Honey is honey, right? Not so, according to Grace Pundyk, author of The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees (St. Martin’s Press; August 2010). Honey can mean different things to different cultures–and it is not always what you think you’re buying.
Pundyk’s book is about her journey around the world in search of the best honey that took her on a tour of an industry, its ecological and economic impact, and its widely varying cultural differences. Nat Geo News Watch invited her to write a commentary about her work.
By Grace Pundyk
You can tell a lot about a place by its honey. Greek thyme honey conjures a mosaic of smashed plates and ouzo. French honey is just about perfect. Italian chestnut honey gesticulates wildly. Try a spoonful of wild honey from Borneo and you are crawling up steep jungle in search of some rare and exotic flower. Himalayan honey is about as high as you can get on the path to God. Polish honey is secretive and musty, like some obliterated village beneath Stalin’s concrete. Portuguese honey sighs with unfulfilled longing. And Turkish pine honey’s woody scent and resinous flavor can transport you right into those sappy, sun-soaked Anatolian forests.
In fact, since traveling the world in search of bees and the sweet nectar they produce in order to write my book, The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees, I will even go as far as claiming that honey is the United Nations of the food world, the one ingredient that soothes and heals.
It speaks of speaks of lost civilizations and distant migration; conjures images of the deserts and mountains from whence it comes; tells of the evolution and adaptability of plants, and reveals the history of us, if only we can take the time to listen and look a little closer.
I now live on the island of Tasmania and keep five hives there, but when I embarked on my global journey it was simply because I liked honey; I knew nothing about bees back then. But my travels through countries such as Yemen, Borneo, Russia, the United States and China, not only taught me about bee-keeping practices around the world, they also revealed things that were not always sweet.
Bees and honey have woven a path through history that dissolves borders and time, transcends cultures and religion. They truly are universal in their reach. Sadly, though, they are also reflecting many of the problems brought about by human greed.
Banned honey and smuggling rackets, suspected terrorist activities, bee viruses, environmental degradation, Colony Collapse Disorder, the use of GM crops and pesticides and the power of global food giants to dictate to an often-unsuspecting public what they can eat are just some of the issues I encountered that are affecting bees and honey worldwide.
So what exactly is honey? Depending on the country you live in the definition may differ, but if we go with the one provided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Orgnaization (FAO), honey is: the natural sweet substance, produced by honeybees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants, or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living part of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store, and leave in the honeycombs to ripen and mature.
“Around 1.2 million metric tons of honey is produced worldwide each year. When you think that one little bee in its entire lifetime produces only about a spoonful of honey, it’s a humbling amount.”
Around 1.2 million metric tons of honey is produced worldwide each year. When you think that one little bee in its entire lifetime produces only about a spoonful of honey, it’s a humbling amount. The main raw honey producers are China, Argentina, and Mexico, and the biggest importers are Japan, the United States, and the European Union.
China is the world’s largest honey producer and the largest raw honey supplier in the global market, and Chinese honey usually defines world honey prices. But since 2001, a lot of Chinese honey has been found to contain the banned antibiotic chloramphenicol. This resulted in an almost worldwide ban on Chinese honey, because, in some rare cases, this drug can be fatal to humans.
But what do you do if you are a world honey leader, if your aspirations to maintain this world dominance still stand strong, and some of your largest markets suddenly close their doors in your face?
Some call it circumventing, though I would call it smuggling. Chinese honey started turning up in countries like Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Turkey, and Malaysia. This in itself is not necessarily bad, but the fact that it was being shipped out as a product of these countries is fairly alarming.
My journey through China revealed that country’s efforts to improve its honey harvesting and processing methods.
Even so, the Chinese have also managed to find another way around the adulterated honey issue. Ultrafiltered honey, more commonly referred to as UF honey, is diluted with liters of water, heated to a high temperature, passed through an ultrafine ceramic or carbon filter, and then evaporated down to syrup again. In the process not only is every trace of impurity, including that of any banned antibiotics, removed, but all the good things that make honey what it is are also destroyed.
Despite most honey “experts” agreeing that the end UF product is not honey at all, but rather a sweetener derived from honey, it is readily traded on the global market, often blended with the real thing.
Countries such as the United States openly allow these cheaper “honey blends” into the country. And they are not only popular with the big food giants, keen to use “honey” in their “healthy” processed foods, they also often end up on supermarket shelves labeled as “pure honey.”
Most of us don’t realize that brand honey is big business, and the global food industry is more than willing to choose a cheaper, impure product over the real thing to appeal to our desire for something “healthy” and “pure”.
But there is a fine line between blindly buying into the image of honey as a pure and noble food and actually knowing its true worth. Fortunately, there is renewed interest within many communities around the world in beekeeping and also for sourcing local honey, which in turn translates into an awareness of other bigger-picture environmental issues. This is how positive change is effected.
Grace Pundyk’s work has appeared in travel publications, magazines, and newspapers. She lives on the island of Tasmania.
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