Raw, Organic, Natural, Pasteurized, Liquid – what does it all mean?
What is the definition of raw honey?
Just about every health blog and recipe calls for the use of “raw” honey, but there’s quite a bit of confusion about what that means. Is it made differently from non-raw honey? Do things go into it or come out of it to make it raw? The labels don’t help because they usually just say “raw” but don’t explain why the honey deserves to be called that. There are essentially just two factors that determine the rawness of honey: temperature and texture.
How temperature determines raw honey
The technical definition of raw honey is very loose: it just means not heated past pasteurization. Great, now what does that mean? To understand that, it’s important to first understand what happens inside a beehive. When honeybees are at work, their collective body temperature rises and consequently warms their work area – that is, the honey. The temperature of an active hive, therefore, is about 95ºF (35ºC), and the honey is stable and “alive” – or rather, the enzymes in honey that give it the nutritional and beneficial qualities are alive. As long as the temperature of honey does not significantly rise past 95ºF/35ºC, the honey has not been pasteurized.
Many people misunderstand the concept of heating honey. There’s a myth that any heating whatsoever is harmful. But even the bees heat honey. During the dead of winter, honey can freeze inside the hive, and as clusters of bees move about their stock of food, they will reheat as necessary to feed off their comb. During the summer, the bees do not need to heat the honey, but the temperature is still about that 95ºF as long as they are working near the honey. The issue is that they heat the honey very gradually.
The irony is, people will insist the beekeeper not heat honey, but they’ll take it home and microwave it. This is called flash-heating, and this sudden (radioactive) heat destroys the enzymes and chemically changes the honey. It’s still sweet, but it’s now chemically more like a processed sweetener. In some cases, the taste may even be different. Even without any noticeable changes, the honey has lost all its nutritional value (and is no longer raw).
How texture determines raw honey
When people look for raw honey, they usually get the jar that looks very opaque, sometimes with black dots here or there. When they open the jar, they expect a near-solid chunk of gritty, pasty honey. What this really is ground up honeycomb, which potentially includes everything that could come out of a beehive: honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, and yes, even bees. Those black dots? They may be connected to slivers of bee leg, which might connect to a joint. (Never fear, the bees are very sanitary – they won’t even go to the bathroom inside the hive – so ingesting bee parts is quite safe.)
Many people can’t handle this last revelation, and it’s a real internal battle for them to buy what they think is the best for them health-wise and what they’re actually going to be eating. But remember that “raw” has to do with temperature, not texture. Having said that, the additional “stuff” does have its own set of benefits, so it’s worth the money and effort (and bravery, now that the genuine unadulterated honey has been fully disclosed) to acquire the raw stuff. I just prefer to call it the really raw honey, or straight-out-of-the-hive honey, to distinguish it from the liquid raw “pure” honey.
An additional note about the really raw honey: the consistency will depend on when it was harvested – recently harvested will be creamier and more liquidy, the longer it sits it will be like well-frozen ice cream. The beeswax is the main culprit in this situation.
Straining vs. filtering raw honey
When honey is harvested from the comb by centrifuge, it leaves behind the large chunks of beeswax. When the mostly-honey stuff is strained, little bits of beeswax are further removed. This process is called straining, and the resulting product is “pure honey”. That’s the clear, golden liquid that’s in squeeze bottles labelled “raw honey”. As long as this stuff hasn’t been heated past hive temperature, this pure honey is still raw (and much, much easier to work with in culinary settings).
There’s also another process that seems similar on the surface, but is actually very different and counterproductive to the healthfulness of honey: filtering. When straining honey, all it takes is a cheesecloth-type material to separate the beeswax chunks from the viscous honey. The pollen still goes through because it’s much finer than the mesh (and the pollen is desirable, it helps with the benefits-factor). But filtering removes significantly smaller particles, namely pollen, and the honey is that much further removed from its raw status.
A specific kind of filtering, pressure-filtering, is for large-scale operations that bottle honey as if it were bottling soda. We’re talking mega-machines that super-speedily shoots honey into their for-sale containers. The problem with this process is that to make the honey easier to work with, the temperature is also usually quite high – the higher the temperature, the more liquid the honey – which means it’s practically guaranteed that not only has the honey been pasteurized, it’s also missing all the elements that make it actual honey.
Raw Honey vs. Organic Honey
Some people think raw honey is the same as organic honey, but it’s not. “Organic honey” is when the flowers that the bees get the nectar from has not been sprayed with chemicals. Simple, right? As long as beekeepers control where the bees go, they’ll know that they’re getting honey from organic flowers. Except it’s impossible to always know where bees go because they usually fly up to 2 miles (5 km) to look for flowers that are producing enough nectar for harvesting. If they need to, they can fly up to 5 miles (8 km). So that means some quality assurance inspector needs to know for sure that all the flowers for a 2- to 5-mile radius all around the beehive are indeed organic.
A side note here to talk about Africanized bees: they’re gaining a lot of attention in the media because of how aggressive they are. In Africa, if they needed to, they can fly up to 80 miles to look for a floral source, which proves that the distance bees fly is relative to their needs. Therefore it’s really difficult to know exactly where they go. That’s why using “organic” to describe honey is really not a measurable thing.
There are some farmers who will unabashedly market their honey as being organic. They may not necessarily be liars, they may just be extremely hopeful and confident that they know where their bees are going. But the only way to really guarantee and control which flowers the bees visit is to screen everything in, like butterfly sanctuaries, so they don’t fly past their invisible leash. But who would go through all that trouble for honeybees? It’s hard enough just to keep them alive these days.
Befriending a beekeeper
Does knowing a beekeeper help in identifying raw honey? Yes, but in the sense that at some point, it’s necessary to trust somebody about the rawness of honey. Keep in mind that most beekeepers, unless they’re keeping hundreds of hives, are also buying in some of the honey that they’re selling. It’s standard practice to buy-and-sell and barter because there are so many different types of honey out there. In the US alone, it’s possible to harvest about 300 varieties of honey (that’s another article). Rather than worrying about where the beekeepers get their honey, it’s quite telling how they answer some questions:
Q: How high of a temperature do you heat the honey?
A: Uh… I don’t know. (Red flag!)
Q: Is the honey organic?
A: Absolutely! (Red flag!)
Q: Are there bee bits in the honey?
A: No! Everything is filtered out. (Everything?? Red flag!)
The real question is if there’s a way to establish some sort of a relationship with beekeepers and see how willing they are to share their processes of harvesting and bottling. If they’re completely unwilling, that’s fine, maybe they have some trade secrets that they don’t want to be copied. That’s understandable and perfectly reasonable. But that also means their customers are in the dark about what they’re really buying and eating. And that’s the underlying problem: people are too far removed from their food source. That’s why an entire industry can call something “raw”… and how everybody can know they need it without knowing what that means.