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Raw honey: what it means to buyers and sellers

The term “raw honey” doesn’t officially mean anything, so it causes a lot of confusion among consumers. Either they want to buy only raw honey, or they want to avoid it entirely. Sadly, the only difference between two packages may be the label. The whole mess reminds me of the “all-natural” debacle: everyone has an opinion of what natural means, but no one knows for sure. The FDA website says, “FDA has not engaged in rule-making to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural.’”

What we mean by “raw honey”

Because of all the confusion, the National Honey Board has come up with its own definition. They describe raw honey as “honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat.” But as the honey board points out, this definition carries no legal weight.

The FDA website says, “It is widely accepted that raw honey is honey which was not filtered or heated above normal ambient temperature.” This, too, contains lots of ambiguity. Does “ambient temperature” mean outside on a hot day or can it mean inside a heated building? And where does straining stop and filtering begin?

Other sources say that raw means unpasteurized, and that the slight amount of heat used to facilitate straining and bottling doesn’t count. Wikipedia says that some “minimally processed” honey is sold as raw. Other sites argue that warming the bottled honey just before sale to make it liquid again also doesn’t count. So where do we draw the line? Is heated honey raw or not? How do you define “heated?” And what is “minimally processed?”

Pasteurized honey is not botulism free

But the confusion runs deep. Due to concerns that honey is unsafe for young infants, many consumers want to buy only pasteurized honey. But that reasoning is flawed. Pasteurized honey is just as unsafe for infants as raw honey because pasteurization does not kill botulism spores.

In situations like these, the word “raw” is construed to mean “not cooked.” With that thought in mind, these consumers reason that if it’s not raw, it must be cooked, and cooking makes it safe for infants. None of this is true. Pressure cooking is required to kill botulism spores, and no one pressure cooks honey.

Raw honey is not like raw meat

While most consumers think raw honey is a good thing, others believe raw honey is somehow unfinished and unsafe—like raw milk or raw meat—or not quite ready to eat, like raw asparagus. I would like to see the word “raw” dropped from honey labeling, but I’m sure it’s here to stay. If beekeepers can sell more honey by calling some of it raw, how can you blame them?

Ambiguous labels are nothing new. I saw some apples at the farmer’s market labeled “gluten free.” They were nearly twice the price of the ones that didn’t mention gluten, even though they probably came from the same tree. Curious, I read the guidelines and discovered that the FDA allows you to label something gluten free even if it is naturally gluten free, like apples.

According to the FDA website, you can even label bottled spring water gluten free. So yes, you can label your honey “raw, all natural, and gluten free” and you’re not breaking any rules, even if you heated it a wee bit now and again.

A sticky subject

Confusion over honey seems to be getting worse, and it sometimes leaves me speechless. Last weekend a women asked if I produce raw honey. I explained that I produce comb honey exclusively. She shrugged and walked away saying, “Oh, too bad. I only eat honey that’s raw.” (Hmm. I wonder if she knows something about my bees that I don’t.)

While I don’t favor government interference in these things, it would be nice if we beekeepers could better describe our product. From the questions I get, the confusion is obvious. Some want it raw, some don’t, but few can say what that means.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Raw honey flowing from a spoon.
The definition of raw honey is unofficial and flexible. However, it usually means the honey was not heated. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Laura
Reply

Would you mind if I use some of this (credit given, of course) for my farmers market stand? I’m incorporating learning material along with the honey sales.

Rusty
Reply

Laura,

Absolutely! Sounds like a great idea.

ignasi orobitg gene
Reply

Hi.
I was laughing with the anecdote “honey in honeycomb – raw honey”
When I want to put flowers on giving honey from my hives I say
  “Particular honey” = the one that takes the beekeeper artisan
Many moods that we are in full season with much work.
Have a day full of smiles

Keith in VA
Reply

Even if the term “raw” is poorly defined, we can still treat our honey they way our customers want us to. We can make a good faith effort to package it without damaging it in any way by keeping it at modest temperatures, preventing chemical contamination, checking for proper moisture content, and so on. Maybe “raw” in this context just means “handled carefully.”

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

That’s a generous definition. Just be happy I’m not making the rules. I would say it’s raw if it’s still in the cell, otherwise it’s processed food. After all, it is food and extraction, straining, and bottling are processes.

Andrew Dewey
Reply

local? free range? chemical free? It’s all marketing! {but you knew that}

Cyrus Farivar
Reply

Beekeepers can barely agree on how to “keep” bees, so it is entirely consistent that there is no consensus on how to describe the honey.

Cyrus

PS. I put “keep” in quotation marks because no one really keeps bees; they can just tolerate us and then up and leave when they’ve had enough.

Peter Cauwenberghs
Reply

A nice consideration!…….

Richard Anstis
Reply

Brilliant.

Thankfully, I don’t sell any honey so don’t have to negotiate through that particular maze, but I’ve also been asked if “raw” means “wax free” or “pure” and that leads to a whole other debate. Is ‘pure honey’ honey with no wax in it? If so, is that ‘natural’ and is it indeed ‘pure’ given that honey eaten by the African Honey Badger (and the odd Badger here in the UK) is definitely not wax free?

And as an enthusiast of another controversy, the Flowhive, the debate gets even more fun.

Because of the (unique) way the Flowhive works, my experience is that the honey is quite different from centrifugally extracted, or crushed and strained, or comb honey. Obviously, the reason for this is that the turnkey system allows nearly all wax and other ‘impurities’ to stay behind and the honey is virtually wax-free. It is therefore lighter in colour and texture and (in my opinion) more aromatic and less clawing [cloying?]. But is it therefore purer? From plastic frames can it really be thought of as more natural, purer and (given no heat needs to be applied) is it also raw?

I have no idea and can only tell you one thing with absolute certainty:

It’s delicious.

Richard

Richard anstis
Reply

Ha! But that isn’t the polar opposite view, Rusty – although irritatingly you’re right about cloying (nothing more deeply humiliating for an Englishman than having his English correctly ‘corrected’ by an American).

I read your article on comb honey before and I totally agree about the joys of selecting individual flavour cells without oxidation and I didn’t say that wax free honey was better. In fact, it certainly isn’t. Fortunately it isn’t a competition. It’s different. Is all.

But…because with those dreadful flowhives that everyone hates so much you can ‘extract’ part of one frame at a time, you can at least create a single pot of waxfree honey that has a single flower type (and in less time and with less mess than it takes to suck a single cell of comb honey through a straw…don’t tell me you haven’t tried that?).

That has to count for something.

And I have another comb-over thought for you and your lovely readers, that doesn’t involve your illustrious president:

You’ve seen those twin poly mating nucs with the mini frames of course, but have you tried using them to produce comb honey?

For every three hatched queens, you get three mini combs for the table too…and I bet you’re already inventing a neat little stand for them to swing from, but they also fit in a toast rack…with toast alternated between them…in Chequerboard style. Now that’s cool.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

You say, there’s “nothing more deeply humiliating for an Englishman than having his English correctly ‘corrected’ by an American.” I love it, Richard. You made my whole day!

About honey, I’ve never tried it through a straw. Sounds exhausting. But I love the idea of the mating nucs. Actually, I have a couple stored away someplace. I need to dig them out for comb honey. What a brilliant idea! Don’t know about the toast, though. I like my honey on English muffins.

Gladys Hutson, The Bee Lady
Reply

The general public not only has to have some education about honey, but about bees and pollinators in general. I present programs to kids in school, library settings, farmer’s markets…in essence, anyone that wants to learn about the honey bee and pollinators.

I am finding that most people really do want to do the right thing and want to become educated about it. We all depend on our pollinators.

I so like your blogs. Some things I know, some I do not. I, myself, am always anxious to learn!

honey thief
Reply

You should tell her the bees produce the honey. You just sell it.

Erika Klein
Reply

I know this is a slightly different subject, but what about honey that is produced from the syrup we feed. That is not from a natural nectar source. Can you call that raw honey?

Rusty
Reply

Erika,

Honey cannot be produced from syrup. By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. So if the bees store sugar syrup, what it ends up being is stored sugar syrup, nothing more. You cannot call it raw honey and you cannot even call it honey. You can call it sugar syrup. At least the laws are clear on this one.

Jenny
Reply

How about we establish a new industry name to replace the word “raw” with definitive meaning. Any ideas?

Rusty
Reply

Jenny,

I think that’s what we need. No idea, though, on what it might be.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty –
This got me reading your adventures in comb honey, and how you grow and package it. I’ve some thoughts, will wait for your next comb post — but my tastebuds want some comb to chaw on.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

Well, I’ve got some for you! Thanks to TonyBees (and his upper entrances) my bees are building comb honey like never before. In fact, I’m going to suit up Rich (a rarity) because I can’t even begin to lift the boxes off by myself.

Rich
Reply

I can feel pain in my back and at my ankles already!

Mike Ohlmann
Reply

What happens to honey if you pressure cook it?

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

The flavor and aroma are destroyed, and many of the healthful phytochemicals are broken down. The fructose component forms hydroxymethyfurfural, which is toxic to bees and may be toxic to humans. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard that the consistency becomes weird and the solids separate from the liquids. You can try it and let me know.

Walt
Reply

Is this not similar to the debate over the definition of “local” honey?

Rusty
Reply

Walt,

Similar? Yes. But there is also a health component, as in “Can pasteurized honey be fed to infants?”

Steph
Reply

Rusty, I enjoy reading your blog a lot and I learn a lot!

I just wanted to add the experience I had yesterday about raw honey: at the local farmers market, a honey stand, and they were listing the varieties of honey for sale: alfalfa, clover, raw (as if it was a flower type!), fireweed, etc. And when asked what kind of honey was in the “raw” jar, they answered it was just raw honey! It made me wonder (as I am a botanist and entomologist) about the degree of stupidity of the buyers (or the seller?). Oh, I forgot to mention, this fantastic “raw” honey from unknown flowers was sold for $20 (Canadian) a pound!

Rusty
Reply

Steph,

That is so sad. I run into “reasoning” like that all the time. It’s like people never stop to think about the question or the answer, or whether any of it makes sense. Maybe they are equating “raw” with “random.” Maybe “wildflower” equals “raw” in their minds. Who knows? Since it sounds like they don’t know what raw means, my hunch is the “raw” honey was heated, just like the rest of it.

Emily
Reply

Perhaps the US needs stricter honey labelling regulation. We tend to see ‘raw honey’ used less often in the UK (though it’s creeping in) and I think that’s because the terms we can use and their meanings are laid out in our honey regs – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2015/1348/made

Fred
Reply

Rusty, an inspiring article, but I must take exception to the comment about eating raw asparagus. The flavor of a freshly snapped off spear of asparagus is miles above that of it’s poor steamed or broiled cousin (no matter how much butter you add).

One of my fondest memories is of Mom and I waiting for the first spears of asparagus in a ditch near our house.

Fred

Rusty
Reply

Fred,

The first spears in a ditch are a horse of a different color; much more tender than the fibrous full-grown type we most often encounter.

The Average Joe Beekeeper (Joe Komperda)
Reply

Rusty,

USDA does have a definition for “filtered” honey — I believe (from memory which isn’t always the best these days) it is defined as having been “forced” through a paper filter. To do that I also believe the definition says it is usually heated for better flow and may be “pressurized,”

Avg. Joe

Andrea Francine
Reply

Just want to say thanks for the helpful info in your blog posts. I am in Belize and had been looking for beeswax to make salves. I found a local beekeeper, who I have a language barrier with. He gave me a pail of honeycomb and I didn’t know what to do with it … besides make tea! You’re info here has helped me, specifically not to pasteurize what I have extracted. ✌🏼☀️

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