It seems that fraudulent honey is becoming more and more common at big name stores across the U.S. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman speaks to melissopalynologist, Vaughn Bryant from Texas A&M University, who cracked the case of honey being sold sans pollen.
GELLERMAN: When it comes to analyzing the not-so-sweet side of life, they don’t get any nittier or grittier than Professor Bryant. He’s the nation’s premier melissopalynologist. The web-based publication Food Safety News recently called upon the professor to investigate a sticky crime scene. Hello Professor!
BRYANT: Glad to be here.
GELLERMAN: What’s a melissiopalynologist?
BRYANT: It’s melissopalynology - if you want to really literally translate it: melisso - refers to sweet, palynology is a technical term for the study of pollen. Melissopalynology is somebody who looks at pollen in honey.
Pollen, or no pollen? A pollen analysis expert will know. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, dphiffer)
GELLERMAN: So, Food Safety News wanted to do a sting operation into the sale of honey in the United States, and they called upon you.
BRYANT: That’s true. They had been hearing that a lot of the honey produced in the United States had the pollen removed. And, of course, once you take the pollen out, you don’t know two things: the first thing you do not know is where the honey was produced, and the second thing you do not know is exactly what flowers the bees were utilizing in order to produce the honey.
And the reason Food Safety News was concerned about this was because China has been, for a number of years, guilty of dumping honey on the international market and particularly in the United States.
GELLERMAN: So, kind of honey laundering?
BRYANT: Yeah. (Laughs). Well, because there’s a 250-percent tariff on Chinese honey, they’ve been sending it to other countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and India and places. And then those countries were then exporting it to the United States and claiming that it was domestic honey from those countries.
And so the American Beekeeping Federation and the National Honey Board and others have consistently requested the federal government to enforce some kind of a truth-in-labeling. But the federal government has been dragging their feet for years! And most other countries in the world have truth-in-labeling. You cannot export anything to the EU, unless you certify where the honey comes from and what is in the honey, or they won't allow you to import it.
GELLERMAN: So what does the USDA say about this?
BRYANT: The USDA basically says that as long as you do not add other sugars, or as long as you do not add extra water, and as long as you take out any of the bee parts - meaning legs and wings and stuff - that you can sell it as honey. That’s the only requirement, they have no other requirements.
GELLERMAN: So if you take out the pollen from honey, what are you left with?
BRYANT: Well, if you take the pollen out, the only thing you've got is sugar. So, the pollen is really the only nutrient material in honey. I mean the pollen does in fact contain amino acids, it contains starches, it also contains fats and vitamins and various kinds of minerals. A lot of people eat honey because of the nutritional value that they’re getting from the pollen.
GELLERMAN: Well, you found, and Food Safety News reports, that 100 percent of the honey that was purchased from CVS pharmacy, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, had no pollen, and therefore, really wasn’t honey. Ditto for McDonalds. I guess three quarters of the honey purchased at Costco, Target, Sam’s Club, Walmart, didn’t have any pollen either.
BRYANT: Well, that’s true! You know, quite frankly, what I tell people is 'caveat emptor', meaning 'let the buyer beware, because most of what you buy in the store, in terms of honey, is not what the label says. One of the things that we’ve discovered, not only can we not tell where the stuff comes from, but premium honey that’s being sold like buckwheat or orange blossom or sage or thyme honey - and people were willing to pay premium prices for this very exotic types of honey - we can’t confirm that any of that stuff is actually coming from those plants, because there’s no pollen.
Premium honey. From left: Tulepo honey from Georgia, Lavender honey from France, Raw Wildflower Honey from Virginia. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Admina)
I’ve been telling people for years the only way to really guarantee you’re getting good honey is to buy it locally - in other words, buy it from the beekeeper or buy local honey that is being sold in grocery stores and so forth, because all of this commercial stuff isn’t honey!
GELLERMAN: So, Professor Bryant, is there any way the average honey eater can taste-test for the presence of pollen?
BRYANT: I doubt that very seriously. And I do know that there are professional honey tasters, you know, they say - oh, well, I can taste the difference between a sourwood and orange blossom and stuff like that - but quite frankly, I don’t know whether or not they could actually tell if the pollen was removed or not. I myself, I love honey - I eat all kinds of honey, but I’d be honest with you - I can’t tell the difference whether there’s pollen in it or not in most cases, but again, I’m not a professional honey taster. I am a honey tester.
GELLERMAN: So, professor, are there any crime scene honey investigations other than this one that you’ve cracked?
BRYANT: Well, I’ll tell you, in addition to looking for pollen in honey, I also do kind of CSI work. I work with law enforcement agencies looking for pollen in trying to catch criminals. And a case that I worked on a couple of years ago was in Rochester, New York where they had a teenage girl who was murdered in 1979, and it was a cold case. And they reopened the case just about a year ago, and I suggested that they send me the clothing. And after doing a thorough pollen investigation of her clothing, I determined she probably came from San Diego, California, which of course shocked the people in Rochester. The last I heard, they were investigating missing teenagers in California back in 1979.
GELLERMAN: Well, professor, thank you for talking to us.
BRYANT: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Vaughn Bryant is director of the Palynology Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.
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