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The mysterious disappearance of pure honey

Beginning about two months ago, I began getting strange emails about the disappearance of pure honey. These messages were coming from consumers of honey, not beekeepers, and they mystified me. Here is an example of an email from last week:

Could you please tell me where I can get pure honey without sugar syrup? I mean, I want honey made from nectar only. I can’t find it anywhere.

My first thought was that rumors of sugar syrup getting mixed with extracted honey must have gone viral. Seriously, I couldn’t understand all the mail. I just answered these questions and moved on. Then, quite by accident, it all became clear.

An answer to the puzzle

Last week, my daughter paid a visit and brought a gift consisting of a ceramic honey jar, honey dipper, and a jar of eucalyptus honey. I happened to glance at the Nutrition Facts and saw it was one of the newly designed labels, proposed by the FDA but not yet mandatory.

About halfway down it reads:

Total Carbohydrates 17g

    • Dietary Fiber 0g
    • Total Sugars 17g
        • Includes 17g Added Sugars

Bingo! Now I remembered. The FDA has this inane idea that somehow the sugars in honey are “added.”

Honey with added sugar

Added by whom? I wonder. The bees? The flowers? Garden fairies? I had completely forgotten about this issue, although I had read a lot of complaints about it last year. As far as I know, the new labeling regulations were supposed to go into effect in July of 2018, but the deadline has been extended to January 2020 for large corporations and to January 2021 for smaller ones with less than $10 million in annual sales.

Apparently, some companies decided to comply early and use the new labels. I can see why. The “best by” date on my jar of honey (another ridiculous concept) is October 9, 2019. If the original deadline for compliance hadn’t changed, companies using the old labels would have been out of compliance long before the “best by” date rolled around. That honey would need to be pulled from the shelves prematurely. So from the retailer’s perspective, it made sense to be proactive.

The disappearance of pure honey

Confusing labels make is seem like pure honey has disappeared.
Confusing labels make it seem like pure honey has disappeared.

But just as many beekeepers predicted, the public is completely flummoxed by this wording (as am I). The people who have written to me are just the tip of the iceberg. How many people are going to stop buying honey because they think it contains added sugars? People read food labels, and people believe what the labels say. If the government says honey contains added sugar, it must be true. Right?

Examining the label on my jar more closely, I see that under “Ingredients” it lists Eucalytus Honey. Nothing else. But in a way, that just makes it worse because people will begin to believe that added sugar is part of what we call “honey.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth because, by definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Period.

Since adding anything to honey is considered adulteration, it would also be easy to conclude that honey with so-called “added sugars” is adulterated. As the email above shows, consumers may well believe that honey labeled this way contains sugar syrup. This is government regulation run amok.

Whatever happened to truth in labeling?

I spent a long time trying to figure out if the original label requirements were changed after the comment period ended earlier this year. But as far as I can tell, as of two days ago (December 11) the regulation stands and has not been amended in any way. It looks like you should get ready to explain this to your friends and customers.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Melissa
Reply

For ‘best by’ date, can we put ‘infinity’? What ridiculous labeling requirements. Ugh.

Granny Roberta in nw Connecticut USA
Reply

Oh, ma-an … I come here—I come to the bees—to AVOID the stupidity of governments.

Ron Miksha
Reply

Thanks, Rusty! Your writing is always stellar and you nailed this subject perfectly. Hopefully, many of your readers will be motivated to complain to their reps in DC. – Ron

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Ron. And I agree. This isn’t helping anyone, beekeeper or consumer. It only adds layers of obfuscation to something that isn’t well understood in the first place.

Gary Van scyoc
Reply

I intend to sell my honey as pure unadulterated natural honey made by mother nature! If anyone has a problem with that get yours somewhere else!!

Rusty
Reply

And here, all this time, I thought it was made by bees!

Deb Western Catskill Mtns NY
Reply

This is very confusing to me; it’s one thing to educate your customers regarding all aspects of beekeeping, yet to argue a government label is quite a different category. I don’t want to go on the offensive or the defensive regarding my honey and how I keep my bees. Their well-being and health is first priority and is hand-in-hand with what and where they forage and the weather. It’s hard enough trying to keep beekeeping “natural” without feeling guilty feeding sugar when needed, especially over winter.

We do get some really weird questions though, like “do you have raw raw honey”? What could I say but yes yes?

Rusty
Reply

Agree! Agree!

Sandy
Reply

At first I suspected she was referring to all the value-added honey products I see for sale at my local farmers market: Honey infused with flavorings and other things like chocolate. There must be a demand, but I prefer the bees to “flavor” my honey with whatever nectar is currently available. I was unaware of the new regulation. Thank you for the information. I always learn something new here!

Steve Rodney
Reply

Thank you for giving me a forewarning about what questions will be coming my way.

Cheryl
Reply

Another aspect of labeling confusion for me is the source of honey. How can honey be ligitimatly labeled as lavender or eucalyptus or orange blossom? As organic for that matter? As we know, bees travel up to 5 miles if needed. How can the source of nectar be identified as a specific species of flower?

Rusty
Reply

Cheryl,

To be labeled as a variety, the honey is supposed to be “predominantly” one flower type. It won’t ever be pure. As for organic, technically you’re supposed to have control over that 50,000 acres you just mentioned to assure there are no pesticides used on it. For that reason, there really is no organic honey in the US with the exception of a few islands (or so I’m told). And honey from outside the US is subject to their definitions of organic (or so I’m told). In my opinion, to call any honey organic is really a stretch, unless you own one of those secluded islands. It’s a contentious issue, and when someone calls their honey organic, I really want to question them. Do they have any idea how far five miles is?

Vince Poulin
Reply

Here is an issue. In Thailand a good portion of “honey” is just that – added sugar. Commercial producers take nectar and reduce it, bypassing the natural process of bees. They do this to speed up production. They also add sugar water to increase volume and profits. Same in China and Taiwan given they are major commercial producers here. If this honey were to be exported it would be fair to see a label with “added sugar”.

Emily
Reply

Out of interest, how do the Thailand producers collect the nectar? It sounds like bees are not involved at all?

margrete geurts-lakin
Reply

Dear Rusty,

We ordered a small blue plastic fork for uncapping frames. This was advertised on your site and cost only 6 American dollars. Very fine.

Imagine our horror though when the bill came including the postage -send from Jamaica- to nearly one HUNDRED American dollars. Anything ordered to Norway above approx 20 dollars- including shipping- is topped up with +25 percent VAT added to the 100 dollars.

A very expensive plastic fork indeed it turned out to be.

PS-the fork is yet to arrive.

PPS-not blaming you, but people should be warned about the horrendous postage costs when ordering something.

Your site is a masterpiece—enjoying it very much from the frozen north (Norway).

Rusty
Reply

Margrete,

That is absolutely ridiculous. Did they not quote you the shipping price when you placed the order? I always check shipping before I say yes, even within the country.

Steve
Reply

Are you all being duped!

If all your honey has to be labeled with “added sugar” surely this will ultimately allow for the big agri producers to sell sugar with some honey in it?

Just a view from an outsider.
Bon Courage!

Steve
Lubersac, France

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

You folks will probably be able to sell a lot of honey to Americans.

Michael
Reply

Can we put warning labels on the government?

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

Excellent idea.

Kevin
Reply

I found this: The FDA definition of added sugars “includes sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”

It probably explains why in Rusty’s label example the “Total Sugars” and “Added sugars” are the same at 17g. So it means that when you put honey into a bottle or jar, you’re actually “adding” it.

Karen Babaian
Reply

I took a closer look at the Canadian labels. It says 1 tablespoon (20 grams) contains 17 grams carbohydrates then says (indented) 16 g sugars. What is the other gram of carbohydrate made up of cellulose, starch??? I don’t think the Canadian labels are changing this year at least!

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

I know lots of things are in honey, such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, enzymes, pollen, etc. but carbohydrates other than sugar? I just don’t know. A gram would be a lot of whatever it is.

Carol, Snohomish Wa
Reply

This is off topic, but your bee map has finally shown up for me on the blog page. I had wondered where it was.

I don’t know why it wasn’t displaying before. It’s great to see the distribution of your followers. Do the people in the middle of the nation not keep bees do you think? Or not blog?

Carol

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

I don’t know. Maybe slow internet?

Derek
Reply

The regulation is fine, what we have here is the poor interpretation of it. The construction of the regulation makes it clear that it is referring to products that are not sugar or honey. However, interpreting this “added sugar” regulation to imply that sugar and honey must be labelled as added sugar is incorrect, even if you construe nectar to be a fruit juice, and honey bees as the processors then you would still not label it as “added sugars” under this regulation. Under this regulation you would only validly label “added sugar” if the product was empty jars.

However, I’m only a native English speaker (I’m a native from England) and not a lawyer who is paid to torture my language in to impossible knots.

Dan Geiger
Reply

From what I read from the USDA website, their definition of organic honey requires about 16 square miles 10240 acres, if you could put bee hive on federal pasture land or a national park.
Yellowstone 3,471 mi²
https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOP%20Livestock%20Final%20Rec%20Apiculture.pdf

Forage zone.
Land or bodies of water, within a 1.8 mile (3 km) radius of the edge of the apiary/bee yard which
provides bees with water, nectar, honeydew, pollen and propolis.

Surveillance zone.
Land area of a 2.2 mile radius (3.4 km) beyond the forage zone which may not contain high risk activities.

from what I have read If you add sugar or anything else to honey and bottle it, it cannot be called “honey” it can be called blended honey and sugar or if you add a flavor it can be called flavored honey. Any additional ingredients need to be included in the ingredients list in order by weight.
The way I understand it the requirement of nutritional labeling of honey was so FDA can take enforcement action against the food for being misbranded.or adulterated.honey.

https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm389501.htm

The FDA has their own definition for added sugar, we don’t make the rules.
https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

4. How does the FDA define “added sugars”?
added Sugars

Are the sugars in a jar of honey or a bag of sugar added sugars? If so, what should the total and added sugars declaration look like?

Yes, the sugar in a jar of honey and the sugar in a bag of sugar are added sugars. The definition of added sugars includes sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type. The definition excludes fruit or vegetable juice concentrated from 100 percent fruit juice that is sold to consumers (e.g. frozen 100 percent fruit juice concentrate) as well as some sugars found in fruit and vegetable juices, jellies, jams, preserves, and fruit spreads. Please see 21 CFR 101.9(c)(6)(iii) on page 33980 of the Nutrition Facts Label Final Rule for the definition of “Added Sugars.” For example the total sugars for a serving of honey would be 17 grams (g) and the added sugars declaration would also be 17g.

FDA defined sugars from honey as added sugars in the final rule. The agency has heard concerns from the honey industry about declaring the sugars in a jar of honey as added sugars, including that the sugar in honey is not added to the product. FDA plans to invite further comment in the near future.

mell
Reply

For the purposes of the discussion with small honey producers who sell that product, it may be useful to make people aware of the apparent small business exemptions that apply.

“The nutrition labeling exemptions found in 21 CFR 101.9(j)(1) and 21 CFR 101.36(h)(1) apply to retailers with annual gross sales of not more than $500,000, or with annual gross sales of foods or dietary supplements to consumers of not more than $50,000.”

Rusty
Reply

Mell,

That’s true, but beekeepers should nevertheless be ready to answer the inevitable questions. After a consumer sees a label like this in a store, he or she may be less likely to seek out honey elsewhere, thinking it must all be contaminated. Of course, it could work the other way too, and funnel consumers to small producers. But you never know exactly how these things will affect purchasing habits.

Dan G
Reply

Mell.

You seem correct (thank you) and a exemption notice does not have to be filed, but if you make certain claims …, or if you sell through a larger garden center like a friend of mine does you may need the label. I don’t believe a ingredient statement is required if honey the only ingredient but if you get fancy and add a flavor you have 2 ingredient’s and I think you need the ingredient list.

Lawyers and politicians creating simplified paperwork for you.

https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm053857.htm

If any nutrient content claim (e.g., “sugar free”), health claim, or other nutrition information is provided on the label, or in labeling or advertising, the small business exemption is not applicable for a product.

These exemptions pertain only to nutrition labeling information, and have no effect on all other mandatory information (i.e., statement of identity, net quantity of contents, ingredient statement, and name and address of manufacturer, packer or distributor).

mell
Reply

Valid points and useful for clarity of the exemption clause. Please keep us informed of when the proposed rule open back up for comment – I’m certain FDA will want to hear directly from the affected public and hopefully revise the labeling requirements appropriately.

BillSF9c
Reply

Kevin:

“So it means that when you put honey into a bottle or jar, you’re actually “adding” it.”

So, soon a 5 lb bag of sugar will state the contents as added (to the bag) sugar?

Kevin
Reply

Well, it would be interesting to see, wouldn’t it? The way the definition is written, I don’t see how the label on a bag of sugar can avoid having to say “added sugar” unless there is some type of exemption. I do see the sugar lobby trying to get an exemption.

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