Bittersweet: The Scandal of Local Honey

Raw, local honey is what you need this hay fever season, but be careful – there’s a lot that the labels won’t tell you.

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Ah, Spring! Flowers blooming, bees buzzing, birds chirping… and pollen everywhere! If you are among the estimated 24 million annual hay fever sufferers in America, you may want to try honey instead of those over-the-counter (OTC) medications, with their many potential side effects.

But not just any honey – “local” honey.

Here’s why: a recent study published in Food Safety News discovered that almost 75% of honey sold in grocery stores had the pollen filtered out. Hay fever is an allergic reaction to the pollen from flowering trees, grass, and plants. Since bees usually forage only about four miles from the hive, identifying the pollen in honey reveals the plants the bees pollinated. And consuming honey with local pollen over a period of time may help build a resistance to it and help thwart symptoms. A 2011 study in Finland showed that patients given honey with birch pollen administered daily during pre-allergy season (November to March) reported a 60% lower total symptom score, 70% fewer days with severe symptoms, and used 50% less antihistamines versus the control group.

Dr. Vaughn Bryant, professor and director of the Palynology Lab (study of particles from air, water or sediment samples) at Texas A&M, has tested over 2,000 honey samples. “Buying local honey is your best chance, [to get local pollen] but even that is no guarantee. I have examined a number of ‘local honey’ samples purchased in stores that end up being blends from other regions of the country or world — even though they are marked ‘local.’ There is no law that prohibits someone from saying it is local, whether or not it really is local.”

Since labels aren’t a trusted source, here’s how to better judge what’s in the jar. “Raw” honey is just that – unfiltered and unpasteurized (not heated above 95 degrees F). This is the best bang for your buck because it’s in its natural state and contains numerous vitamins (B6, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid), enzymes (amylase, glucose oxidase), antioxidants (polyphenols) and a myriad of minerals (calcium, copper, iron – to name a few). It also has a low glycemic index, which means it’s gradually absorbed into the blood for better digestion and doesn’t give you a sugar high like white, processed sugar.

Its anti-microbial properties, attributed to glucose oxidase, which produces hydrogen peroxide, have been well-studied and known for hundreds of years. The potential healing powers of honey go beyond hay fever. Studies have shown it effective as a cough suppressant; an antibacterial; and it’s good for wound healing. Medihoney is an FDA-approved treatment made from New Zealand honey for treating wounds and skin ulcers.

The battle for better labeling has prompted U.S. beekeepers to rally for a national honey standard. But petitions initiated in 2006 by leading bee industry groups have been denied by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In response, several states have passed their own honey standard provisions – Florida being the first in 2009, followed by California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. (There are pending provisions in 12 additional states.) Adding more confusion to the mix, USDA 2011 guidelines state that: “honey may bear official USDA grade marks without official inspection.” This applies to domestic and foreign honey sources.

Despite the fact that the FDA says any product labeled honey, without qualification on the label, legally must be pure, unadulterated (i.e., contain pollen) honey, it isn’t checking honey sold in the U.S. “People at the FDA say they don’t have the funds to check any honey… so they never check any!” Dr. Bryant concludes.

Unfortunately, many countries adulterate honey by adding or substituting it with cane sugar or corn syrup. Tamara Ward, an FDA spokeswoman, confirms that “there has been some history of economically motivated adulteration of honey as well as honey containing drugs.” Flagged imported shipments from several countries contained the antibiotics chloramphenicol and fluoroquinolones, known to potentially cause toxicity of the bone marrow and central nervous system. This remains a huge problem because although U.S. beekeepers provide approximately half of the 400 million pounds of honey consumed annually, the rest is imported.

And with the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance, and seemingly constant warnings about OTC and prescription drugs, it makes sense to incorporate local, raw honey into our diet. After all  – even the White House set up its first beehive in 2009.

(To find local honey providers go to Honey Locator, and for info on beekeeping try the American Beekeeping Federation.)

Nina Flanagan is a health and science writer, whose work has appeared in Genetic Engineering News, Science World and New York Newsday.




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