup. Does this news mean Brach’s candy corn (made with “real honey”) can’t be trusted either, I wonder?

  9. […] written seriously about books, food, hunger, my own life, love, and doctors. I’ve gotten silly about messiness, sandwiches, […]

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