Many pots of honey carry the label ‘organic’ these days. If you want to eat pesticide-free foods and keep you and your family chemical free, is this the best choice?
Other honey can be organic even if it’s not stated on the label. If your honey is sourced from remote, clean environments with small beekeeper operations who do not use chemicals or antibiotics in the maintenance of the hives and treatment of the bees, then your honey is organic. However, to have your product certified ‘organic’ is another matter and one that poses many challenges for beekeepers living up to the demand of consumers wanting to see the organic stamp of approval on labels.
Having honey certified organic is a complicated and often prohibitively expensive process for beekeepers. According to the Soil Association, the term organic means the food you buy has been produced to the highest standards with fewer pesticides, no artificial additives or preservatives, the highest standards of animal welfare and no GM ingredients.
For honey to be truly organic to European Standards, beekeepers have to follow strict criteria; this includes ensuring that the area within a 3 km radius around the beehives is covered, primarily, by natural vegetation and/or organic or low input farmland. This is especially relevant for crops visited by bees for feeding (fruit orchards, rapeseed, etc.). No major sources of pollution must be within this area. The Soil Association standards in the UK state that the radius must be within a 4-mile area. The challenge here is bees can fly several miles/kilometres away from their hives in search of nectar. There are so many non-organic farmers and farms in the country, it is very hard to guarantee whether the bees collect nectar from flowers that are pesticide-free. These strict standards make it virtually impossible for the most British beekeepers to produce certified organic honey from their beehives and most organic honey bought in the UK is imported. The organic certification criteria from other countries is different (see below).
That said, many smaller scale beekeepers and individual beekeepers, follow organic beekeeping principles as closely as they can, without certification.
The 4 steps to keep honey chemical-free
- The honey should be raw, which means unpasteurized and with little handling or alteration from the hive to the jar and into your kitchen. This natural product, if truly raw, carries so many health benefits with natural enzymes, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants as well as being anti-fungal, anti-microbial and anti- inflammatory, and this needs to be retained.
- The beekeepers avoid using chemicals anywhere, from the hive, medicines or treatments including pesticides and antibiotics. Traditional low intervention methods and natural treatments are best to ensure optimum health for the bees. It is better for the environment too.
- Bees are kept in wooden hives made from untreated timber or eco-friendly clean materials like the ones beekeeper Gabrielle Morley uses in NSW, Australia that are heat resistant, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial.
- The bees are located in remote, clean locations far away from pollutants and chemical use.
These are the main things we insist on at Balqees when sourcing raw honey from our beekeepers around the world.
Organic labelling of honey
Labels may change from country to country based on regulations and guidelines. For example, in the USA there are no specific standards for organic honey and the labelling follows the same standards as organic farming. The governing bodies say it is impossible to give explicit organic guidelines, because it is impossible to test all honey for residue, so gives no guarantee that the honey in the jar is actually organic. Other countries like Canada, UK and Germany test for residue.
Organic honey is not the same as raw honey – so it may be free of chemicals but also devoid of any natural benefits (making it little better than honey-flavoured syrup). Choosing honey can be difficult as labels can vary or contain very little information.
3 tips for reading labels on jars of honey
- Look for the word raw. Raw honey has not been subjected to any kind of processing such as pasteurization, heat treatment or micro-filtration so the health-promoting benefits stay intact.
- The source of origin of the honey should be stated. If the honey is from multiple producers (or countries) it will be highly processed and from untraceable sources.
- Identify the beekeeper or honey producer. To avoid the risk of additives and false labelling choose renowned honey producers.
Most labels don’t tell you enough about the honey contained within so the best way is to talk direct to the source. Email or phone the company and ask them if they can name their beekeepers and if they buy direct.
In an ideal world we would like to see agro-chemicals, intensive treatments and mass farming reduced dramatically. Organic should be the default term with non-organic produce and foods clearly labelled (not the other way round). Until then we’ll keep sourcing raw honey from the cleanest, remotest environments. Raw honey is one of those foods that is sustainable and doesn’t have to be certified organic if you know the beekeeper or are confident that your producer is following best practice. We work with trusted beekeeper co-operatives in pristine environments to ensure the raw honey we source is of the purest and best quality.
Natural beekeeping, as advocated by Natural Beekeeping Trust, puts the real producers i.e. the bees, first by protecting them from chemicals and diseases according to journalist, Lucy Siegle in The Guardian. This is what is most important when sourcing honey. She says, ‘Forget organic. Natural honey means you can have your sustainable honey and eat it’.