What Does “Raw Honey” Really Mean?

raw honey definition

Today’s post comes from Emi Higashiyama, who has worked at a honey farm and educates people on the many uses and health benefits of bee products. 

What is the definition of raw honey?

Just about every health blog and recipe calls for the use of “raw” honey, but there’s quite a bit of confusion about what that means. Is it made differently from non-raw honey? Do things go into it or come out of it to make it raw? The labels don’t help because they usually just say “raw” but don’t explain why the honey deserves to be called that. There are essentially just two factors that determine the rawness of honey: temperature and texture.

 How temperature determines raw honey

The technical definition of raw honey is very loose: it just means not heated past pasteurization. Great, now what does that mean? To understand that, it’s important to first understand what happens inside a beehive. When honeybees are at work, their collective body temperature rises and consequently warms their work area – that is, the honey. The temperature of an active hive, therefore, is about 95ºF (35ºC), and the honey is stable and “alive” – or rather, the enzymes in honey that give it the nutritional and beneficial qualities are alive. As long as the temperature of honey does not significantly rise past 95ºF/35ºC, the honey has not been pasteurized.

Many people misunderstand the concept of heating honey. There’s a myth that any heating whatsoever is harmful. But even the bees heat honey. During the dead of winter, honey can freeze inside the hive, and as clusters of bees move about their stock of food, they will reheat as necessary to feed off their comb. During the summer, the bees do not need to heat the honey, but the temperature is still about that 95ºF as long as they are working near the honey. The issue is that they heat the honey very gradually.

The irony is, people will insist the beekeeper not heat honey, but they’ll take it home and microwave it. This is called flash-heating, and this sudden (radioactive) heat destroys the enzymes and chemically changes the honey. It’s still sweet, but it’s now chemically more like a processed sweetener. In some cases, the taste may even be different. Even without any noticeable changes, the honey has lost all its nutritional value (and is no longer raw).

How texture determines raw honey

When people look for raw honey, they usually get the jar that looks very opaque, sometimes with black dots here or there. When they open the jar, they expect a near-solid chunk of gritty, pasty honey. What this really is ground up honeycomb, which potentially includes everything that could come out of a beehive: honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, and yes, even bees. Those black dots? They may be connected to slivers of bee leg, which might connect to a joint. (Never fear, the bees are very sanitary – they won’t even go to the bathroom inside the hive – so ingesting bee parts is quite safe.)

honeycombMany people can’t handle this last revelation, and it’s a real internal battle for them to buy what they think is the best for them health-wise and what they’re actually going to be eating. But remember that “raw” has to do with temperature, not texture. Having said that, the additional “stuff” does have its own set of benefits, so it’s worth the money and effort (and bravery, now that the genuine unadulterated honey has been fully disclosed) to acquire the raw stuff. I just prefer to call it the really raw honey, or straight-out-of-the-hive honey, to distinguish it from the liquid raw “pure” honey.

An additional note about the really raw honey: the consistency will depend on when it was harvested – recently harvested will be creamier and more liquidy, the longer it sits it will be like well-frozen ice cream. The beeswax is the main culprit in this situation.

 Straining vs. filtering raw honey

When honey is harvested from the comb by centrifuge, it leaves behind the large chunks of beeswax. When the mostly-honey stuff is strained, little bits of beeswax are further removed. This process is called straining, and the resulting product is “pure honey”. That’s the clear, golden liquid that’s in squeeze bottles labeled “raw honey”. As long as this stuff hasn’t been heated past hive temperature, this pure honey is still raw (and much, much easier to work with in culinary settings).

There’s also another process that seems similar on the surface, but is actually very different and counterproductive to the healthfulness of honey: filtering. When straining honey, all it takes is a cheesecloth-type material to separate the beeswax chunks from the viscous honey. The pollen still goes through because it’s much finer than the mesh (and the pollen is desirable, it helps with the benefits-factor). But filtering removes significantly smaller particles, namely pollen, and the honey is that much further removed from its raw status.

A specific kind of filtering, pressure-filtering, is for large-scale operations that bottle honey as if it were bottling soda. We’re talking mega-machines that super-speedily shoots honey into their for-sale containers. The problem with this process is that to make the honey easier to work with, the temperature is also usually quite high – the higher the temperature, the more liquid the honey – which means it’s practically guaranteed that not only has the honey been pasteurized, it’s also missing all the elements that make it actual honey.

Raw Honey vs. Organic Honey

Some people think raw honey is the same as organic honey, but it’s not. “Organic honey” is when the flowers that the bees get the nectar from has not been sprayed with chemicals. Simple, right? As long as beekeepers control where the bees go, they’ll know that they’re getting honey from organic flowers. Except it’s impossible to always know where bees go because they usually fly up to 2 miles (5 km) to look for flowers that are producing enough nectar for harvesting. If they need to, they can fly up to 5 miles (8 km). So that means some quality assurance inspector needs to know for sure that all the flowers for a 2- to 5-mile radius all around the beehive are indeed organic.

A side note here to talk about Africanized bees: they’re gaining a lot of attention in the media because of how aggressive they are. In Africa, if they needed to, they can fly up to 80 miles to look for a floral source, which proves that the distance bees fly is relative to their needs. Therefore it’s really difficult to know exactly where they go. That’s why using “organic” to describe honey is really not a measurable thing.

There are some farmers who will unabashedly market their honey as being organic. They may not necessarily be liars, they may just be extremely hopeful and confident that they know where their bees are going. But the only way to really guarantee and control which flowers the bees visit is to screen everything in, like butterfly sanctuaries, so they don’t fly past their invisible leash. But who would go through all that trouble for honeybees? It’s hard enough just to keep them alive these days.

Befriending a beekeeper

Does knowing a beekeeper help in identifying raw honey? Yes, but in the sense that at some point, it’s necessary to trust somebody about the rawness of honey. Keep in mind that most beekeepers, unless they’re keeping hundreds of hives, are also buying in some of the honey that they’re selling. It’s standard practice to buy-and-sell and barter because there are so many different types of honey out there. In the US alone, it’s possible to harvest about 300 varieties of honey (that’s another article). Rather than worrying about where the beekeepers get their honey, it’s quite telling how they answer some questions: 

Q: How high of a temperature do you heat the honey?

A: Uh… I don’t know. (Red flag!)

Q: Is the honey organic?

A: Absolutely! (Red flag!)

Q: Are there bee bits in the honey?

A: No! Everything is filtered out. (Everything?? Red flag!)

The real question is if there’s a way to establish some sort of a relationship with beekeepers and see how willing they are to share their processes of harvesting and bottling. If they’re completely unwilling, that’s fine, maybe they have some trade secrets that they don’t want to be copied. That’s understandable and perfectly reasonable. But that also means their customers are in the dark about what they’re really buying and eating. And that’s the underlying problem: people are too far removed from their food source. That’s why an entire industry can call something “raw”… and how everybody can know they need it without knowing what that means.

Where can I find varieties of raw honey?

Curious to see all the possibilities of raw honey? Summer is here, which means it’s fair season (at least for those living in the US, possibly elsewhere), and many state fairs will hold contests for beekeepers to show their best products. This is a particularly good time to meet and greet beekeepers, talk to them about their processes, and see all the forms of honey (really raw, raw-pure, comb, etc.). They will most likely be in the state beekeepers’ association, which often hosts classes and events that can be very enlightening about anything related to honeybees.

Another option is to visit farmers’ markets that have honey booths. Farmers’ markets usually have rules about the distance and origin of its products, which means beekeepers should be that much more accessible. Yet another option is to visit www.honey.com (the US National Honey Board), which is a great source of information to track down beekeepers who harvest and bottle their own honey, as well as information on honey itself.

With so many forms of raw honey out there, it really is up to the individual how and what to acquire (based on consumption preferences). Just don’t buy the mass-market honey (from huge companies, they most likely flash-heat and micro-filter during bottling) or labels that say “Grade A” (there’s no such thing).

About Emi Higashiyama

emi headshotEmi Higashiyama is a globetrotting freelancer – some of those freelancing activities include writing, sort-of beekeeping, and classical harp performance. She blogs over at aiparoundworld.blogspot.com, helping non-US residents source autoimmune protocol-friendly ingredients and supplies.

Some of the ads on this site are served by AdChoices and, as a result, I do not necessarily recommend the advertised products. The revenue from the ads makes it possible for me to continue blogging, so I appreciate your understanding.

Comments

  1. k says

    As a lifelong beekeeper/breeder, my dad has also had some questions you can ask about how other beekeepers are maintaining their hives. Another thing to ask them is about how they are treating their bees for varoa mite, foulbrood, moths, etc. -if they are not using antibiotics. Also, if the beekeeper is sure that the wax you might be ingesting is chemical/pesticide free. Testing has shown that there is very little, if any, beeswax that is truly such because of the widespread chemical use in the industry.

  2. Rachel says

    Hi,

    I have heard so much about the health benefits of honey, and want to start incorporating it into my daily diet.
    Do you have any links to a national honey board in the UK? I live in Wales (to the left of England lol) but I don’t mind buying online, I just don’t know where to start looking or who to trust.

    Any information would be much appreciated

    Rachel

    • says

      I once knew someone who was from southwest England, and was asked, “Don’t people from southwest England usually say they’re from Wales?” His response was, “If they’re from southwest Wales, yes?”

      http://www.beeswales.co.uk/ is what I would recommend. The association has all the educational materials related to beekeeping and bee conservation that should prove enlightening. They also sell some beehive products in their visitor centre, and could possibly set you up with individual beekeepers who may also sell their own harvests.

      • Rachel says

        Ah thank you :) that’s exactly what I was looking for!

        Not many people seem to have any idea where Wales is outside of the UK ‘sigh’. If they do, I usually then get asked if I know Tom Jones! ha

  3. Jenne says

    I wondered if putting raw honey into a cup of tea or baking with it, would destroy the “raw” benefits of it? The fact that some people put raw honey in a microwave……….Yikes! I was so glad to get rid of my microwave!!

    • says

      If you wait a while to add honey to your tea (like after you’re done steeping the teabag) or don’t use super-boiling to steep in the first place, the raw honey should still survive. Baking is slightly iffy, but it’s still a gradual heating compared to the microwave.

      I think the real issue is that many people think honey is just a sweetener, so as long as it’s “still sweet” — they don’t care what else is happening. But real honey is so much more than that!

  4. Haley says

    I just bought raw honey from Amazon. The jar says it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized (also organic) Should I be worried about bacteria or anything? I’ve been keeping it refrigerated since it hasn’t been cleansed of its bacteria and I didn’t want it growing.

    • says

      Honey doesn’t need to be refrigerated (refrigeration just crystallizes it, making it harder). It won’t spoil, and it won’t grow bacteria because it is both antiseptic and antibiotic. Just don’t get water in it because that will cause fermentation.

  5. Julie says

    Hi Emi – I’ve been communicating with a raw honey seller on Etsy, and she mentioned that hive temperature ranges from 120-140 degrees F, which is quite higher than the 95 degree benchmark noted here. Is the seller perhaps mistaken in her figures, or is this variation from 95 degrees reasonable? Thank you!

  6. says

    140°F is an old industry standard for acceptable heating threshold that’s rarely questioned, but I disagree with it the way I would disagree with doctors who used to bleed people as a standard treatment. Having said that, it depends somewhat on where the hives are located — if they are in hotter climates, they will naturally withstand higher temperatures above 95°F (but they will also cool their hives by creating wind tunnels past that point).

    In other words, bees will heat their own honey up to about 95° and cool down to about 95°. There is of course margin for variation, though I’ve stuck my bare hands into hives many times and have never thought it was too hot to pull out. A minimum 120° hive temperature seems a bit high to me. I would ask that particular seller where the hives are located and what the outside temperatures were at their peak. Hope that helps.

  7. Picker says

    By the way, do you know anything about honeycombs? How healthy are they compared to honey itself, and what are the tings we should look out for when buying them? Thank you!!

    • says

      Short answer: Honeycomb is a mixture of honey and beeswax (which is edible if it hasn’t been separated from honey). It counts as raw — it’s what’s ground up to make that really raw “paste”.

      Long answer is another article :)

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