Honey is one of the oldest foods, used as a natural sweetener as early as the Stone Age and obtained by bees of the species Apis mellifera. It gets its versatility in taste, aroma and color by the honey bees taking nectar from various plants, secretions of living plant parts or secretions of insects sucking on plants, the so-called honeydew, on the living plant parts. These are then mixed with substances specific to the species, transformed, stored, dehydrated (i.e. water is removed from the honey) and stored in the honeycombs of the beehive, where they mature into honey.
During the search for nectar, pollen grains are also collected from a wide variety of plants. Based on the pollen spectrum, honey can be characterized according to its botanical origin. Each honey, in particular those, which exhibit special data e.g. regarding a predominant plant genus, possesses its own "pollen profile", which is represented with the help of the pollen analysis. By analyzing the pollen of the honey, it is also possible to verify the geographical indication of origin, as the honey reflects the floral diversity of the respective region.
In principle, the designation "honey" must be indicated in accordance with the statutory regulations. However, it is also possible to designate honey according to its origin, production method or form of supply. For example, honey in which the nectar content predominates can be designated as "blossom honey" or "nectar honey". If "honeydew honey" is chosen as the designation, this honey comes mainly from secretions of insects sucking on plants, which are found on living plant parts. In the case of "forest honey", the honeydew content comes entirely from plants in forests.
A claim as "varietal honey" (e.g. rape honey) is possible if the designated honey contains at least predominantly flowers or plant parts of the specified variety. In addition, this varietal honey must have the corresponding organoleptic, physicochemical and microscopic properties. Such varietal honeys can thus be characterized on the basis of color, odor, taste, their chemical-physical characteristics and microscopic properties. The typical organoleptic properties of acacia honey, for example, are its light yellow color; moreover, due to its composition, it remains liquid for a very long time and has a mild floral taste. Sunflower honey is yellow-orange in color, tastes fruity and slightly acidic. A classic sweet chestnut honey is dark brown and tastes strongly tart to bitter.
In addition to these botanical indications of origin, honey is also often referred to as "spring blossom honey" or "summer blossom honey" according to the season of origin and the time of harvest. Depending on the area of origin and the plant species involved, such honeys - despite having the same designation - can taste very different, as plant species occurring locally at certain times can dominate color, odor and taste.
Honey consists essentially of various types of sugar, in particular fructose and glucose. In addition, honey contains organic acids, enzymes and solid particles picked up during honey collection (e.g. pollen grains). Honey can be liquid, viscous or partially to completely crystalline. The crystallization is determined primarily by the quantity ratio of the simple sugars (fructose and glucose) present in the honey as well as the sugar spectrum. Honeys with a high glucose content (e.g. rapeseed, sunflower honey) crystallize more rapidly than those with a high fructose content (e.g. forest honey). However, the crystallization behavior of a honey is also influenced by the water content and the storage temperature. The color of honey can range from almost colorless to dark brown. The differences in color, taste and aroma are determined by the botanical origin.
According to the Honey Ordinance, nothing other than honey may be added to honey if it is to be marketed as honey or used as an ingredient in a product. The honey must be free of organic and inorganic foreign substances as far as possible. It must not - with the exception of "baker's honey" - have any foreign taste or odor and must not be in fermentation, have any artificially altered acidity, and must not have been heated to such an extent that the natural enzymes are destroyed or significantly inactivated.
Other products from the bee colony include flower pollen, bee bread, propolis, royal jelly and beeswax, which are used both for human nutrition and in cosmetic and technical products. Further information can be foundhere.
In our online tool"Food under the magnifying glass" you can find more information on the nutritional values of honey and products containing honey.
Situation in Austria
In order to check the safety of honey and honey products, an average of about 450 honey samples and honey products were examined annually in recent years as part of the official food inspection(food safety report). In the process, about 10% of the samples were objected to in 2021 mainly due to labeling deficiencies.
The data in the table refer to the total complaint rate of the respective year.
One of the most frequent reasons why there was a complaint regarding "composition" in recent years was the exceeding of a maximum content for hydroxymethylfurfurol (HMF) specified in the honey regulation. In the case of excessive heat treatment or improper storage, the HMF content in honey may increase to the point of exceeding the maximum content regulated by law.
From 2010 to 2021, not a single honey sample was found to be harmful to health. However, the situation was different for honey products, as here a total of 7 samples (honey spiked with hemp extract, among others) had to be assessed as harmful to health in 2019 due to the high content of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC).
In 2016 and 2018, a total of 104 samples (2016: 54 samples, 2018: 50 samples) of honeys on the Austrian market were tested for contamination with pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the course of two focus campaigns. No sample was found to be contaminated in this respect.
In 2018, a main focus was also placed on checking the authenticity or adulteration of the honeys. A total of three samples were to be assessed as "adulterated", i.e. these rejected samples did not consist exclusively of honey in accordance with the Honey Ordinance. One sample was not correctly labeled with regard to its botanical origin. Three samples were found to exceed the maximum HMF content. Furthermore, various labeling deficiencies were detected.
In 2019, 62 honeys offered on the Austrian market were examined in a focus action with regard to composition, quality and possible contamination with veterinary drugs and pesticides. A total of 15 samples were objected to, mainly labeling elements were found to be defective. In two samples, an application of a veterinary drug not approved for honey could be detected, therefore they were assessed as harmful to health.
In 2020, 54 samples were inspected as part of a focus action on the topic of "composition of honey". The main focus was on the survey of the contamination with pyrrolizidine alkaloids. In addition, the market situation with regard to adulteration or authenticity was surveyed. In the course of this main action, nine samples were rejected, four of which were to be judged as adulterated, i.e. these rejected samples did not consist exclusively of honey in accordance with the Honey Ordinance. Furthermore, a limit value overrun of the HMF content was detected. Labeling deficiencies were also found in some samples.
In 2021, 20 honeys were checked for authenticity and origin throughout Austria as part of the European Commission's OPSON X project. In total, foreign sugar was detected in two honey samples. Both samples also showed incorrect labeling with regard to their botanical origin. The examination of the geographical origin showed no deviations to the data on the respective label. In the case of a further two samples, the HMF content specified by law was found to be exceeded. Furthermore, general labeling aspects were to be criticized.
What must be written on a label as identification for honey: Name of the food ("honey"), name and address of the marketing company, net quantity, lot (batch), best before date, storage conditions, origin.
What must not be on a label: Advertising with self-evident facts, information about the properties of a foodstuff that is suitable for deception, disease-related information or inadmissible nutritional and/or health-related information.
For more information on honey labeling, see the downloads.
Adulterations in honey
Among other things, we check honey for authenticity (e.g. verification of the stated botanical and/or geographical origin) and adulteration (e.g. stretching with sugar syrup). Tests for adulteration are primarily performed on suspect samples. Suspicious samples are samples that:
- are taken due to perceptions of the supervisory authorities, due to complaints from consumers or due to indications from other authorities (national or EU).
- show indications of adulteration during preliminary examinations (e.g. in the case of suspicion based on sensory characteristics and/or pollen appearance and/or presentation, etc.).
In order to determine whether the information regarding variety and geographical origin is correct or to check whether the honey may have been stretched by the addition of sugar, various examination methods are available. For this purpose, sensory, microscopic(pollen analysis) and various physical-chemical examinations, such as the creation of a sugar spectrum up to isotope analysis and NMR spectroscopy, can be carried out.