"Which honey is best?"
"What's the difference between pure honey and raw honey?"
"Is raw honey or organic honey more superior?'
"Where can I buy quality honey?"
"Is local honey better?"
"Which floral varietal is the best?"
These are probably the most frequently asked questions from people who have just discovered honey and want to know which bottle of honey to pick. I wish life were simple enough for me to address all these enquiries in a sentence or two. I'm afraid it isn't. Nevertheless, I'll attempt to get some of the terms "raw", "local", "pure", "organic" clarified here.
My first and foremost advice on which honey to buy would be - get it directly from a trusted beekeeper. This way, not only you can play your part for the environment and reduce your food carbon footprint, you can be pretty sure that the honey you eat is local, 100% pure, unadulterated, and you can easily find out if it's raw and organic, without even really understanding what those terms mean. And if you have the zest of going the extra mile to trace the source of the food you eat, request a farm visit from your beekeeper and witness for yourself the whole process of obtaining the honey to be 100% assured of the honey quality.
If bee farms and beekeepers aren't within any possible reach for you and accessing the freshest raw is out of the question, then regular, pasteurised, commercial honey from the stores and online shops would probably be what you are looking at. First, before we try to understand the marketing labels on honey, we need to know that no all honey is "created" equal. Multiple factors related to the floral source of the honey can affect the quality of honey, for instance weather, soil, landscape, environment pollution level (e.g. New Zealand boasts exceptionally low levels of environmental pollution for beekeeping operations). Other determinants are beekeeping practices, ethics, culture, and legal policies in the country (eg the administration of sugar syrup and antibiotics to bees), etc.
Making choices on which honey to buy for us consumers can appear to be complicated when so many beekeepers from different parts of the world are shouting unverifiable claims that they offer the best and purest honey in the world. Also, some honey varieties have more medicinal value than others due to its higher anti-bacterial properties e.g New Zealand's Manuka UMF 10+ and above, Malaysia's Tualang honey, Yemeni Sidr honey and European honeydew honey. Such varietals of honey are tagged 10 or 20 times more in price than regular honey and are simply beyond the reach of many consumers' purchasing power. So, these expensive varietals are usually not consumed on a daily basis but kept as a treasure for treating burns, cuts, coughs, sore-throats, infections, and other ills.
The appeal of raw honey is that is unprocessed, unheated and has all its live, nutritious enzymes preserved. However, there are no strict legal requirements for claiming and labelling honey as "raw". You may find raw honey that are unprocessed but slightly warmed to retard granulation for a short period of time and allow light straining and packing into containers for sale. Claims of "pure honey" on labels can be ambiguous and may not necessarily be equivalent to 100% pure honey as the product may contain "real honey" in an unknown amount. Most commercial honey, even those labelled as "natural" is pasteurized or treated with heat to slow down the process of crystallisation so that they remain smooth and presentable on the shelves. They are also well filtered, and thus look clean and speck-free. I agree this could be partly due to allergy concerns, but many consumers also associate honey containing pollens and brown substances, and even crystallisation with impurities and poor quality and refuse to buy it. What a sorry irony.
Imported, foreign honey can be much cheaper than local honey, and this makes it extremely hard for small local beekeepers to compete with the big honey suppliers who are exporting in huge volumes to different countries. So, support your local beekeepers by buying local honey but be wary, as a lot of foreign honey is now locally packed and sold as "local honey". For instance, America imports most of their honey from China to repackage and label it as their local products. Nonetheless, I reckon it's not an easy subject to deliberate when the harsh reality of life sets in and cuts deep - while beekeepers find it ridiculous to sustain pleasures in beekeeping when confronted with dire livelihood issues, consumers feel it's impossible to support relatively more expensive local honey with their limited spending power.
Whether it has to be organic honey depends on whether you are an ardent believer of organic foods as a whole. For honey to be certified organic, the manufacturer has to meet a set of stringent organic standards and conditions during the honey production (set by a organic agriculture certification body), which include source of the nectar, honey bees foraging area, bees management, honey extracting process, transportation, processing temperature, and packaging materials. Go for organic honey if you feel that it's a healthier choice worth paying the extra and you could have that peace of mind by eating honey that has been tested and guaranteed to be free of any residues of pesticides or environmental pollutants.
Another very important consideration regarding which honey to buy (at least for me as a consumer) is the palate. Taste of honey labelled "floral blend" or "multiflora" varies according to the different floral types from which nectar is collected. If you are not satisfied with eating honey of unidentified floral varietals, then explore the mono-floral varietals. Choose a floral varietal that goes down well with you especially if you are taking direct or mixing it with just water for daily consumption. Taste can be very subjective and personal, so not every variety is going to wow everyone. If you are using honey in your beverage and other foods, experiment with get a few varietals, do some trial and error to see how combinations of food and honey types work for you. Generally, for food or dishes with very distinct, strong taste, go for a mild light taste honey, whereas for food that is blander, you can try a stronger honey to create a tastier concoction, e.g English breakfast tea tastes a world of difference when a flavoursome honey such as a leatherwood or eucalyptus floral varietal is added to it. But of course, if you are prepared for a more adventurous experience with honey, you can break all rules and combine any type of honey with any type food. Possibilities with honey flavour nuances are never-ending.
A final note on which honey to buy - I believe in eating the best of what you can find and afford. Your choice of honey really depends on a combination of factors such as price, affordability, accessibility to beekeepers and trusted commercial brands, how much you believe in the health and healing benefits of honey, and how far you are willing to go in pursuing good sugar and getting to the bottom of the source and quality of the honey. At the end of the day, my opinion is, even if raw honey is unavailable, commercial and pasteurised honey is still better than refined table sugar, high fructose corn syrup and any artificial sugar. I'm not against buying cheap honey, but I would say think twice and double check, because it's all too easy to find fake or adulterated honey sold at the price of rare floral varietals such as Corsican honey, but just impossible to get quality pure honey at the same low price as corn syrup.
Ruth Tan runs the popular website Benefits of Honey at http://www.benefits-of-honey.com which is an immensely rich, quality resource on honey and its benefits, and a plethora of health-related issues. To discover how incredibly intelligent natural honey is, and why this super-food must be differentiated from all other forms of sugar or sweetener, visit this Honey Resource.