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Not So Sweet Side of Honey

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From possums in drawers to earthworms in the refrigerator and honeybees in his backyard, Tim Brod, owner of Highland Honeybees in Boulder, CO, has always had a deep connection with animals of any kind. Brod helps beekeepers and consumers understand the benefits, realities, and responsibilities that accompany beekeeping and honey.

Honeybee decline is a serious concern. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, a third of all vegetables and fruits produced are pollinated by honeybees. Without them, our entire food system would suffer.

But when you buy honey from your local grocery store, is it helping or hurting the bees? How can you be sure that what you’re purchasing is good for you and for the environment?

The myth of local honey

According to Brod, most of the honey advertised as ‘local’ in grocery stores, possibly even from trusted natural retailers, is not truly local.

“If you go into any store, from Whole Foods to Safeway, it’s really all the same. It will say local honey, ‘unheated and raw,’ and you can buy a huge jug of it for ten dollars. The only thing that is local about it is probably that they have a company that does its packaging locally.”

Consumers want to do the right thing. If they are able and willing to support local products, they will. This is where marketing companies and supermarket giants deceive customers. While honey labels sometimes tout a product as local, Brod argues that it most likely is not.

For honey, there is no national board or oversight that designates what it means to be local, unheated, and raw. There are no USDA Organic seals, or GMO-free verified stamps. The labels of honey are not nationally regulated because the FDA has not found a successful way to monitor bees and what plants they encounter.

So ... what can you do about it?

Question every source

Imagine this: You enter the grocery store, and you’re looking at the honey shelf, filled with eight different types of products. A few say ‘local,’ and a few are from other parts of the country and the world. If the honey that is supposedly local has the same consistency and color as the one from across the country, consider this a red flag.

“Many of us are money conscious, as we should be, but you don’t confuse a Coors Light with a good microbrew. You use them differently. You know with a Coors Light you can get 12 cans for a few dollars, while a craft artisan beer will cost you much more. You don’t blink an eye at this difference, but you make a choice. That has not yet happened with honey,” says Brod.

Instead of taking labels at face value and blindly believing them, listen to what your intuition and common sense tells you; if a so-called 'natural, local' jar of honey is extremely inexpensive for the amount you’re getting, it probably isn’t what it appears to be. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

You can also ask your grocer which honey is local and natural.

“Just begin to ask that question," Brod says. "Begin to open and force transparency. We want to eat good foods and support the environment and our locality. You don’t help pollinators by continuing to buy bad honey.” It’s the same principle as wine or beer: They are all packaged in similar bottles, but you know each bottle delivers a different taste, experience and terroir. You should make it a reflex to ask farmers and grocers questions about honey, continues Brod.

Why should you buy high-quality (truly) local honey?

While the search to find real and authentic honey seems arduous, Brod argues that it’s worth it. Honey’s sought-after health benefits aren’t as profound if the honey isn’t natural, unheated, raw and/or local.

According to Carlen Jupe, Secretary and Treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association, when people are looking for local honey, they are typically searching for an allergy remedy. “While I have heard of only one scientific study on whether honey does help against some allergies, I have received many testimonials about my own local honey that affirm this,” Jupe explains.

The idea of eating local honey to help with allergies is similar to that of a vaccination. The pollen in the honey, which is lost in a heated product, introduces a miniscule amount of irritants. This allows your immune system to build a defense without making you sick. Most conventional honeys require the removal of pollen, which negates this benefit.

Another downside to removing pollen? You lose the ability to track where it came from, which primes suppliers to wrongly label honey as ‘local’ as a marketing ploy.

When buying honey, try to buy from a beekeeper that directly works with the bees and knows the nuances of the process. They will be able to answer your questions and are highly invested in all parts of the process, from harvesting the product to educating the customer.

In addition to the health benefits, buying local honey supports your local economy. Beekeepers are ambassadors for the cause of saving honeybees. “We’re coming back to a more sustainable model of food," Brod says. "Let’s begin a transparent and real process that lets you—a smart, educated, competent consumer—make the right choice for yourself and your family.”

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