"One in five samples of local honey sourced along the eastern seaboard of Australia, including boutique brands, has been found to be fake, deepening the global scandal over the impurity of honey."
Sydney Morning Herald 2018
A couple of days ago David bought some honey. He has honey on one of his slices of toast every morning. He likes 'real' honey that crystallises, but he's also a bargain hunter - well stingy really, which stems from his poor childhood. This time he bought a tub of this particular honey from Woolworths. It was probably the cheapest buy. It's called Gardeners Mixed Blossom Honey.
I think he is dimly aware that the cheap honeys are not 'real' honey because at some point he bought a tub of Beechworth honey - which is indeed 'real' honey - which he mixes with his various cheap buys. Thus it eventually crystallises, which is how he likes his honey. Not creamed, but crystallised. A feature that most buyers, it seems abhor. When I'm buying the honey I search - mostly in vain - for a jar that is beginning to crystallise.
Anyway at some point - maybe in the store, maybe at home, he noticed that it was only 10% Australian honey, the rest being imported. It didn't say where from on the label, so who knows. The anti-importation people would probably say China, but South America seems to be another possibility. He seemed to think that most of the honeys in Woolworths were imported, but I suspect that this is because he did not look at the more expensive ones. Anyway he wanted to know why wasn't it Australian, and why was honey so expensive. So I said I would find out.
So first I checked out what was available at Coles, Woolworths and Aldi - our three local supermarkets and then I looked online for answers to my questions.
And as I investigated I found that the problem is much bigger than 'is it Australian?'
However, let's look at the Australian thing first.
All of Coles offerings claim to be 100% Australian. I don't think they even have NZ Manuka. Woolworths, on the other hand, has the Gardeners, pictured above which is 10% Australian (well actually the jar is 20% Australian - David has a tub which is 10% Australian, but I can find no picture of it), They also have some NZ Manuka (fair enough), Cloverdale which is also 10% Australian (mostly from some unnamed South American country or countries) and their Homebrand Macro Organic honey which is only 20% Australian with the bulk coming from Brazil. Aldi's Bramwell brand claims to be 100% Australian. And yes, the Gardeners is the cheapest brand by far being a mere 90c per 100g in price - if you buy the 1kg tub.
So yes you can get righteously indignant that honey is imported - unless it is of a particular variety not available here - like the Manuka, or those beautiful French wildflower honeys - I wish. And it is relatively easy to find out if your jar of honey is Australian or not - just read the label. But the real problem is what else is in the honey? Indeed is it honey at all?
Back in 2018 there was a huge scandal that arose from the testing of 100 brands of honey using a new method of testing. The Sydney Morning Herald, amongst others reported on the findings of the test. And some of those findings were alarming. Not only did many honeys have rice and beet syrup added to them to dilute them, but also:
“Blended honey of unknown origin has been known to contain antibiotics, toxins, irradiated pollen or even alkaloids with the potential to cause organ damage,” -Authenticity and geographic origin of global honeys determined using carbon isotope ratios and trace elements Study
It seems that some of those 'poisons' were actually added to the honey, although others occur naturally and come from the plants the bees collect pollen from - most noticeably Salvation Jane, which in times of drought is often one of the only plant from which bees can collect pollen. The effects on the liver and the lungs of these pyrrolizidine alkaloids can be disastrous, including cancer although if you don't eat much honey there is no danger. The Australasian Science Magazine has an article about all of this that is worth reading and which concludes:
“There is unlikely to be a significant human health risk from consuming normal amounts of Australian honey. Those consuming high levels of honey may wish to seek honey produced from other plants.” - Australasian Science Magazine
Mind you the term Mixed Blossoms doesn't really tell you which plants does it. And truth to tell I have always wondered how any beekeeper can really tell where his bees get their pollen.
The biggest offender it seemed was Allowrie honey which was produced by Capilano - Australia's largest honey producer. As a result of all of this, the results were passed to the ACCC and various campaigners, most noticeably Simon Mulvaney and Shane Dowling who caused a big stir with all sorts of legal implications which eventually led first of all, to Coles withdrawing Allowrie brands from its shelves, and then to Capilano itself ceasing to manufacture Allowrie honey.
Capilano is the big honey player here in Australia. Although you will still find the Capilano brand on the supermarket shelves they have recently changed their company name to Hive and Wellness. Amongst its major shareholders are Kerry Stokes, and Kevin Rudd's son-in-law. They have also recently introduced another brand - Cloverdale on to the shelves, which sounds remarkably like the now defunct Allowrie. It is only sold in Woolworths (who by the way
also seem to have refused to comment on all that 2018 scandal - and the burgeoning one over Cloverdale). Their website mentions two items in the range, one being Organic Mixed Blossom and the other being Tasty and Sweet, the latter being almost as cheap at $1.00 per 100g as David's Gardeners. All of the Cloverdale honeys are only 10% Australian, although this time we know the other 80% comes from South America. So one is led to wonder whether this too is adulterated in the same way as
the defunct Allowrie brands. Indeed one of the above named guys - Shane Dowling, on his website Kangaroo Court of Australia has entered the fray again over Cloverdale honey. Now he is obviously on a mission and potentially biased to a degree but he does say some alarming things. Such as the above named honey, sold here as only 10% Australian is then exported again to China mostly as 100% Australian - as in this squeezy bottle. All very disturbing.
As well as the additives, and the toxins from the plants the bees pollinate there also sometimes seems to be an implication that some honey is purely manufactured from syrups, with just a dash of honey for the taste. There is also talk of manufacturing methods, some of which involve heating, and filtering which according to the purists is not good. I confess I did not look into this.
Aldi, of course, just has the one brand - Bramwell - and in one taste test this came out top. It costs $1.04 per 100g and I think claims to be 100% Australian, although I think it did not do that well in that 2018 survey. But then that was 2018. Maybe now they have improved the product.
I don't know what my conclusion would be. I think the middle way would be to buy Beechworth honey. Their products are 100% Australian, relatively cheap $1.47 per 100g if you buy a tub. Interestingly Woolworths do not sell Beechworth honey - they seem to be a Coles thing. Coles, of course, has a home brand range - some of it flower variety specific and therefore more expensive, and some of it not. for that you pay $1.15 per 100g if you buy the kilo tub. But I cannot find out who makes it for them. You could look at the Aldi brand, but I think I would like to know a bit more about who actually makes it.
And the most expensive? Weirdly enough it was Capilano's Manuka Mgo 300+ - which would apparently make it almost medicinal - and which costs a whopping $10.40 per 100g. So I think Capilano is probably capable of producing good stuff, but you just need to be careful.
Of course really the only way to be sure you have 'real' honey is to either keep your own bees, or buy direct from the apiarist or a throughly researched honey company. But then you will pay. Most of the small label honeys in the supermarkets were around $2.00-$2.50 per 100g. Our son was enthusiastically going to go into beekeeping when he came back from Canada, but we visited a bee producer in British Columbia and he got a Beekeeping for Dummies book and found that it was not as simple as just plonking a few hives on our block of land and then reaping the benefits. It's quite hard work and fraught with problems. So that project went nowhere.
Anyway David - perhaps read some of those articles, and don't be so stingy. Go Beechworth - I must do an article on Beechworth Honey - I've been meaning to for some time. And I have to say all of this has only confirmed my preference for Coles over Woolworths. Though to be fair to Woolworths they do have a slightly larger range of honey from small producers.
Raw by the way is what you should be looking for - it means it is virtually straight from the hive.