Updated on September 12th, 2022
Much of the honey found on your supermarket shelves has been processed by large distributors in ways that alter key properties found in honey right out of the hive. In other words, it is NOT raw honey.
Raw honey is honey just the way the bees made it. It is unpasteurized and unfiltered honey. Though strained to remove large particles, raw honey is not finely filtered. Without significant heating and fine filtering, the chemical composition of the raw honey is unchanged, leaving its beneficial elements intact.
Comb honey, taken intact from the hive, is the ultimate form of raw honey. Honeycomb is simply cut from the frame. Nothing is removed or processed. Comb honey has any wax, pollen, propolis, and bee parts (yes, bee parts) that the colony may have enclosed in the cells.
See our article How To Eat Honeycomb (Yes, It’s Edible!)
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What Is Raw Honey?
Raw Honey vs. Processed Honey
Raw honey is removed from the beehive and lightly processed in ways that do not materially alter its chemical makeup or remove its essential components.
For example, raw honey may be strained to move large foreign particles such as chunks of wax. Beekeepers may heat honey slightly to improve viscosity for bottling purposes.
When you eat raw honey, you are eating the same honey that serves as the honey bee’s primary food source.
Regular honey sold in most groceries is processed in ways such that it is no longer raw. Pasteurization (which requires much more heat than needed just for bottling) and filtration remove or alter many components of honey provided by the bees: pollen, and amino acids. yeast cells, vitamins, and nutrients.
See our article What Is Honey? for details on how bees make honey and the chemical composition of honey.
To create the liquid honey found in most stores, processors change the basic makeup of the product.
Legal Definitions Of Raw Honey
The National Honey Board (the “NHB”), which operates under U. S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) oversight, defines raw honey as “honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat.”
While the National Honey Board acknowledges that its definition of raw honey is not legally binding under Federal law, individual states may have particular regulations.
For example, to label honey as raw in New York State:
- Producers must abide by the NHB definition of raw honey;
- Honey must not be heated above 104°F (40°C) during processing, preserving naturally occurring enzymes and flavors; and,
- Removal of air bubbles and large debris (while keeping pollen content) is best done by letting the honey settle or using a filter no smaller than 600 microns.
- (Source: Food Safety Best Management Practices for Producing Honey in New York State from Empire State Honey Producers Association and Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences)
Some states rely on the NHB definition. Utah permits heating honey up to 118°F (86.7°C).
If you want to market raw honey for sale, check labeling regulations in your area.
Why Is Honey Pasteurized And Filtered?
If honey is not labeled as raw, assume it has been heated, most likely pasteurized and filtered.
“Pasteurization … is a process in which water and certain packaged and non-packaged foods (such as milk and fruit juice) are treated with mild heat, usually to less than 100 °C (212 °F), to eliminate pathogens and extend shelf life.”
Since honey is known to be antibacterial and can be consumed raw, you might wonder why honey is pasteurized.
Pasteurization and filtration of honey have little to do with food safety and a whole lot to do with shelf life and marketing regular honey to consumers. For example, according to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, there is no requirement to pasteurize honey in Canada.
Honey will crystallize or granulate over time, turning from a thick, flowing liquid to a semi-solid granular state. Granulation occurs because of honey’s high concentration of glucose.
Thermal pasteurization of honey dissolves some of the glucose, slowing down crystallization.
Heat also lowers honey’s viscosity increasing its flow rate, and making it easier to filter out minute particles such as pollen. Removing these particles further impedes crystallization.
See our article Why Does Honey Crystallize? for more infromation.
Raw honey may completely granulate in a relatively short period. However, consumers prefer honey in liquid form, and many seem to think that crystallized honey has gone bad. So, the supermarket shelves showcase easily pourable, processed honey.
Raw honey may ferment due to its combination of moisture, yeast, and enzymes. Fermentation will change the smell and taste of honey.
Pasteurization kills the yeast spores preventing fermentation, and extending the time honey is in the form customers expect.
However, unsealed pasteurized honey starts to accumulate airborne yeast spores. Thus, fermentation can eventually occur.
The USDA’s United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey outlines grading standards for extracted honey. Among the factors considered in grading honey are:
- Absence of defects meaning the degree of freedom from suspended particles such as comb or propolis. To be graded A, honey should be “practically free” of defects (i.e., none that affect appearance or edibility).
- Clarity or apparent transparency.
- Flavor and aroma.
Any crystallized honey is liquified by heating to 130°F (54.4°C) and then cooled before determining the grade.
Consumers value Grade A ratings as a sign of quality assurance in purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, producers grade their honey without independent verification.
While reputable producers will make every effort to comply with grading requirements, all producers are incentivized to create the perception that high-quality standards. Heating and filtering honey support those efforts.
Benefits Of Raw Honey vs. Processed Honey
The NHB sponsored a study that “showed that processing significantly reduced the pollen content of the honey, but did not affect the nutrient content or antioxidant activity, leading the researchers to conclude that the micronutrient profile of honey is not associated with its pollen content and is not affected by commercial processing.”
Honey contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
Enzymes are protein molecules in cells which work as biological catalysts.Enzymes speed up chemical reactions in the body, but do not get used up in the process, therefore can be used over and over again.https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzyme
Almost all biochemical reactions in living things need enzymes.
The levels of these items in honey are relatively small. However, they can be damaged from the heating process so you are more likely to obtain their benefit from consuming raw honey.
Antioxidants are present in raw honey and can also be damaged by heat. Antioxidant properties are considered protection against free radicals, unstable atoms that play a role in aging, and the development of cancer among other things.
Commercially filtered honey contains virtually no pollen. Raw honey has traces of pollen but not it is not a significant component.
If you want the beneficial effects of pollen consumption such as relieving inflammation or reducing stress, you’d be better off buying pollen from a reputable source. Be careful to consult a doctor, particularly if allergic to bee venom, before taking pollen.
Demand for honey in the United States far outstrips the domestic supply. Much of the honey sold here has to be imported. This can lead to some serious quality issues with conventional honey.
The addition of sugar or high fructose corn syrup is a not uncommon practice to increase the supply of “honey”. One study that found “27% of commercial honey samples tested were of questionable authenticity” also stated that “honey is the world’s third most adulterated food.” (Source: Zhou, X., Taylor, M.P., Salouros, H. et al. Authenticity and geographic origin of global honeys determined using carbon isotope ratios and trace elements. Sci Rep8, 14639 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-32764-w
If you want pure honey, get raw honey from reputable suppliers (like your local beekeeper).
For The Hobby Beekeeper
Backyard beekeepers are less likely to have expensive extraction and filtering equipment. With limited amounts of honey to harvest, comb honey and bottling without heat are the simplest methods. As a result, hobby beekeepers generally produce raw honey
I can see where some low levels of heat might speed the process by letting honey flow faster even for light straining. Some heat may also improve the honey by lowering the moisture content to proper levels if it’s too high. We think the bees know the right moisture level better than we do. If they capped, we’re good with it. (And it’s one less thing we need to do.)
If you have not tried raw honey, here are some suggestions:
Is Raw Honey Organic?
Raw honey does not mean “organic” honey. It is challenging, if not impossible, to determine if any honey is organic.
The Organic Trade Association’s Organic Standards state that “products bearing the USDA organic label be grown and processed without the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge, and irradiation.”
It’s nearly impossible to verify that some of these conditions are met.
Honey bees may fly 2 miles (1.6 Km) or more foraging for nectar and pollen. You would need to verify that no plants in their flight radius harbor toxic and synthetic pesticides.
Some beekeepers may treat their colonies with antibiotics to control American Foulbrood. I have no idea if there’s a way to test for that.
Scientific American says “Organic Honey Is A Sweet Illusion.” In addition to the “staggering amount of territory” covered by foraging bees, chemicals used to control Varroa mites accumulate in beeswax and linger for a long time. A cited survey found that 98% of samples of commercially available beeswax contaminated with miticides. (source: Mullin CA, Frazier M, Frazier JL, Ashcraft S, Simonds R, et al. (2010) High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009754)
I know some honey is labeled and sold as “organic” but have no idea how that could be properly determined. I would not pay extra for honey because it is labeled organic.
Cutting comb honey out of foundationless frames is easy. See our article Foundationless Frames (Foundationless Beekeeping Basics) and watch the video below.
If you have not cut your own comb (or you do not keep bees), try some comb honey from your local beekeeper. If you don’t have a local source, we suggest the following:
Raw Honey’s Potential Risks
People tend to associate pasteurization with food safety protocols and may assume that processed honey is free of this bacterium. However, pasteurization does not destroy Clostridium botulinum. It may be present in both raw and processed honey.
According to the USDA, “Botulism is a life-threatening disease caused by the ingestion of a potent neurotoxin produced during growth of the C. botulinum bacteria. This neurotoxin is among the most toxic substances known…”
The Mayo Clinic advises, “Avoid giving honey — even a tiny taste — to babies under the age of 1 year”. They have yet to develop beneficial bacteria that may protect them from Clostridium botulinum spores.
Some recommend that women that are pregnant or breastfeeding should also avoid honey.
Potential For Allergic Reactions
According to WebMD, consuming raw, unprocessed honey may trigger an allergic reaction in rare instances. Raw honey generally has pollen and bee parts and might even contain some bee venom.
Mad Honey Disease (also called Mad Honey Intoxication)
So-called “mad honey” contains grayanotoxin. Produced by some rhododendrons and related plants, grayanotoxin ends up in honey from nectar and pollen gathered by foraging bees.
While mad honey is associated mostly with the Black Sea region of Turkey, grayanotoxin has been found all over the world, including in North America.
Some use mad honey for beneficial reasons, including as an aphrodisiac. (“Wait!” you’re thinking. “I thought this was about potential RISKS.” Keep reading.)
“Cardiac manifestations of mad honey poisoning include hypotension and rhythm disorders such as bradycardia, nodal rhythm, atrial fibrillation, complete atrioventricular block or even complete heart block. Additionally, patients may develop dizziness, nausea and vomiting, weakness, sweating, blurred vision, diplopia and impaired consciousness.” (Source: Gami R, Dhakal P (2017) Mad Honey Poisoning: A Review. J Clin Toxicol 7:336. doi: 10.4172/2161-0495.1000336)
The heating of processed honey may kill grayanotoxin. However, the “amount of heat needed to destroy grayanotoxin is not known with certainty.” (Source: Gunduz, Abdulkadir & Suleyman, Turedi & Russell, Robert & Ayaz, Faik. (2008). Clinical review of grayanotoxin/mad honey poisoning past and present. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa.). 46. 437-42. 10.1080/15563650701666306.)
You can buy mad honey from online sources. If you try it, just be aware of the risks mentioned here. If you experience complications, get to a doctor.
Raw honey is the product the bees intended to make. Without extensive processing, it is unlikely to be adulterated by non-honey additives.
While processed, regular honey has a certain appeal (like being squeezable from a little plastic bear), raw honey retains all the flavors, aromas, colors, nutrients, and enzymes that nature provided.
This article is part of our informational series on honey for beginning beekeepers.
Also, check out the next article in the series, How To Eat Honeycomb (Yes, It’s Edible!).
Mandal MD, Mandal S. Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed. 2011;1(2):154–160. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6
Converting Customers To Cremed Or Granulated Honey in Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping
Processing Honey: A Closer Look in Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping
Infant Botulism Government of Canada food safety information
What are the enzymes present in raw honey? Why are they important? at HealthWithHoney.com