Acacia or forest? Heather or manuka? A report in the UK's Guardian looks at how people just can't get enough of the stuff.
At my supermarket, a jar of basic clear honey costs 99p. Down the deli, acacia, forest or heather is £6 and manuka can set you back £15. Precious stuff, honey. Producing it is hard work: a bee makes just a 12th of a teaspoon in its lifetime; a one-pound jar represents the nectar from two million flowers. We’ve been collecting it for 10,000 years (as illustrated in early wall-paintings), the Romans paid taxes with it. It never goes off in its raw state, has supposed health benefits, tastes sublime and was – until the discovery of sugar – our only sweetener.
But we don’t half get through it: 30,000 tonnes annually, according to the UK Honey Association (UHA). Britain’s dwindling band of beekeepers produce, in a good year, a 10th of that (less in cold conditions – below 18C, the association’s president, Walter Anzer tells me, “the bees won’t fly”). In 2010 we imported 28,000 tonnes of honey, most from outside the EU (Spain, France, Italy and Greece produce, but also consume it).
Argentina is a big exporter, says Patrick Robinson, operations director of Rowse, which dominates the UK honey packaging market. Also, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, India and China – the world’s largest honey producer. In the past China’s honey was found to contain traces of antibiotics, antibacterial drugs and even heavy metals banned from food in the west. It’s also very cheap, partly because most is still produced by peasant beekeepers. American producers successfully lobbied for huge anti-dumping duties on Chinese honey imports, prompting some exporters to “launder” honey through countries such as Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and India.
Much of this mislabelled honey has been heavily filtered, removing illegal contaminants and the pollen identifying country of origin. Some of it has been filtered so heavily that a 2011 report by the Food Safety Network suggested 75% of honey sold in the US may not, legally, be honey.
But, despite spiralling raw material prices due in part to the alarming decline in bee populations, known as colony collapse disorder, such quality problems don’t afflict the UK. “In the EU,” stresses Anzer, “honey is classified as an animal product, subject to exactly the same welter of rules and regulations as, say, meat. They’re very, very tough.” Chinese honey was recalled from UK shelves in 2002 after a temporary EU ban. Now, at the first signs of residues, over-filtering or dodgy paperwork any imported honey is banned: India got a ban in 2010. Tests at the main UK port of entry, Felixstowe, and by packers are “absolutely rigorous”.
So cheap honey in Britain, Robinson says, is unlikely to be doctored; rather it will be a mild-tasting blend of several types from several countries.
Honey flavour depends on the flower species from which the bees gather the nectar; acacia is typically sweet and light while forest honeys are often richer. Expensive honeys tend to taste stronger and more distinctive – but, like 70% of honey sold in the UK, are still likely to be blended. Dearer still are the monoflorals made predominantly from the nectar of one flower species.
Manuka, with its depth of flavour, is one of the most costly and comes from a single New Zealand shrub species. It has proven anti-bacterial properties (all honeys have some antiseptic properties because they contain hydrogen peroxide, Robinson says; only manuka has non-peroxide activity). “But do read the label carefully,” he advises. “Look for UMF – Unique Manuka Factor – or NPA, non-peroxide activity. And If it costs less than £10, look extra carefully.” (A UMF factor of 15 will cost more than one of 10.)
Whether a honey is set or clear depends on whether its sugars are higher in glucose or fructose; there is no nutritional difference. Most British honeys contain rape nectar, which is high in glucose, so they tend to set. “Which is a shame,” says Robinson, “because consumers prefer clear.” But, he says, “there’s no such thing as bad honey. It would be difficult to buy adulterated honey in Britain. If it’s cheaper, it won’t be fake, or adulterated. Just … less interesting.”