Neil McMahon

John Winkels of Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc. Click for more photos

What is in our Honey?

John Winkels of Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc. Photo: Ken Irwin

  • John Winkels of Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Busy Bees in the hive at Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Beehives at Devilbend operated by Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Bees producing in the hive at Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Edith French at the Northcote bottling plant.
  • Brian Tanis at the Northcote bottling plant.
  • The very rare sugar-free honey at the Northcote bottling plant.
  • The Ambrosia honey at bottling plant in Northcote
  • Bees producing in the hive at Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Bees producing in the hive at Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Beehives at Devilbend operated by Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Busy Bees in the hive at Pure Peninsula honey in Moorooduc.
  • Worker Bee in photographer Ken Irwin's lavender bush handling the Spring rush hoping his vote counts!

Few food products hit the consumer sweet spot with such an effective sting. From bee to jar to table, honey seems as clean a product as you will find on the shelf.

Look more closely, however, and confusion sets in. Pure Australian Honey. Organic Certified Honey. Product of Australia. Made in Australia. No additives. Cold extracted.

Most of us are flying blind when it comes to what we are buying. Our idea of what constitutes honey in its most desirable form is skewed by cultural experience.

In Australia, we are conditioned to expect a product that is drizzly and droopy and sticky - a product that, as it happens, is honey whose health benefits have been most abused in the production process. At the other end of the scale, there is honey bearing the ''certified organic'' label, which often comes with a premium price tag.

Veteran beekeeper and honey maker John Winkels says cold extraction is the main criterion honey-lovers should be looking for, not the organic label.

''All the stuff that bees put in there, when they turn the nectar into honey, with heat it all goes,'' Mr Winkels said.

To be called organic, the product cannot be heated to about 45 degrees. That's where it starts to lose its health properties (raw honey contains its full complement of enzymes and antioxidants, and has antibacterial properties). But heating is also what gives honey the runny texture most Australian consumers demand.

''The problem is the Australian customers want liquid honey, it's a lot easier to spread,'' Mr Winkels said. ''Honey is heated because of consumers but it's not as good for you. Danish people, Germans, New Zealanders, they know their honey and they want it hard, they want it solid.''

Organic honey is a small but growing sector. But Australians still love their generic, runny honey.

The favourite is yellow box, what organic honey producer Brian Tanis labels ''almost the generic honey. It looks nice, it's not too sweet, it's not too strong''. In other words, it's bland, compared to the rich range of alternatives on offer.

Bland and overheated. And then there's the question of what is added to the mass-market honeys on offer.

In the US, studies have found consumers are buying honey that has been stripped of its pollen, had sugar added or been watered down. This is less of a problem in Australia, but labelling is again an issue.

When labels such as ''Made in Australia'' and ''Product of Australia'' allow manufacturers flexibility as to the actual truth of the claim, it's open to producers to adulterate their honey with stuff imported from China, its provenance and production method unknown.

''Very large honey packers will import honey into Australia to supplement their product,'' Mr Tanis said. ''It becomes about packaging laws. It might represent 20 per cent of your honey in a honey blend but it's still labelled 'Australian made' or an Australian product. But it will be 20 per cent Chinese honey. It's simply what the law lets you do.''