At the beginning of the year when I decided to take the plunge into my apiary adventure, the fascination with honeybees and the multitude of questions I received from a variety of individuals surprised and delighted me. I was frequently bombarded with questions and advice. Now, except for the basic “How are your bees doing?”, I receive fewer inquiries. However, the one most recently asked question seems to demand some answers. Friends and others want to know, “What is the difference between raw honey, pure honey and natural honey?”
Obviously, being a new beekeeper with little food science background, I am far from being an expert in the field. But thanks to Google and my research skills, I can answer the question with a fair amount of accuracy.
In the world of food labeling, things can get a bit confusing and it is no different in the honey labeling department. At this point, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only has recommendations, rather than iron clad definitions, for honey labeling (as of 2015). Wading through the semantics, pure and natural, can befuddle the most ardent language lover. Based upon FDA recommendations, the following explanations may help to clear some misunderstandings when you purchase your next jar of golden goodness. (see references below)
Natural - According to food science, the term natural is a food product that comes straight from the earth and directly to the dinner table without human intervention. However, there are very few foods that follow this path without some form of processing. Processed honey can legally be and is labeled as “natural” because the FDA has not established a formal definition of the word in terms of honey production. According to its website, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term (natural) if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Natural honey can contain sugar and corn syrup.
Pure - The purest definition of this word can also be a sticky wicket. As it relates to honey, a jar of the pure stuff is also a processed honey but no additional ingredients such as sugar, artificial and natural flavorings or corn syrup has been added. Processed honey has been pasteurized by heating it up to approximately 160 degrees. This process can eliminate some of the goodness honey offers in it raw state.
Raw - Raw honey is a non-processed food containing no additional ingredients, is removed directly from the hive, put into a centrifuge to take honey out of the comb, strained to eliminate wax debris and then put directly into the jar. It goes straight from mother nature and into your hands (or mouth) and this is honey in its purest and most natural form. Many claim raw honey offers a variety of medicinal properties but more research is needed to verify these claims. However, it is difficult to believe that a dab of raw honey in your oatmeal or morning tea would not have any stress reducing effects.
As for my tribe of honeybees and their production of honey, I will have to wait until next year to fully enjoy the sweet golden treasure that will be a gift to me, my family and friends. My hive is entering its fourth month of development and thus a new hive. As a result, all the healthy and considerable honey they have produced thus far goes toward surviving their first Maine winter. I did, however, get the opportunity to remove a small amount of capped honey the bees built in the bee feeder. That one teaspoon of liquid gold directly from the hive melted in my mouth with a gentle sweetness I’ve never experienced. It was warm, delicious, and raw - just as I had imagined.