Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

During my stint as an environmental reporter, I visited a city apiary (a.k.a. a bee farm), pulled on a beekeeper suit, and watched as the honeybees went about their business. I was admittedly more than a little nervous, especially when the buzzing increased and a few bees landed on my covered arms. I also have an uncle in Georgia who’s been raising bees and bottling honey for years (at his son’s—my cousin’s—wedding they gave out little plastic bears full of their hives’ honey as a—literally—sweet guest favor). 

But though I’ve had more exposure than some to the world of beekeeping and honey, it’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And when you’re looking to buy honey at the grocery store, things get even murkier, with shady practices and unclear origins making it difficult to know what exactly you’re buying (if it’s even actually honey!) and if the bees are treated well. So to find out even more about this natural liquid gold, I spoke to two honey experts who gave me the lowdown on what to look for when buying honey, and I’ve also included a few of my favorite picks.

A Few of Our Favorite Jars of Honey

A Lovely Sampler Pack: Big Island Bees Gourmet Hawaiian Raw Honey Gift SetA Floral French Honey: L’Abeille Occitane Lavender HoneyA Rich, Treacly Honey: OneRoot Raw Buckwheat HoneyA Good Cooking Honey: Nature Nate’s 100% Pure, Raw & Unfiltered HoneyA Small-scale Honey: Sonome Bee Company Raw Honey

What Is Honey?

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

While it might seem like a basic question to ask, oftentimes the answer isn’t what people may think. “It’s funny because ‘apis mellifera’ means ‘honey bearing,’” says Candice Koseba, owner of Sonoma County Bee Company. “But it’s actually not true—when the bees collect from flowers, they’re not collecting straight-up honey. They’re collecting nectar.” This nectar is stored in a specialized stomach in the honeybee, which introduces enzymes to the nectar, and then is shared through their proboscis (which is like a hollow tongue). “When they come back to the hive, they meet some of their sisters and exchange that nectar from their stomach through their proboscis,” says Koseba. “So then it’s mixing with her enzymes and her stomach, and then she walks around the hive and deposits it into a cell, and bees do this all day until the cells are full. Then they actually have to wait for some of the water to evaporate out of the nectar before they tap it.” This aging process is what creates the sticky, viscous honey we know and love, and is actually a store of food for the bees during the winter—but not to worry, beekeepers leave their hives a large supply. “A responsible beekeeper will leave enough for the bees to survive on through winter, but a lot of hives, if they take advantage of the flow in the area and it’s a good year, a lot of colonies will produce a surplus if they’re healthy,” Koseba says. 

What to Look for (and What to Ignore) When Buying Honey 

Organic Honey Is Complicated

While organic can be a good label to look for, it’s also less cut and dry than it seems. Big Island Bees in Hawaii has a much-coveted macadamia blossom honey that is not organic, but only because the trees are not raised organically. “Some of it isn’t organic like our macadamia nut blossom honey,” says Whendi Grad, co-owner of Big Island Bees. “It’s not organic because the orchard isn’t.” The organic label also requires hives to be a certain distance from industry or farming to reduce the risk of contamination by non-organic products, and the bees can’t be fed sugar. That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean non-organic honey isn’t good (both tasting and for the bees to make)—it just means you have to look beyond the label and find out why the honey isn’t organic. If it’s because the bees fly around and land on flowers on a farm that isn’t organic, then that’s different than a situation where the bees only consume sugar. It could also be that the producer is so small, that getting an organic designation is too expensive (or challenging) to be worth their while. The other complicated part of this equation is that while you might see USDA organic labels on honey, there are actually no standards set forth by the agency on what organic honey is—so it’s actually meaningless. 

Flower Fidelity—or If Your Honey Really Is All From Clover Pollen

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Lots of honey is labeled according to the flowers the honeybees pollinated (think “clover honey”), and while honeybees generally have “flower fidelity,” i.e. they pollinate one variety of flower, other kinds can sneak in. “There aren’t that many places left in the world actually that can do a single blossom honey,” Grad says. If you want true single-blossom honey, Koseba suggests buying honey from the European Union, which has stricter regulations. “When it comes to mono-flower honey, in the U.S. we don’t regulate that, you can call your honey—even if it only contains 30% of orange blossom honey—you can call it orange blossom honey,” she says. “I do a honey tasting where we ship people mono-floral honey, and it’s tricky to find true mono-floral honey from the U.S., so usually I’m importing them from, you know, Sardinia or France.” 

Grading Often Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story 

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Like olive oil, much of what’s on the label of a bottle or tub of honey isn’t all that confidence-inspiring. While designations like “organic” can have the backing of a third-party audit, USDA grading is often a whole lot less meaningful. While it attempts to ensure that the honey is single-flower (if it claims to be) and not imported from China (which is problematic–more on that momentarily), there is no physical inspection actually required, and the honey is often so filtered that it’s impossible to test it to see if any residual pollen indicates that it’s truly from XYZ flower. “I’ve been to packing plants and sometimes they heat the honey to very high temperatures, and then they’ll add a very high pressure to push it through like diatomaceous earth,” says Grad. “It really gets rid of any particulate or crystal so that it’s extremely clear, but it’s basically just sugar water. It also will prevent anyone from finding pollen that might be from China. And that’s what a lot of packers do to hide the fact that they’re buying honey that’s not supposed to be in America.”

The reason Chinese honey is frowned upon goes back to the 1980s when the market was flooded with honey of dubious origins. “China started doing a lot of what would be called dumping,” says Grad. “They had all this honey, just sort of massively thrown into the market and a lot of it was, you know, not pure honey. But there weren’t any laws against it at that time, so the price of honey just dropped dramatically.” This made it really hard for small producers to make any money and led to people buying honey that had antibiotics and lead in it. While there are tariffs against Chinese honey, it’s hard to catch and oftentimes is diverted through other countries, with heavy filtering obscuring its origins. 

“There aren’t a lot of regulations, and we import a lot of honey from other countries that is not tested,” Koseba says. “So a lot of the honey that is imported into the U.S. is adulterated because they know we don’t test them.” This makes buying honey in the supermarket a gamble. Color grading is also not really all that telling, and most beekeepers will tell you to shop by cloudiness rather than color—the cloudier the honey, the more pollen is in there still and the more flavorful it will be. 

Buy From a Local Producer If You Can

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

As outlined, the sad truth about buying honey from a supermarket is that you don’t really know what you’re getting. “Most big companies now are in it to make money,” Grad says. “They either do pollination services or they do queens, and honey is not their main objective, so they can feed the bees sugar.” Rather than honey made by bees that bounce from flower to flower, some honey is made akin to how cows are fed cheap grain rather than grass. “It’s a totally different business model,” Koseba says. “They’re trucking these bees across the country, feeding them sugar water, giving them antibiotics to keep them alive…it’s kind of like factory farming.” 

But when you buy honey from a small-scale producer (this could literally be your neighbor who has a few hives), the honey is likely made by the bees collecting pollen and producing honey to feed their hive. You’re also likely ensuring that you’ll get a more flavorful, unprocessed, unheated honey, and one with all the antioxidants and benefits that come with it (like helping remediate allergies). If you’re looking for honey online, try to find jars that are unfiltered or raw, since they are less likely to be adulterated (although these terms are not regulated). 

Tips for Storing Honey

While honey is naturally antibacterial, if stored improperly, it can ferment and you’ll have a crude form of Mead in your jar. Both Koseba and Grad recommend storing it in a dark, cool place, though if it’s too cool, it may crystalize. However, you can easily get the honey to be smooth and pourable again by placing it in a hot water bath and letting it warm up a little. 

Some Great Jars of Honey You Can Buy Online

This gift set features three different jars of honey from hives on Hawaii island: Macadamia nut blossom honey, Wilelaiki blossom honey, and Ohia Lehua honey. Each is wholly unique, floral, and utterly delicious. We loved the creamy, pale Ohia Lehay which has a surprisingly rich, almost molasses-like aroma. The Wilelaiki has notes of bergamot, orange, and a slight savory bend, and the Macadamia nut blossom is bright and with a creamy, nutty finish.

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

This viscous, slightly grainy (in a good way) honey dissolves on the tongue, with a lingering aromatic floral note (lavender!).

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Dark and unctuous with a faint molasses flavor, this is a bold honey that would go lovely on a cheeseboard.

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

While it’s hard to know what you’re getting at the grocery store, this brand attempts to be as transparent as possible, with a purity guarantee that outlines the specifications they follow. And the honey tastes good, too, with a slightly savory bend.

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

This small-scale producer from Healdsburg, California not only ships their small batch, raw, unfiltered honey around the U.S., but they also sell other bee products, such as candles, salves, and lavender hydrosol (from the lavender the bees pollinate).

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly


What is the best honey?

The best honey you can buy is from a hyper-local, small-production beekeeper since it’s more likely to be actual honey. Look for unfiltered, raw honey that still has bits of pollen present, since this is what gives the honey its flavor. 

What are the benefits of honey?

According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies have shown that honey “might offer antidepressant, anticonvulsant and anti-anxiety benefits. In some studies, honey has been shown to help prevent memory disorders.” It is also an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial agent.

Is honey antibacterial? 

The National Institute of Health says, “Honey exhibits a broad-spectrum of antibacterial activity against both Gram-positive bacteria and Gram-negative bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant (MRSA) ones. Honey has been shown to have a strong activity against many bacteria in both media and in culture.”

Can honey go bad?

While honey is naturally antibacterial, it can go bad if stored improperly. “Honey’s humectant, so that means it draws in moisture,” says Koseba. “So if you leave your honey uncovered it pulls in moisture and then it can ferment over time.” 

What is raw honey?

Raw honey is honey that hasn’t been heated (this destroys the crystalline structure and keeps the honey from solidifying). While there are no regulations in terms of designating honey as raw, if you buy from a small, local beekeeper, the chances are you’ll actually get pollen-rich, flavorful, unheated honey.  

Why We’re the Experts

Grace Kelly is the associate commerce editor for Serious Eats. She is a former environmental reporter who has been reviewing equipment and food for three years. She was also an editor at America’s Test Kitchen and worked as a prep cook and bartender in Providence, Rhode Island. She has written numerous articles for Serious Eats, including guides on buying caviar and tinned fish, as well as many product reviews, including petty knives, tortilla presses, and oyster knives.For this article, we interviewed Whendi Grad, co-owner of Big Island Bees, and Candice Koseba, owner of Sonoma County Bee Company.

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