Honey, for Real*

The Complaint

A highly regarded beekeeper passed along a complaint he has received, one that is filed with the Department of Justice. The complaint states that his honey has failed four “common home tests for real honey.” Unconcerned because he knows the value of the work of his bees, the beekeeper asks if there are recommended tests that consumers can do to determine if honey is real? Is there an official site, say the National Honey Board, that lists tests consumers can do?” He answers his questions with, “I doubt it.”

There’s a need to look at what’s presented with the assumption that what is done has been done with good intention—unless I may learn otherwise. The person filing the complaint (let’s name him Bob) clearly believes he has a case against the beekeeper’s practice. In subsequent correspondence, Bob references contact with “local investigative news organizations” and alludes to “weird logic” in the beekeeper’s response that “only makes [him] more firm now in the conviction that [he] made the correct assumption . . . .”

Bob’s Tests

The tests and results, as listed in Bob’s complaint, are:

“1) Real honey will not dissolve in water. Their honey dissolves in water.

2) I put the honey in the fridge and it did not crystallize overnight as real honey would.

3) Invert test: I inverted the bottle and the bubble inside moved entirely too quick for real honey.

4) Carmilization [sic] and burn: I put some hone [sic] on a q-tip and lit it on fire. Real honey will burn and not bubble. This does not burn and bubbles incredibly.”

Test Review with Resource Provided

Clearly, the tests lack controls—among other things. Beyond the execution and interpretation of the tests, though, I had to wonder why they were being used as definitive tests, much less as solid evidence for a complaint. At the main website of the five that Bob sent to the beekeeper, I found:

1) Dissolving Method. This test notes that pure honey “doesn’t get dissolved in water immediately.” We do not know what Bob did to dissolve the honey, nor do we know the time frame or temperature. We do know that honey will dissolve in water.

2) No Overnight Fridge Test. I found a Crystallization Test1 on one of the additional four sites though. Of note, perhaps, the test described provides no time frame over which crystallization is to take place. We know varieties of honey that crystallize in a matter of days and some, only after many months have passed. In addition, the test makes no mention of refrigeration. According to the NHB, crystallization may be encouraged at 50–70oF, though <50oF is ideal for delaying crystallization. Many beekeepers store honey in a freezer to keep it from crystallizing.

3) No Bubble Test. There is a Thickness Test that works with honey directly rather than a bubble though. Test results are said to range from pure honey that “takes a good time” to move from one side of a container to the other to fake honey that “moves really quickly.” Whether speaking in terms of honey or of bubbles within honey, some kind of standard, including temperature, by which to assess the “entirely too quick” speed at which the bubble event occurred for Bob would be of use.

4) No Q-tip Test. There is a Flame Test (dip a match in honey and light it) that matches the “lit it” part noted in the complaint though. We know that sugar burns. There is also a Heating Test that states that fake honey on heating does not caramelize and becomes bubbly. It makes no mention of lighting.

I took a look at the remaining three websites Bob provided to support both the topic of adulterated honey and the veracity of the testing. Two of the sites reference fake honey relative to the lack of pollen in products labeled honey. The removal of pollen is an issue, but Bob’s concern appears to be allegedly added sugar(s). The third site also references the lack of pollen in fake honey, and then cites the first (main) website Bob provided as its source for tests that can be done to determine if honey is real or fake. This third site has a free download for another test to detect fake honey. It requires an e-mail for the download. I didn’t go there.

The Need for More Rigorous Testing

Real detection of fake honey is increasingly complicated today, more so when more than one substance has been added. I visited a lab that tests honey for adulteration that recommends, as we might expect, first doing a sugar profile. Then, depending on circumstances, samples might be sent to another lab for a look a 13C/12C levels. The person I spoke with at the lab noted initially that, given the wide range of honey varietals, there are honeys that would “fail” all of the “common home tests.” He, too, was curious about why Bob was using them and wanted to consult with others in the lab. Later he phoned to say that the last two tests that were done could be said to have a logic to them if the adulteration agent is water. I expect they may be based on an assumption that any sugar(s) added is dissolved, and that such additional moisture could then be detected. Even so, they are not definitive.

Confusion surrounding the issue is obvious. And it’s likely that beekeepers are not immune, for Bob states that he himself has “had bees.” My sense is that our increasing awareness of adulteration is healthy—we all need to know what is being added—as well as what is being removed. Yet, as far as I can tell, there are no consumer tests recommended by a regional or national agency. We know it’s good practice to purchase local honey directly from a beekeeper or at a farmers’ market, a fruit stand, and so forth. And we all can do plantings in pots and gardens to help support the bees that make the honey from the nectar of the flowers. In addition, we know the need to take care in vetting Internet resources as well as using proper testing procedures. With so many substances that may be added, intentionally or otherwise, as well as the removal of pollen, we also need to be aware that legitimate testing is complex and highly technical, and that kitchen science (based on accurate information as well as conducted and interpreted appropriately) yields results that need to be taken with that proverbial “grain of salt.”


Note: The resources Bob sent to the beekeeper are listed below:







*Adapted from article printed in May 2017 issue of The Bee Line.