Fake Honey

Fake Honey! The Shocking Truth…

Written by: Vincent Pedre M.D. | May 2, 2024 | Time to read 14 min

Imagine drizzling what you think is honey over your morning toast, only to discover it's devoid of any real honey benefits. Shocking, right? Here's why your supermarket honey might not be what it seems.

Honey plays a huge role in the American diet, with about half a billion pounds of it ending up in our food every year, much of it in processed foods like cereal. Given that honey is the third most counterfeited food globally, trailing only behind milk and olive oil, this is cause for concern...

Over three-fourths of the honey available in U.S. grocery stores does not match what bees naturally produce. Exclusive testing by Food Safety News has shown that the majority of these products lack pollen, an essential component that many global food safety agencies require for a substance to be considered honey.

The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies.

The World Health Organization, the European Commission, and dozens of other food safety authorities also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration clearly says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. However, the FDA isn’t checking honey sold in grocery shelves nationwide to see if it contains pollen.

Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign that it’s real honey. It is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years. (Chen, et al., 2020 ; Jones Ritten et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2020).

Sweet Deception

Groceries flooded with Indian honey were banned in Europe as unsafe because of contamination with antibiotics, heavy metals and a total lack of pollen, which does not allow its true source of origin to be tracked. Food Safety News launched an investigation that involved purchasing and testing over 60 jars, jugs, and plastic containers of honey from various outlets across 10 states and the District of Columbia. Vaughn Bryant, a leading melissopalynologist, a scientist who specializes in the study of pollen in honey, from Texas A&M University, analyzed these samples. The findings were alarming:

  • 76% of honey from grocery stores had all pollen removed. ( stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers)

  • All honey samples from drugstores had no pollen. (Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy)

  • All honey packaged in small individual portions had no pollen. (Smucker, McDonald’s and KFC — hmm, is it really honey???)

  • 77% of samples from major box stores also lacked pollen. (Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B)

  • Not surprisingly, all honey purchased from farmers' markets and natural stores had the expected amounts of pollen. (PCC and Trader Joe’s)

The National Honey Board, a federal research and promotion organization under USDA oversight, says the bulk of foreign honey (at least 60 percent or more) is sold to the food industry for use in baked goods, beverages, sauces and processed foods. Food Safety News did not examine these products for their investigation.

Some U.S. honey packers didn’t want to talk about how they process their merchandise. One who did was Bob Olney, of Honey Tree Inc., in Michigan, who sells its Winnie the Pooh honey in Walmart stores. Bryant’s analysis of the contents of the container made in Winnie’s image found that the pollen had been removed. Ernie Groeb, the president and CEO of Groeb Farms Inc., which calls itself “the world’s largest packer of honey,” says he makes no specific requirement to the pollen content of the 85 million pounds of honey his company buys.

Groeb sells retail under the Miller’s brand and says he buys 100 percent pure honey, but does not “specify nor do we require that the pollen be left in or be removed. … We buy basically what’s considered raw honey. We trust good suppliers. That’s what we rely on.” Traditional beekeepers argue that while basic filtering to remove visible impurities is standard, ultra-filtering that removes pollen is unnecessary and detrimental to the quality of honey.

Why Is Pollen Important?


Pollen is essential in honey for several crucial reasons. It confirms the honey's origin and ensures it retains all its natural health benefits, such as antioxidants and enzymes that boost immune function and overall health. These substances give honey its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties, making it a valuable addition to a healthy diet.

Moreover, pollen helps trace the geographic and botanical source of honey, which is vital for ensuring it comes from environments free of pesticides and unethical beekeeping practices. This traceability ensures consumers are getting high-quality, pure honey, not products that might be contaminated or adulterated.

Therefore, the presence of pollen in honey is a direct indicator of its quality, safety, and ethical production. It's not just about ensuring honey's health benefits, but also about protecting consumers from potentially unsafe products and supporting fair trade practices in the honey industry.

If Pollen is Good, Why Remove It?

Removal of all pollen from honey “makes no sense” and is completely contrary to marketing the highest quality product possible, Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told Food Safety News. He doesn’t know of any U.S. producer that would want to do that, as the elimination of all pollen can only be achieved by ultra-filtering and this filtration process does nothing but cost money and diminish the quality of the honey.

In his judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey. And it’s even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law.

Richard Adee, whose 80,000 hives in multiple states produce 7 million pounds of honey each year, told Food Safety News that “honey has been valued by millions for centuries for its flavor and nutritional value and that is precisely what is completely removed by the ultra-filtration process.”

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it”

It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China.

The Controversy Over Chinese Honey

Chinese honey has been under the microscope for a while, raising eyebrows not just because of quality concerns, but also due to the ethical and safety issues surrounding its importation into the U.S. Back in 2001, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down with heavy tariffs to protect our local beekeepers from being undercut by low-priced, subsidized honey from China. But this didn't stop the problem; it merely changed its course. Crafty methods like transshipping—where Chinese honey is sent to other countries, repackaged, and then shipped again with falsified documents to skirt tariffs—have made it really hard to track the true origin of honey entering the U.S.

There's clearly a big need for better regulation here. The FDA has been strapped, either due to limited interest or resources, leading to sporadic and often insufficient inspection efforts. There have been instances where harmful contaminants like chloramphenicol, a dangerous antibiotic, were found in Chinese honey, posing serious health risks. Even with these known dangers, a significant amount of potentially harmful, mislabeled honey has slipped through the cracks and found its way into major U.S. food producers' products.

In response, some concerned packers have started conducting their own tests for adulterants like high fructose corn syrup and illegal antibiotics, though these tests can’t always trace back to the honey's geographical origins. The real deal in verifying the source of honey is analyzing its pollen—a method so precise that only a handful of labs worldwide can perform it effectively. However, as fast as we develop methods to detect these discrepancies, those involved in honey laundering are just as quick to find new loopholes, making it a challenging battle for food safety authorities.

Adulterants Found in Chinese Honey

Adultered Honey? Oh, my!

Honey adulteration involves the addition of substances such as sugar syrups, artificial sweeteners, water, flavors, colors, and even unintended contaminants like antibiotics or heavy metals to pure honey. This practice is primarily driven by economic incentives, as adulterants are significantly cheaper than natural honey, allowing for increased profit margins.

Adulterated honey is often indistinguishable to the average consumer, making it a widespread issue in the global market. This not only deceives consumers but can also undermine the health benefits associated with pure honey, potentially introducing harmful substances into the diet. As a result, it's crucial for consumers to purchase honey from reputable sources and check for quality certifications to ensure they are getting a pure product.

Common adulterants in honey include:

  1. Sugar Syrups: This is the most common type of adulteration in honey. Syrups derived from sugars such as corn syrup, cane sugar, beet sugar, or high fructose corn syrup are added because they are much cheaper than natural honey.

  2. Other Sweeteners: Cheaper sweeteners like glucose solution, invert sugar, molasses, and other syrups that may be derived from dates, figs, or other sweet fruits.

  3. Antibiotics: Beekeepers sometimes use antibiotics to protect bees from diseases, but residues can end up in the honey, which is considered adulteration, especially since certain antibiotics are banned for use in food-producing animals in many countries.

  4. Water: Adding water to honey is another form of adulteration, used to increase its weight and volume.

  5. Flavors and Colors: Some manufacturers add artificial flavors and colors to honey to enhance its appeal and mimic the properties of high-quality honey from specific plants or regions.

  6. Heavy Metals: Although not intentionally added, contamination with heavy metals like lead can occur through processing equipment or environmental pollution.

Honeygate: Calls for Stricter FDA Honey Standards

Experts and industry leaders are calling for the FDA to establish stricter standards for honey to ensure safety and authenticity. The FDA's stance on 'ultra-filtered' honey, which removes crucial pollen, has been clear—they don't consider it honey. Despite this, the agency admits to not halting imports because it hasn't “detected” such honey.

However, skepticism runs high in the industry, with many believing the FDA checks less than 5% of all foreign honey shipments. The issue is compounded by the FDA's hesitance to engage with experts or review analyses that highlight the risks of pollen removal. Internationally, bodies like the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius and the European Union stress that removing pollen not only hinders the ability to trace honey's origins, but also poses safety risks. 

The Rainbow of Honey Varieties

There is an enormous variety among honeys. They range in color from glass-clear to dark mahogany and in consistency from watery to chunky to crystallized solid. The taste, aroma, and color of the honey produced by bees are significantly influenced by the specific plants and flowers from which they collect nectar. It is the processing that controls the texture.

Food historians say that in the 1950s the typical grocery might have offered three or four different brands of honey. Today, a fair-sized store will offer 40 to 50 different types, flavors and sources of honey out of the estimated 300 different honeys made in the U.S.. And with the attractiveness of natural food and the locavore movement, honey’s popularity is burgeoning. Unfortunately, with it comes the potential for fraud.

Concocting a sweet-tasting syrup out of cane, corn or beet sugar, rice syrup or any of more than a dozen sweetening agents is a great deal easier, quicker and far less expensive than dealing with the natural brew of bees.

An Easy At-Home Honey Test

As a consumer you can “test” liquid honey as most pure honey will crystallize over time. Crystallization is a natural process that occurs due to the sugar molecules (primarily glucose) in honey spontaneously precipitating out of the liquid honey. Factors like the ratio of different sugars in the honey, temperature, and the presence of particles that can act as nuclei for crystal formation all influence how quickly honey crystallizes.

The type of honey, its processing, and storage conditions can affect the rate and extent of crystallization. For example, honey that contains a higher proportion of glucose than fructose tends to crystallize faster. Raw, unfiltered honey also crystallizes more quickly than commercially processed honey because it contains more particles like pollen grains that can act as nucleation sites.

Crystallization does not mean that the honey has gone bad. In fact, crystallization is often an indicator of high quality and purity in the honey. You can still use crystallized honey as it is, or you can gently warm it to return it to a liquid state.

Local Honey and Allergies

Could a spoonful of local honey be the key to alleviating your allergies and other health woes? Let's explore the ancient remedy that continues to buzz with potential.

Raw local honey has many medicinal properties—stomach ailments, anemia, and allergies are just a few of the conditions that may be improved by consumption of unprocessed honey. Local honey is believed to help ward off spring allergies as the local honey, which contains pollen from local plants, can help build immune tolerance through gradual exposure.

Some suggest that local honey can act as a natural antihistamine, while others find no significant clinical evidence to support this claim. However, many allergy sufferers continue to report relief after consuming local honey, suggesting that more research may be needed. If you want to try it, the best time to start having local honey is a month before spring allergies kick in. For many, this is somewhere around February or March in the Northern Hemisphere, and August or September in the Southern Hemisphere.

Some studies suggest that honey may offer relief from allergy symptoms. For example, this study found that consuming high doses of honey in addition to standard allergy medications significantly improved symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Another study highlighted honey's potential in managing allergic diseases due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It's important to note that while honey offers some individuals relief from allergy symptoms, others could experience allergic reactions to components in honey, such as pollen or bee proteins, especially if they have existing allergies to these substances.

Special cups for bees
Special cups where queen bees are raised to be later introduced into hives, making them more productive INTI OCON/AFP via Getty Images

How to Choose Your Honey?

The prevalence of adulterated honey on store shelves is a significant issue, compromising both consumer health and the broader integrity of global food safety standards. To ensure you are getting authentic, naturally beneficial honey, I recommend buying directly from local beekeepers or well-established organic brands. These sources often provide clear transparency about their honey’s origins and production methods. Such purchases not only guarantee the authenticity of the honey but also support ethical practices within the industry and contribute to your health by providing pure, unadulterated honey.

Addressing the widespread issue of honey adulteration requires comprehensive reforms at a global level. It is essential to establish uniform, enforceable standards for honey purity, including stringent testing of imported and domestically produced honey. Implementing robust traceability and transparency measures across the entire supply chain—from hive to store—will help ensure that honey is not only genuine but also produced under fair and sustainable conditions. 

Strengthening international collaboration to crack down on unethical practices and fraud in the honey trade is also crucial. By prioritizing these efforts, we can protect the integrity of honey markets worldwide, support ethical beekeepers, and provide consumers with the assurance that the honey they consume is both safe and authentic.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.