An Overview of Honey Quality and Standards

Many folks are not aware of the how to determine the quality of honey and of the regulatory standards. Below we will provide a comprehensive overview of both the quality and standards regulating standard natural raw honey and organic natural raw honey.

Nanako bee feeding on flower

Quality Attributes of Honey

The appeareance of honey can be an indicator of its quality but there are a number of quality attributes that are used to evaluate the quality of honey, such as:

  • Moisture content: Should be less than 18.6% to prevent fermentation. Over 20% is considered low quality.
  • Colour: Varies based on floral source and processing. Lighter honey is milder, while darker has a stronger flavor.
  • Aroma and flavour: Depend on floral source and region. Pleasant aroma and flavor indicate high quality.
  • Sugar composition: Higher fructose content is preferable due to smoother texture and less crystallization.
  • Acidity: Lower acidity is better; high acidity may indicate spoilage.
  • Pollen content: Indicates floral source and authenticity.
  • Enzymatic activity: Indicates freshness and quality.

Factors Affecting Quality

The quality of honey can vary depending on  many factors such as the type of flowers the bees collect nectar from, the region where the honey is produced and the processing method. Here are the main factors:

  • Floral source: Determines color, flavor, and aroma. Location of apiaries matters.
  • Beekeeping practices: Ethical and sustainable practices result in high-quality honey.
  • Harvesting Techniques: Proper methods ensure no foreign matter contaminates honey.
  • Processing methods: Raw honey is most nutritious; heating can degrade quality.
  • Storage conditions: Cool, dry storage is essential to prevent crystallization and fermentation.
  • Chemicals: Pesticides can harm bees and taint honey.

Analysis Methods for Honey Quality

Here are some of the methods used to investigate the identity and quality of honey:

  • Physicochemical methods: Evaluate physical and chemical properties.
  • Microscopic analysis: Identifies pollen grains and floral source.
  • Sensory analysis: Assesses taste, aroma, and texture.
  • Molecular analysis: DNA testing verifies authenticity.
  • Isotopic analysis: Determines geographic origin and detects adulteration.
  • Protein analysis: Identifies proteins to determine adulteration.

Honey standards / legislation

Nanako heather in mountains, natural fresh honey usa

Legislation varies by country but generally covers labelling, composition, and quality standards for wholesale natural raw honey.

In the United States, for example, labelling requirements include weight, country of origin, and packer’s/distributor’s details. The honey must meet specific quality standards such as moisture content < 18.6%; no added substances except natural honey.

In the European Union the directive 2001/110/EC and Codex Alimentarius legislate the requirement for honey quality and transparency.

According to Codex Alimentarius consumers have the right to truthful information about honey and must be made available. E.g. honey must not have added ingredients, foreign matter, altered constituents, or excessive heat treatment.

The main parameters laid down in the EU legislation include:

  • Moisture Content: Honeys generally have moisture content limits: 20% for most, 23% for heather, and 18.5% for fir honey, preventing fermentation risks.
  • Non-Water-Soluble: Substances: Legislation typically caps this at 0.1%, cautioning against residues in honey.
  • Fructose and Glucose: Legislation mandates a sum >60% for flower honey and >45% for honeydew due to natural sugar variations.
  • Electrical Conductivity: Honey types have specific conductivity values e.g. honeydew honey >0.8 mS/cm, while exceptions like fir and chestnut have higher limits. This is an important characteristic. There is a special classification depending on the type of honey. For example, honeydew honey should have a conductivity greater than 0.8 mS/cm while flower honey conductivity should be less than 0.8 mS/cm. There are exceptions which include heather honey (Erica), eucalyptus, lily of the valley (Tilia spp.), manuka (Leptospermum), tea tree (Melaleuca spp.) which may have conductivity greater than 0.8 mS/cm.
  • Sucrose Content: Limits sucrose to 5%;  Sucrose is at high levels when bee feeds are used, especially when added incorrectly.
  • HMF Content: Maximum HMF is 40 mg/kg, with crystallized or foraged honey showing higher values.
  • Diastase Activity: Generally >8, except orange honey >3; diastase, combined with sucrose and HMF, can indicate adulteration.
  • Free Acids: Should not exceed 50 meq/kg, with higher levels in specific honey types.
  • Hygroscopic Analysis: Required for honeys labelled by botanical origin.
  • Nutritional Labelling: EU doesn’t require nutritional labels, but exports to the USA and Canada may need specific nutrient analyses.
  • Additional Analyses: Some countries might demand tests for pesticides or antibiotics used against varroa.

The values for each parameter are summarized in Table 1 below.

Composition criteriaBlossom honeyHoneydew honey
GeneralExceptions
Moisture (%)<20 <20
Fructose & glucose (%)>60 >45
Sucrose (%)<5Medicago, Eucalyptus, Citrus sp. <15<5
Non-water soluble (%)<0.1Pressed honey <0.5<0.1
Electrical conductivity (mS/cm)<0.8Chestnut, Arbutus, Erica, Eucalyptus, Tilia, Calluna, Manuka & Melaleuca>0.8
HMF (meq/kg)<50Baker´s honey <80<50
Diastase (DN)>8Baker´s honey & honey with low natural enzyme content: >3 when HMF is less than 15 mg/kg>8
HMF (mg/kg)<40Baker´s honey, honeys of tropical climates and blends of these honeys <80 
Table 1: Compositions criteria as laid down in the EU Council Directive 2001/110/EC of 20 December 2001 EU.

The amount of pollen grains in honey is also an indicator of the quality of honey. However, the percentage content of pollen varies for each type of honey and also can differ by country as each country specifies the minimum percentage content required for each monofloral honey.

The table below (the minimum percentage of pollen required for the characterization of monofloral honey in some European countries according to their national legislation.

Pollen grainsGreece (%)Italy (%)Germany (%)Serbia (%)
Castanea Sativa (Chestnut honey)879085
Citrus spp. (Citrus honey)31020
Gossypium (Cotton honey)3
Erica spp. (Heather honey)4545
Eucalyptus spp. (Eucalyptus honey)85
General Monofloral4545
Thymus sp. (Thyme honey)1815
Trifolium (Clover honey)70
Helianthus (Sunflower honey)2050
Table 2: Minimum percentage of pollen required for the characterization of monofloral honey in several European countries.

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