Sticky switcheroo: FDA cracks down on honey labeling

FDA cracks down on honey labeling
FDA cracks down on honey labeling

Have you been duped by a honey poser?

Companies have been selling sugary, sticky honey blends on grocery store shelves for years, adding syrups or sweeteners not made naturally by bees, but hiding their fraud on the packaging under the label “honey.” This food fraud also applies to foods that list “honey” as an ingredient. You might not be getting the real thing.

The Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines Tuesday that will require companies to label any honey that is not pure, or even food containing this honey, with “blend of sugar and honey” or “blend of honey and corn syrup,” depending on the ingredients. This policy change is the result of organizations like the American Beekeeping Federation and other honey associations petitioning against the common food industry practice of misrepresenting “pure honey.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

So why do we care?

Calorically, honey and sugar have approximately the same amount of calories if you compare teaspoons, said Alicia Romano, a clinical registered dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center. “But with raw honey you might get more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties. Ultimately, though, the way our bodies break down the two is the same.”

Pure honey is part sugar (glucose and fructose) and part minerals (iron, calcium, phosphate, potassium, magnesium, and sodium chlorine). While many of the medicinal properties attributed to honey require further research, the natural process of honey gives it anti-inflammatory properties that you may miss out on in a sugary substitute.

For example, a 2012 randomized, placebo-controlled study published in the journal Pediatrics found that natural honey (recommended by the World Health Organization as a cough medication) was superior to a placebo in alleviating a night-time cough associated with upper respiratory infections for children older than one year.

But don’t go honey-crazy yet. Sugar (glucose and fructose) still makes up the majority of pure honey.

“Sugar is sugar and should be treated that way,” said Romano. “There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done to compare sugars and additives, but for people who are trying to get away from table sugar and sugar substitutes such as Stevia or Splenda, a teaspoon or two of natural honey added to unsweetened Greek yogurt, on top of oatmeal, and added to smoothies with berries, greens, and yogurt is a way to use honey that’s porton controlled and not adding extra sugar or calories.”

While the new guidance from the FDA still needs to be finalized, Siobhan DeLancey, a spokesperson for the FDA, said in an email exchange that it represents the FDA’s current thinking on the topic and is meant to provide guidance for companies on how to label honey properly.

“It sounds like this move from the FDA is trying to keep with the trend of keeping foods in their least processed forms, while taking away additional additives and processing. People are trying to get away from that now,” said Romano.

So what should you look for on the nutrition label? The current standards for honey labeling simply require that the word “honey” be visible on the label. Any ingredients other than honey have to be listed in an ingredients list, according to the FDA, but spices, flavorings, and additives that have “no functional role” and “minimal presence on the finished product” have special rules and don’t have to be listed. The “blended” honey will also have the old labels until these regulations are finalized. (Which means, there are still posers in our midst.)

While some American beekeeping groups have developed “pure honey” certifications that are helpful, you still have to watch out for terms like “natural” which are not formally regulated by the FDA on food labels. If you’re serious about your natural honey properties, it’s best to stick with organic or raw honey that hasn’t been processed.