The trouble with mass produced honey
If honey is just something you add to sweeten a coffee or dessert, then it probably makes sense to buy the cheapest you can find. After all, there seems to be no other difference than price. Right? Let’s explore what happens to a typical mass produced supermarket honey and how it alters the end product.
Going with the flow
Products that are manufactured and distributed on a large scale to meet increasing customer demand for low price and easy availability need to be made not only in high numbers but also at low enough cost to make them viable – and inevitably this will involve compromise.
The main priorities of a mass-market food product is that should look, taste and smell like the real thing – at least, enough like the real thing for a majority of customers to find it pleasant and not be driven to seek some other brand. However, the worst mistake a food brand can make is inconsistency, so every unit needs to be carefully formulated to be the same – in other words, to provide the customer with the same experience each time, whether it was produced a month or two years ago. Otherwise the customer will not know what to expect from the brand and become confused, and the last thing a business wants from its customers is confusion about what to expect.
The problem is that unprocessed honey is not reliable – it varies from year to year and even from batch to batch. It is affected by variations in the weather, the location of the hive, the availability of different varieties of plant and flower pollen, among other things. To achieve consistency and brand recognition, the raw materials must be subjected to a range of processes which alter it not just visually but also in its composition, resulting in most of the key differences between raw and mass-market honey. Indeed, these differences are not just found in the appearance, taste and smell but also in the composition of the honey. They also account for the fact that branding is the biggest difference between any two jars of honey – so much inter-blending takes place between different processed honey stocks, from all around the world, that establishing origin is no longer even possible in most cases.
The compromises begin at the stage of industrial honey production and include the use of antibiotics (which often remain in the end product) and other chemicals. Honey can also be thinned out with sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener widely used in processed food), flavourings and colorants to ensure consistent ‘mouthfeel’ for a particular brand and type. Since most customers want clear honey, it is usually pasteurised, often at high temperatures, which can destroy the live enzymes and nutritional value of the original honey. Filtering also takes place to remove unwanted impurities, which is normal in honey production. But as much supermarket honey is in fact a blend of different honeys of dubious provenance, the pollen is often strained out in order to remove evidence of origin. What remains is far from what you might consider to be ‘natural honey’ and be led to expect when buying it. This is by no means limited to low-cost brands, because much of what makes unfiltered honey so valuable has been removed. Like mass-market wine, it is a heat-treated, coloured, blended, flavoured and standardised product far removed from its starting point.
Next time we will look at the properties of honey straight from the hive, before all this processing takes place. We will also have a few simple recipes and tips for using pure, unfiltered flower honey in your kitchen.