It tastes great but can we call it honey? Because there are high chances that the golden brown elixir you pour over your warm toast, is just an imposter.
Most might buy a jar of honey based on the price point or even the brand but very few tend to read the ingredients printed on it. Today, British beekeepers are calling out supermarkets and other retail stores to label the jars of honey clearly, because international studies show that “part of the global supply is bulked out with sugar syrup (MDPI)”. Moreover, the worst part of it all is that the one-ingredient honey is the third most faked food in the world, right after milk and olive oil, as reported by Apisprotect.com.
Over the past few years, honey from certain parts of Asia, is being reported to contain toxins like lead and other heavy metals, as well as drugs like chloramphenicol, which is a potentially harmful antibiotic that has been added to jars of ‘honey’ to increase its shelf life.
So, where does this deception start?
It all starts with the manufacturing process, wherein manufacturers dilute raw honey with plant-based syrups like high-fructose corn syrup or beet syrup. These manufacturers, then chemically modify the sugars in those syrups to give the impression of real honey through processes. This was as reported during the fake honey scandal ‘Operation Honeygate’ that rocked the US food industry in 2013.
Once stored in jars, the branding added along with the word ‘raw’ before it is shipped off and placed on the designated aisles of a supermarket. The term is ‘honey laundering’!
As honey is a much-loved ingredient in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines, the Gulf News Food team thought a quick bit of awareness and understanding about what you are stirring into your warm bowl of porridge each morning might be helpful, especially as the region offers some of the finest honeys in the world including the famed ‘Sidr’.
We spoke to Riath Hamed, the founder of Balqees Honey in Dubai, who gave us a peek into his world of honey production, honeybees, beekeepers and a jar of real and raw honey.
The first step is distinguishing between real and fake honey
“Distinguishing between raw honey and commercial honey is difficult because there is a lack of education in the marketplace. Unfortunately, commercial honey operations that sell in bulk, and are re-packed for supermarket shelves, are often adulterated, honey. The commercial honey packers buy cheap honey from across the world over, blend all the varieties then super-filter, and pasteurise rendering the honey almost like a syrup that has no health-promoting benefits whatsoever. This commercial process is done so the product can be standardised to look exactly the same colour (usually golden) and texture to almost mimic a manufactured product.
“However, raw honey is the opposite and the ethical honey producers and traders will sing from the rooftop to clearly label the products as being raw to distinguish themselves. Also, ethical traders and beekeepers will define honey clearly as monofloral or polyfloral varieties, which indicate whether the bees forage primarily on single-source nectar. This is specific to Sidr honey, buckwheat or acacia, or multiple sources of nectars, which are termed as wildflowers. Raw honey, is in its essence, is defined by its name and is sourced and packed in a natural state without being subjected to external processing and heat that robs it of its goodness. Reading the label is key and if the word ‘raw’ is not mentioned then it is safe to assume that this jar of honey is commercial and highly processed.”
What it means to the bees and the beekeepers
How much fake honey is produced? The answer to this question is still up for debate.
“The challenges of maintaining the quality of honey begins at the source and that’s to do with ethical beekeeping and being in an environment that has floral and climatic diversity. The way honey is produced, the region or sources of nectar and the packing in a temperature-controlled area determines the quality of the product.
“The challenges of producing quality honey depends on many factors that relate to climate change, maintaining bee-health, pollution-free environment that’s free of pesticides and adopting best beekeeping practices. However, one of the biggest threats beekeepers have is competing with cheap adulterated, super filtered and pasteurised honey that’s being sold as genuine health-promoting honey. Unfortunately, all honey is not created equal and there is again a lack of education in the marketplace that doesn’t distinguish between regular commercial honey and raw honey,” said Hamed.
In addition to this, adulterated honey can also drive prices down by a great margin. Therefore, the gain is that you can save a few notes, but you could be paying for it later on in the long run due to the adverse effects adulterated honey can have.
“Beekeeping is one profession which allows you to embrace the outdoor existence and being in the heart of Nature surrounded by bees that produce honey. Personally, I work with a beekeeper called Tom who lives on the South Island of New Zealand, who is responsible for producing a variety of medicinal honey specifically Manuka and Black Beech HoneyDew … Tom is one of the most ethical beekeepers I know, and it is the reason his honey is delicious.
“His ethical approach allows bees to feed off their own honey during the winter. Beekeeping is not an easy job and the climate can be unforgiving, and bees are susceptible to getting sick from diseases, but not using conventional harsh chemicals and using more natural organic alternatives is something that is adopted.”
However, this is not true in many cases, especially when it comes to mass manufacturing honey units. As per Petakids.com, “Just like cows, chickens, and other animals who are factory-farmed, bees are often treated poorly, injured, and forced to live in cramped conditions, and they must endure the stress of being transported.
“When a new queen bee is about to be born, a process called ‘swarming’ occurs, when the old queen and half the colony leave their home. They set up in a new place that worker bees have found for them to begin a new colony. Since swarming means that less honey will be produced, many beekeepers try to prevent it — often by clipping the delicate wings of the new queen or killing and replacing the older queen.
“Bees need their honey to survive in the winter. It’s made with certain nutrients that they must have, and a colony needs around 60 pounds of honey in order to make it through the cold months. Oftentimes, large honey businesses will take a hive’s honey and replace it with a cheap sugar substitute that’s not as healthy for the insects.”
How has the UAE paved the way for ethical honey production?
The UAE has taken concerted steps to reduce the problems by setting up one honeybee farm at a time. In addition to educating the public about preserving honeybees.
Resident to the country is the Ghaf, a drought-tolerant tree that can withstand changing climates. It blooms on an average of 30 to 36 days during the summer months, during which bees use the nectar to produce a delicious batch of honey.
Sidr and Samar honey are also common in the UAE, except that these trees are rooted in Yemen. “We work with a community of beekeepers in Yemen who produce raw Samar and raw Sidr (among other honey like the very rare Cave Honey) honey, using traditional beekeeping methods in the countryside, far away from the cities. The land is almost untouched and the soil is rich, which is how we can maintain the quality of honey produced,” explained Hamed.
Why is it essential to preserve honeybees in the long run?
Did you eat well-toasted bread and a hot cup of black coffee today morning? Thank a bee
Honeybees hold the key to the future. A keystone species, destroying them would cost the universe more than just a jar of honey. For starters, honeybees are at the heart of the battle against climate change. According to conservation.org, the decline of bees is due to global warming. Other causes include loss of habitat and urbanisation.
In addition to this, bees and other pollinators impact 35 per cent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide, according to Fao.org (Food and Agriculture Organization). Moreover, bees also help pollinate the majority of the planet’s wild plants, which support and promote healthy ecosystems.
How do you test your honey?
Real honey contains natural ingredients of nutrients, living enzymes and minerals. How do you determine the purity and quality of honey? There are specific home tests you can consider.
Check the ingredients
As we mentioned before, honey is a one-ingredient product. If anything other than honey is mentioned on the back of the jar, chances are you have a fake bottle after all.
Check the price
If your bottle of honey is relatively cheap, that means you’re not buying natural honey fresh out of the hive. Real honey is slightly more expensive depending on which tree or plant it is sourced from.
Turn it upside down
One of the easiest ways to check the quality of honey is by turning the jar upside down. Fake honey will start to drip as soon it piles up to the bottom, whereas natural honey will continue flowing in a thin thread-like manner.
The drip test requires you to submerge a utensil like a chopstick of the back of a spoon into the jar of honey and pull it out. If it drips again after a while, you don’t have natural honey. But, if it continues to flow even after a time, you can trust that bottle of honey.
You can pour a considerable amount of honey into a glass of water at a temperature of 70C. If the honey settles, it’s raw. Whereas if it dissolves, it’s fake.
Another way to determine the quality of honey is by pouring water and shaking it vigorously. You have raw honey if the honey forms a thick foam at the surface with large air bubbles. If the foam goes away after a while, you will know that the honey you purchased isn’t raw enough.
In addition to this, you can stick to tests that use your senses. For example, natural honey isn’t sticky. If it sticks to your fingertips, the reason behind it is because of the sweeteners added to it. The taste of pure honey also vanishes moments after consumption, whereas fake honey remains longer due to sugar. You will also differentiate pure honey from false honey based on its consistency. The thicker it is, the purer the honey. Fake honey has a runny consistency.
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