Everything you thought you knew about British honey is wrong
Sometimes it feels as if we have finally arrived at a better place with our food values. The origin of our chicken is as important to us these days as the price. We consider air miles, fret over unnecessary packaging, drink less milk, try not to buy unethical shellfish. But there are still some things we throw in the trolley without giving them much thought, trusting they are what they say on the tin – and that includes honey.
This week, however, we learned that much of the honey we buy is fake, or contaminated. Not only is much of the honey we export to the EU not really British, it seems, but nor is it made up of pure, untampered with honey.
In a new report, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre tested 10 samples from the UK – every single one was discovered to have been adulterated in some way. While the honey may have been blended or packaged in Britain, the report found it was likely its contents had originated overseas.
It’s also likely, experts say, that the 330g of amber syrup in one jar will be made up of a blend of honey from several corners of the globe, from Kent to Vietnam. Worse still, the contents may have been mixed with cheap sugar syrup and colouring. In fact, unless you are buying from a small local producer, the honey you enjoy on your morning yogurt may never have enjoyed more than a brief sojourn in a beehive.
There are certain products you expect to be imported, but for some reason honey isn’t one of them. It doesn’t help that the packaging on even the cheapest own-brand options will often depict an old-fashioned, bucolic scene that lets your subconscious know this is a Reliable British Product. The label might even say it can be traced “back to the hive”; the marketing might use words such as “pure” and “natural”. So far, so good. But turn it over and you’ll read three little words: “non-EU blend”.
That should make sense – we did leave the EU, after all. The trouble is, those words don’t necessarily mean the honey is British. It’s easy to assume honey is British because we know we can make honey here easily, the conditions are right and we’re always hearing about the boom in beekeeping.
The number of beehives in London alone more than doubled between 2011 and 2021, when the London Beekeepers’ Association estimated there were 7,400 hives in the capital. It’s the hobby du jour for A-listers too – everyone from David Beckham to Ed Sheeran and the Queen Consort are keen apiarists these days.
So what’s going wrong? Sarah Wyndham Lewis, of Bermondsey Street Bees – a raw honey producer in London, says the cheap supermarket honey we have grown accustomed to is made from a mix of honeys “from all over the world”. A lot of it will be from China, where the honey has a “very high chance of being corrupted and adulterated”.
“Most Chinese honey, according to the UN Food Code, does not meet the basic requirements,” says Wyndham Lewis. “They’re grabbing the honey before the bees have had the chance to turn the nectar into proper honey. So you’re already dealing with a product that doesn’t meet global standards, let alone if they [then] corrupt it.”
Part of the problem is that we don’t make enough honey in this country to satisfy demand. Honey is seen as a commodity, not a luxury – something we’ve grown accustomed to buying cheap so we can slather it daily on our toast and stir through our porridge. “We don’t have enough borage or hives, so we import quite a lot of honey,” explains Diane Drinkwater, chair of the British Beekeepers’ Association [BBA].
And it’s not just a British problem – the EU imports around 40 per cent of its honey.
Large-scale international honey production is never going to be as natural – it takes a year to make a proper honey harvest. Any honey under £9, then, is “unlikely to be proper honey”, advises Wyndham Lewis.
Honey production should be a slow process, as the honey goes from runny nectar to concentrated syrup in the hive. “The bees are supposed to process it,” explains Drinkwater. “But in countries like China they have machines that you can put very liquid nectar in and it will do the work of the bees. Legally, that’s not honey.”
Officially, honey should contain no more than 20 per cent water. When produced naturally, the bees do all that work. At the worst end of the scale, Drinkwater says, honey-packers “just make a sugar solution up and put it in this machine and it evaporates off the water and produces ‘honey’ that doesn’t meet our regulations. [...] It’s possible some of it has never seen a hive.”
If you wanted to attempt to trace the origins of a jar of honey, you would struggle to do so. Much of the cheap honey you can buy has been filtered “to remove the pollen”, says Drinkwater. Pollen is like the honey’s DNA. “[It’s] the bit we can scientifically identify as to what flowers [the bees] were on, but the commercial process removes the pollen and therefore removes the evidence of where it’s from.”
Even the more upmarket jars can be hard to trust. “You may have a jar of honey that’s got a piece of comb honey in it and it’s very attractive and beautiful, but when it’s not from this country, the chances are it may be a real piece of honeycomb but backfilled with syrup.”
Most British honey has not, according to Wyndham Lewis, been tampered with. But the cheap stuff you buy from the supermarket (the origin of which will be suspiciously vague on the packaging) is likely to have been.
The global commercial honey industry, she says, has become something grubby, something Wyndham Lewis describes as being akin to the drugs industry, with endless hands and processes inflicted on the product, and cut with things like it to make it cheaper.
Fraudulent practices are “embedded in honey culture” now, she adds. And while the health risks are low, it does defraud consumers. Meanwhile, the low prices jeopardise producers competing with products that contain illicit ingredients.
“It’s easier than drugs – you’re making the same sort of money and no one’s going to arrest you and throw you in prison,” notes Wyndham Lewis. There are companies, she says, “hiding in plain sight, looking like British producers and not actually using, necessarily, all British honey.”
It’s the consumer that suffers, says Drinkwater, who says we “have a right to know where [our] food comes from”.
So how can you be sure you are buying a pure British product? Wyndham Lewis is a honey sommelier and “can tell when something has had sugar added – either [because] the bees have been fed sugar or sugar has been added during the honey process. It behaves in a different way in my mouth, the sugars don’t do the same thing as the glucose and fructose that has been processed by bees and had their enzymes added to it.”
So if you don’t have time to conduct your own honey tasting? You’ll need to pay for it. Better bin that squeezy supermarket bottle and start rationing the £12 jar from the farmer’s market. It might be the only honey you can trust.