Like with all foods, there are quite a few differences. The most significant difference by far between the different types of honey is the way it is processed.
The reason why there are differences is because consumers have different demands. Most consumers want a perfect colour, clarity, taste and consistency every time they buy a product. Obviously nature is not uniform. Products like honey vary considerably depending on which plants the bees have collected the floral nectar from to make the honey and some other variables. So to satisfy the consumer demand, processing is required. For the very same reasons we have refined sugar, refined flower and refined oil.
Let´s explore the differences between the two main types of products by type of processing: raw honey (unheated, cold extracted) and regular honey (industrially processed).
Industrial processing of regular honey
To satisfy this consumer demand for consistency and uniformity in honey, most commercially available honey has been heated substantially (typically up to around 65ºC but it can be as high as 75ºC) to help melt crystals, allow impurities to separate and pasteurize the honey. This definitely does affect the honey – it makes the flavour a bit milder and the colour a bit lighter. It also substantially reduces costs – both manufacturing costs as well as packaging costs as it is far easier to extract the honey, process and package it at these high temperatures as it flows much easier due to the change of viscosity.
After heating, honey is usually filtered which removes natural particles that would cause crystallization. This processing keeps the honey in its liquid form for longer (and will not crystallize over time). However it also nullifies the taste and aroma but, more importantly, it strips the honey of pollen, enzymes and other nutrients making it simply a sweetener.
It does produce a consistent product with a uniform colour, clarity, taste and consistency.
Traditional unheated, cold-extracted raw honey
The traditional process does not heat the honey at all and keeps a temperature similar to the temperature inside the beehive (approx. 35-40ºC). The honey is then extracted mechanically. It is called cold-extraction, cold-spun or cold-pressed. Typically honey is spun out in a heat-free centrifuge or cold-pressed squeezing out honey from the combs by mechanical force. This maximizes the amount of pollen and other nutrients in the honey. The honey is not filtered either.
This process is obviously much slower as unheated honey runs far more slowly and also the process cannot be automated. It cannot compete with the productivity or volume of industrially processed commercial or regular honey. For this reason, producers of raw honey are usually small, family owned businesses as they cannot be scaled up to an industrial scale using traditional extraction processes.
The advantages of raw untreated honey are many. It is antimicrobial, antibacterial and has a naturally long shelf life. While excavating Egypt’s pyramids, archaeologists have found pots of raw honey in an ancient tomb. It dates back to about 3,000 BC and is still perfectly edible today! Raw honey is full of enzymes, vitamins, minerals and probiotics which have many health and medical benefits. Raw honey can balance the metabolism, improve sleep, lower blood sugar, heal wounds, increase energy and cleanse the skin – it is also used in natural cosmetics.
The taste and aroma are quite different to commercial honey. There are, of course, more variations from lot to lot because of the minimal treatment hence there can be differences in colour and taste from the same producer. This is quite normal.
Also, raw honey will crystallize over time. This is actually one of the ways we know with a high degree of certainty that the honey is raw and untreated.
Raw honey extracted in this way is (unheated, unfiltered) maintains all its natural goodness.
Honey can be adulterated with many other sweeteners e.g. high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, fructose and others. It is sometimes sold as “honey sauce” or “honey syrups” which is quite legal as long as the ingredients are clearly specified and it is clear that it is not 100% honey. They are used, of course, because all these ingredients cost considerably less than honey. These products have no nutritional value. See: Understanding Food Adulteration.
Honey is considered organic when the flowers that the bees use to produce the honey have not been treated with any chemicals or fertilizers. See: Organic vs Conventional Food. We can find both industrially processed organic regular honey as well as organic raw honey on the market.