FOOD MATTERS: Some honey sources far from sweet

Like many results of economic globalization, honey from poorly-regulated sources can be untrustworthy.

The recent beekeeping workshop sponsored by Nanaimo Foodshare reminded me that there is more to be said about honey.

In our household we have been replacing cane sugar with honey in our bread, cake, dessert sauces, salad dressings and sticky sauces.

We use local honey because we believe in supporting local producers, we can buy it in large or small quantities and we are pretty sure it does not come with antibiotics or heavy metals.

Honey is a remarkable food staple that has been around for thousands of years as a natural product. And bees are essential for the pollination of about one-third of the world’s supply of fruits, nuts and vegetables, making them essential to our continued healthy nutrition.

Certain strains of New Zealand organic manuka honey even have remarkable medicinal properties.

The only intrinsic danger from honey is in its potential to collect botulism spores, which can be dangerous to infants but not older children or adults.

As well as the liquid honey, the wax gives us sweet-smelling candles. As a child, I remember my delight when we had honeycomb and I could chomp down on a lump and continue chewing on the wax after the sweet stuff was gone.

We distinguished between the dominant flavours of honeys which depended on which flowers had provided the nectars. Our favourite was heather honey, which was rich and dark and seemed thicker than the clover or willow herb (fireweed) varieties which were also readily available.

I learned to let the cold butter soften on my toasted bread so that I could stir in teaspoons of honey, creating a stable, butter-flavoured coating. The butter had not been in the fridge, but it might as well have been in the days before central heating.

Like many results of economic globalization, honey from poorly-regulated sources, especially Asia, particularly China, can be untrustworthy due to deliberate adulteration or hazardous production methods.

Antibiotics have been found in many tests of Chinese honey, having been used to improve the health of ailing bee colonies. And heavy metals can be transferred to honey kept in certain metal containers.

Chinese honey is illegal in the European Union. But only contaminated honey is illegal in the U.S. and Canada, putting the onus on national food agencies to test for irregularities.

An estimated one-third or more of all honey on U.S. grocery shelves is Chinese, despite heavy tariffs imposed to prevent dumping of artificially cheap honey from that source.

The practice of buying through Vietnam or India (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is now known as honey laundering.

What can we do?

Buy from local beekeepers. Grow lots of flowers without noxious pesticides. Read labels, even if you have to carry a magnifying glass.


Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society.  She can be reached at