Not all honey is created equal. Here are the terms you need to know to pick the best honey.
Honey labels (like most US food labels) are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Raw honey, pure honey, organic, refined, natural, unfiltered, manuka honey... The list goes on and on.
Which type of honey is best? Does it make a difference?
Here are the most common terms and exactly what they mean, so you can choose the honey that's right for you.
Pure honey is the simplest term on this list. Many kinds of honey aren't only honey! Honey blends often include corn syrup, coloring, preservatives, emulsifiers, flavors, and other elements to make it easier to process, store, or sell.
Why does it matter? That depends on your personal goals.
Honey is good for your health. It's a great table sugar alternative because it sits lower on the glycemic index and doesn't cause the same spike in blood sugar. It also tastes sweeter than granulated sugar, meaning you can use less of it to get the same level of sweetness in recipes.
Adding other ingredients (particularly corn syrup) to pure honey raises the honey's position on the glycemic index and lessens its health benefits.
Raw honey is honey that hasn't been heated above 118°F, which is the temperature of pasteurization. Honey naturally contains trace amounts of enzymes, vitamins, and minerals that can be damaged or reduced by high heat.
Pure honey is naturally antimicrobial, so it doesn't need pasteurization for safety reasons (like most products). This is due to its low water content and high natural sugar content and acidity.
Industrial honey is often heated to allow for easier filtration. Many people prefer honey that hasn't been heated or filtered because it can retain more delicate natural elements, such as enzymes and pollen that can break down in high heat.
Honey passes through a few filters on its way from the hive to your kitchen. All honey is strained to remove any debris before it goes into a jar. "Filtering" refers to removing much smaller particles, even as small as pollen grains. Unfiltered honey hasn't gone through this process, keeping more of the trace particles intact.
As mentioned above, unfiltered honey is more likely to also be raw, because heating is often used to aid the industrial filtering process.
The term "natural" is not regulated and can be applied to almost anything. It implies that your honey is pure and perhaps raw, but it's only implication. Natural honey doesn't really mean anything, so look for the other labels on this list to find the type of honey you want.
Organic honey is made from the pollen of organically grown plants. This means no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used at any point in the growing process. Since honeybees routinely fly up to two miles to collect pollen, this certification can be tricky to get and tricky to guarantee! It also means that no miticides were used in the bee colonies.
Organic honey is a good way to ensure you're avoiding pesticides and other environmental chemicals, but it doesn't tell you anything about the processing, filtering, heating, or any additional ingredients or fillers in the honey. Organic honey could still be full of corn syrup (and often is). Make sure you're seeing the other labels you want.
Local honey should mean what it says. It should come from bees and flowers near you.
If this label appears at your local farmers market, and the seller actually made it or sourced it nearby, then it makes sense to take it at face value. In addition to supporting your local economy and reducing fuel used in shipping, some people believe that eating unfiltered honey with your local pollen can help minimize seasonal allergies.
However, if you find a jar labeled as "local" in a grocery store, take a closer look. Such "local honey" may have been gathered in California and shipped to Maine, or even further! There is nothing wrong with this honey, but there is also no advantage to it. The word "local" on these jars means absolutely nothing.
Manuka honey comes from New Zealand. It is made when honeybees collect their pollen from the islands' native manuka plant. This shrubby flowering tree has developed many adaptations that help it survive in harsh environments, and which seem to affect its pollen.
Manuka honey is currently being studied for its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties when used topically in clinical environments. It is often what you'll find as "medical-grade honey."
Creamed honey (also known as whipped honey, spun honey, or set honey) describes honey that has been processed to achieve a thick, spreadable texture.
Have you experienced honey in your pantry crystalizing over time? These crystals are a natural formation that keeps the honey stable, pretty much indefinitely. Whipping honey introduces smaller crystals evenly throughout the liquid, rather than waiting for the larger ones. This thickens it into a soft spreadable consistency.
Honey with Comb
This is exactly what it sounds like! Honey with comb will have a beautiful chunk of honeycomb nestled within your jar of honey. Honeycomb is delicious, with a rich, melty texture and very mild flavor. It's excellent spread on toast or melted into a cup of hot tea. It also looks wonderfully swanky on a charcuterie board, alongside sharp cheeses and fruit.
Once again, this label is pretty straightforward. Flavored honey has additional flavors (and usually colors) added for unique and exciting effects.
There are a lot of options out there. Don Victor's Sweet Stix include apple, banana, blueberry, cherry, chocolate, cinnamon, grape, lime, lemon, orange, peach, peppermint, pina colada, pink lemonade, raspberry, strawberry, watermelon, sour green apple, sour blue raspberry, and sour orange.
Now you know the ins and outs of honey labeling! Whichever honey you choose, make sure it's the real thing. As long as it's pure honey, you can't go wrong.
For more info about honey, bees, and the benefits of honeycomb, check out these other posts:
Need some pure raw honey right away? Chances are good it's available in a store near you!