But a new proposed rule announced by the Food and Drug Administration this week aims to change all that and level the playing field for producers selling legitimate honey. The agency has proposed an official definition of honey—such a definition hadn't existed before in the U.S.—that dubs honey to be nothing more than "a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs."
The agency would like any honey producer who adds sugar or other syrups to their products to call them "a blend of honey and sugar." Similarly, any honey that has added flavorings has to be described as, for instance, "raspberry flavored honey," to distinguish it from honey that comes from floral sources, such as orange blossoms or lavender.
As basic as it is, honey is actually one of the most fraudulent, or "adulterated," foods on the market. According to investigations by Food Safety News, 75 percent of the honey sold in the U.S. has been so heavily processed that nearly all pollen has been removed, which, according to an international law known as the Codex Alimentarius, means that it can't legally be called honey.
Irritated that unscrupulous producers were passing off corn syrup- or sugar-syrup-and-honey blends as the real thing, the American Beekeeping Federation and other U.S. honey associations in 2006 petitioned the FDA to create a legal definition for honey. The agency denied that petition in 2011, but backtracked this year with this new ruling. Technically, the agency has always denied entry to honey products that have been watered down with corn syrup or sugars, as it has to honey that's tested positive for banned antibiotics, which are commonly used in China's honey industry. But with fewer than 2 percent of imported foods ever getting inspected, a number of "adulterated" honey products have slipped by.
Unfortunately, this proposed rule may not change much in the way of honey purity. The rule was issued as a "guidance" meaning that it's not legally enforceable. "Guidance documents describe our current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations," the agency says. So even if it is finalized, the agency won't have any teeth to back up the definition.
Your move? Buy local! Get to know a local beekeeper at your favorite farmer's market and support small-scale honey production close to its source.