Ultimate Guide to Honey
When you buy a bottle of honey from your local beekeeper or you toss a bottle into your cart at the supermarket, you might not realize how unique your purchase is. There are more than 300 types of honey (monofloral honey) produced in just the US, and the one you’ve selected might be completely different from any you’ve ever tried before.
What many consider “common knowledge” about honey is actually the root of confusion. In addition to the many types of honey, there are tons of terms used interchangeably or incorrectly to describe how honey is processed (or not). Raw, pure, unfiltered, natural, organic—it’s easy to shrug and assume they all mean the same thing.
If you need some help cutting through the confusion, and understanding all the jargon on your bottle of honey, then this is the article for you. This is the ultimate guide to honey.
First, we’ll discuss honey terminology (ie raw, pure, regular) – which typically deals with how honey is processed prior to bottling and selling. Then we’ll dig into how the source of nectar determines the type of honey that the bees produce (ie wildflower, tupelo, clover). Finally, we’ll offer some guidance on selecting the right kind of honey for your needs.
Whether you buy local or shop at major supermarket chains, you’ve probably noticed the ever-expanding vocabulary in the honey aisle. Like the many types of honey, there are also plenty of ways to manufacture it. And though many of us think the various distinctions aren’t necessary, they actually are. Each classification has its own unique process.
Raw honey is honey that hasn’t been processed or filled with additives. “Raw honey comes straight from the beehive,” says Alix Turoff, MS, RD, CDN, CPT of Alix Turoff Nutrition and Fitness. “The biggest distinction is that it hasn’t been heated past pasteurization, which is about 95 degrees. Raw honey is typically strained so that bits of beeswax and bee body parts are removed.”
pictured above: beekeeper preparing to extract raw honey from one of his hives
This honey type tends to cause a bit of confusion. “You’ll typically see ‘Raw Unfiltered Honey’ on a label,” Turoff says. This is because unfiltered honey is essentially a subcategory of raw honey. But raw unfiltered honey hasn’t gone through any filtration process, unlike raw honey. “This is going to be the closest to natural as possible. It does not necessarily mean that it’s organic but it does mean that it’s raw.”
pictured above: raw unfiltered honey pouring out of honey extractor
So, honey can be raw, but that doesn’t mean it’s organic? What is organic honey? “Organic honey must follow USDA organic standards in order to be labelled as such. This means that the bee farm where the honey comes from follows organic livestock standards, which means that hives are free of chemicals and located far away from any possible chemicals,” Turoff explains. “The flowers the bees get the nectar from also can’t be sprayed with chemicals or pesticides and the bees cannot be given antibiotics.”
However, it’s important to note that an organic label doesn’t always guarantee superior nutritional quality. The label simply denotes that your honey is pesticide-free. And furthermore, Scientific American argues that most beekeepers are unable to produce truly organic honey, given their flowers and bees aren’t isolated enough from pesticide use in surrounding areas.
Though these three labels are the ones you’ll see most often, there are still some further classifications that you might come across…
This is the standard variety that you’ll typically encounter in the supermarket, also known as commercial honey. The difference between raw honey and regular honey is that regular honey has been pasteurized and filtered, with all impurities removed. Most of the micronutrients present in raw honey are destroyed in the pasteurization process or filtered out. So, if you’re hoping to reap some of the health and nutritional benefits from regular honey, think again. This honey is best used with as a sweetener.
Pure honey is a term that many use incorrectly or interchangeably with raw honey. However, it’s not quite the same. The difference between raw and pure honey is that the ‘pure’ tag only ensures honey doesn’t have any additional ingredients included (other than honey).
Pure honey has likely been processed (typically pasteurized and filtered), unless also tagged as raw. Regular honey may have additives like sugar, flavoring, or corn syrup included. Pure honey doesn’t have these flavor boosts.
Natural honey doesn’t have any artificial additives, but it can still have natural ones. Additionally, the USDA doesn’t regulate natural honey the way it monitors organic claims. So, there’s no guarantee you’re getting what you pay for when you buy a bottle with ‘natural’ on the label.
These classifications are important when deciding what kind of honey you’re looking for. In addition the nutritional impact, the appearance and texture can vary depending on what category of honey you buy. For example, regular honey is often the smoothest due to the high amount of processing it goes through.
The honey terminology we’ve discussed so far has predominantly dealt with the work done after bees complete their job – mostly how honey is processed after leaving the hive. However, when shopping for honey it’s important to consider the nectar source(s) – as that is what most critically impacts taste and color.
Monofloral Honey vs Polyfloral Honey
“Monofloral honey is made from the nectar of a single plant, such as sunflower or lavender, but really, this is hard to find because bees can’t really be restricted to only certain flowers,” Turoff says. Thus, regardless of how your honey was processed, unless the nectar source is clearly indicated on the label you’re probably buying polyfloral honey. This is honey that’s made from the nectar of multiple plants, and is often referred to as wildflower honey.
The type of honey you choose depends on the taste you prefer. “The issue with wildflower honey is that the taste is less predictable because there are so many different varieties.” If you’re dead set on a certain flavor, you should buy monofloral. You may have to work a little harder to find it, but you’ll know what you’re buying. Polyfloral or wildflower honey is more of a wild card.
Nectar Gathering – How Different Types of Honey Are Made
As mentioned above, the nectar source matters because this is the biggest factor affecting your honey’s taste. To understand this, it’s best to briefly examine how nectar is foraged and collected by bees…
Adult worker bees visit flowers in the area (typically about a 2 mile radius from their hive), often visiting plentiful sources of nectar again and again until the hive has enough honey in production.
If a nectar source isn’t abundant, worker bees will move on to other plants or flowers to find honey. Bees that repeatedly draw nectar only from the same plant over and over again (or only have access to a single type of plant) produce monofloral honey, which should have a consistent taste and look. Bees that run out of resources and move on to other flowers produce polyfloral or wildflower honey.
The nectar source directly impacts how light or dark the honey is as well as its flavor and smell. For example, monofloral alfalfa honey is light and has a mild flavor, while tupelo honey has a light amber color with a green tint and a much more distinctive taste.
Popular Monofloral Varieties
With so many types of honey on the market, figuring out which one best suits your tastes or pairs well with a food item can be quite the challenge. We’ve provided a run-down of some of the most popular monofloral varieties below.
This varietal is sourced from the nectar of the black locust tree (pictured below). The color is much lighter than most are accustomed to; its appearance ranges from water white to pale amber. Its flavor is mild but tends to be a bit tangy, with some floral notes. An interesting nugget for those who are slow to eat their honey (or store it for long periods of time) - acacia honey doesn’t crystallize.
You’ll notice with most honey that the flavor becomes stronger, in conjunction with darker colors. This is most certainly the case with buckwheat honey. It’s dark brown, and its taste is full-bodied and strong. This particular honey source is iron-rich and the resulting honey has been shown to have more antioxidants than some other varietals.
Clover honey is one of the most popular varietals in the U.S. It’s a versatile option that errs on the mild side when it comes to taste. Its appearance is similar to that of acacia—it lands somewhere between water white and amber. Its flavor is delicate, characterized by some as having both tangy as well as sweet floral notes. This combo often leaves a slight sour aftertaste. It’s popular for cooking, and is a common ingredient in home baked dishes, salad dressings, and sauces.
Orange Blossom Honey
Orange blossom honey stays true to its name. The flavor profile skews heavily citrus, and the color falls in the mid-range between light and dark amber. Because of its fruity flavor, it’s a popular addition to yogurt, toast, cheese, and even fruit.
pictured above: honey bee on the flower of an orange tree
Sourwood, which often appears as light amber or medium amber, has a rich flavor that registers as butter or even caramel. There are hints of spicy ginger as well. It has a pleasant aftertaste, and sometimes serves as an unorthodox replacement for butter at the dinner table.
As mentioned prior, tupelo honey has a clear yellow color with a distinct green tint. Its taste is mild, yet offbeat. This honey has a lot of fructose, which makes it one of the sweetest on the market. This is great for sweetening a wide range of dishes, and when it comes to storage – similar to acacia honey - you don’t have to worry about tupelo honey crystallizing.
Conclusion-Which Type of Honey is Right for You?
With your newfound honey knowledge, it should be easy to select the best honey for you and your family, right? Or maybe you were hoping for a push in the right direction.
While finding your favorite by trial and error is totally fine, asking yourself the following questions can provide a bit of guidance as you select your honey…
Buying honey for nutritional or health benefits?
- If you’re looking for a bigger serving of antioxidants, perhaps a monofloral variety like buckwheat honey is your best choice.
- However, let’s say you’re looking for a honey to help alleviate your allergy symptoms, but are unaware of the allergen causing you trouble. Local wildflower honey could be your best bet, as the bees involved in creating it collect nectar from a wide spectrum of local plants, and bits of each plant’s pollen often make their way onto the bees – and in turn, the subsequent honey that is produced. It’s believed by many that ingesting this pollen could help strengthen your immune system’s defenses against the same environmental allergens causing you trouble.
Thinking about baking with honey?
- If you do a lot of baking, many recipes call for a specific (monofloral) varietal in order to create a certain flavor profile. Thus, your menu might dictate the kind of honey you keep in your cabinet. Additionally, it takes less honey to sweeten dishes, compared to sugar. It’s a healthier way to add flavor and save calories.
Looking for a specific or consistent flavor?
- Some varietals, like sourwood honey, have flavors that are borderline savory, while tupelo honey is expected to have a much sweeter taste. A good rule of thumb is to remember that generally, monofloral varieties from the same nectar source should have a relatively consistent taste, while the taste of polyfloral honey (wildflower honey) will vary greatly depending on which plants the bees visited to produce it.
Honey has so many unique properties, but perhaps what’s most unique is its variety. There’s so much more to a small bottle of honey than meets the eye. Hopefully, this guide will help you on your journey to experience new types of honey and to find your favorite.