Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sorting out honey terms

Varietal Honey? Raw Honey? Organic Honey?
A growing interest in locally produced honey and honey's many benefits has also prompted a dizzying array of terms for various types of honey.  Since there is no honey standard in the United States, the definition of these terms is very much up for grabs right now.   When sorting out terms for honey, keep in mind that bees can travel up to 3 miles from their colonies to collect nectar and pollen.  This can make it very difficult to determine the specific nectar sources the bees are visiting.  At the market, we're often asked about varietal honey, raw honey and organic honey.  Here's how we define these terms:

Varietal honey:  Bees that are placed in midst of large tracts of a particular plant (like lavender fields in France or orange orchards in Florida) can reliably be expected to bring back nectar from that one source and can therefore be labeled a varietal honey like “orange blossom” or “lavender.”   At our apiary, we can usually pinpoint the time of year that the bees gathered a particular nectar and can therefore label our honey seasonally, though we can't specify a particular bloom visited exclusively by our bees.  

Raw honey: Some consider “raw honey” to be unstrained honey, which means that the beeswax (and bee parts) have not been strained out of the liquid honey. This results in quickly-crystallizing honey with lots of extra bits in it.  We strain our honey, but we don’t filter or heat it and for that reason, consider it to be “raw.”

Organic honey:  A 2008 survey by the Seattle PI found that much of the honey labeled as “organic” in grocery stores is marketing hype.  It's very difficult to keep bees from visiting nectar sources that are not kept organically, so unless they're on an island or surrounded by acres of organic farms, beekeepers cannot easily promise a fully “organic”  product, even if they themselves do not use any chemicals in their beekeeping.  Even a “USDA organic” sticker on a honey jar doesn’t tell you much, since right now, there are no organic standards for honey.  What can you do?  Buy honey from a local beekeeper who you know and can talk with about their practices!

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