I share your enthusiasm for this article on Chinese Honey as first hand reports from China by an outsider who speaks my language is not only welcome but rare!
As the oldest ongoing society on the planet, and with one of the oldest ongoing commodity/medicines, it stands to reason that more accumulated debauchery will be present there than in a nice clean and new society maybe founded by the Quakers or some clan bred from the DNA of the now departed Shakers. So I believe we need to analyse these events from the most basic and primary data and try not to be influenced entirely by mainstream attitudes, prejudices and popular facts.
Just how much honey from flowers as gathered by bees is present in the Chinese honey product is the primary point in this whole issue. As China has the largest population, it seems reasonable that they should also have the largest number of managed beehives. However, by those criteria, it also seems odd that they should have such a massive surplus. In all other densely populated countries, the availability of honey tends to diminish as the population and civilisation expand. China may well be the exception to this rule, but I doubt it.
The honey I sampled from the tent and the roadside hives of a beekeeper in China (Turpan, bees working cotton) confirmed what I had been told about Chinese honey. Their best commercial practice is to harvest the honey almost on a daily basis, obviously in their eagerness to eke out a livelihood in impoverished conditions. This unripe honey is prone to ferment and is possibly not fully converted from nectar to honey by the bees. It taste sour, like mead, and is very free flowing. I can't say that I relished it.
No matter where nor how honey is produced, to get into the mainstream distribution system, most of it goes to buyers, agents, wholesalers etc. who may pack it for retail or even sell in bulk to food manufacturers, bakers, etc. But along the way, most of the honey will lose much of its identity and originally sourced character as it makes its way into the stream of honey from other sources.
These on-sellers, packers, processors and distributors each in turn have the opportunity to 'improve' on it with a view to maximising the profitability. Many processes are possible, including but not limited to, evaporating moisture, blending with other honey for flavour and colour, filtering to improve clarity, etc. But the greatest temptation (or might it be necessity?) is to dilute it with other syrups which are available. These syrups are often much cheaper than honey and are available year round from factories. Honey is available in the forest on its own cycles, and only when Mother Nature allows it. Supermarkets often demand long term contracts for supply, so when there is no honey to fulfil a contract, what is the most likely thing a struggling honey handler will resort to?
With regard to all that and China's need for each individual to be as self supporting as possible, it occurs to me that I would much rather eat some of the honey from that red bucket than what might be in those labelled jars. Or in other words, I feel the closer to the source the more likely it is that it still has some of the properties it had in the beehive. Within reason and personal limits, I think I can protect myself or clean up the honey if needed. In itself, honey is a pathogen fighter, and few beekeepers if any would bother to deliberately or even carelessly and accidentally poison honey. In the absence of common language, I might not be able to determine if that vendor was himself responsible for gathering that comb from a beehive, but I would run the risk anyway. The beekeeper I met in Turpan and I had a strong bond of understanding and respect, despite our absence of common language.
This brings us to the integrity of the beekeeper. There is much profit to be made (in the short term?) by feeding ones bees with cheap syrup, as long as the bees are able to take it up and store it as honey. Whether or not this syrup, probably derived from starch in a factory somewhere is honey or not, is a question our officials are not keen to address. Most beekeepers are not that way inclined nor equipped, so they rely on the naturally occurring nectars, which indeed makes the traditional and natural (superior even) honey. What is absent from the syrup derived honey is the bioflavonoids and myriad chemical substances present in the plant kingdom and especially in the flower of those plants
With this in mind, you see why Dr. Fessenden and Mike McInnes, in their book, "The Honey Revolution" advise us to 'buy honey from someone we trust.'
Honey production can be of interest to large international pharmaceutical companies too, and now we see them proclaiming that they have developed a superior medicinal honey by 'feeding' their bees with special food that includes herbs and minerals etc. That doesn't sound like natural honey to me, nor is the price in keeping with my budget either. But what is the world to do when honey from all sources and of all degrees of naturalness (or even the absence thereof) is only 1% of the total required sweetener for a hungry population? Not many of them can turn successfully to natural honey. There simply isn't enough to go around us all. Only the lucky and those determined enough will get some. You can see why so many people are establishing their own beehives.
All of the factory derived substitutes for honey came about simply because there was never enough honey, and a delightful feature of that situation is that the factory derived sweeteners are much cheaper to produce. ........ In days gone by, that is! With ethanol now demanding a slice of the starches production, glucose itself, in all its myriad forms may get scarce and expensive too.
So when it comes to production pressure, yes, even on the Chinese beekeepers, medicines have come into the game so we can squeeze the last drop of honey out of even an ailing colony. Yet if we are to believe that China produces this massive quantity of honey over and above their own consumption, how do they do that? My bees have their limits, and pests and diseases take their toll on every living organism.
It occurs to me that the Chinese bee medicine must be very effective! And yet, despite the honey shortage, the hungry population etc., their medicine continues to be treated as a poison by Western governments and regimes. Western medicines for both man and animal once had the skull and crossbones symbol on them, but now they do not. That alone does not prove that our medicines are any less poisonous than the Chinese ones. Is there something of a trade war going on between our medicine men and those of China?
So when it comes to 'standards' and China's reluctance to sign off on documents set by Westerners, my mind boggles. Where in the West is there a standard for real honey? Most of the standards we do propose are only trade barriers, and are only policed when new chums enter OUR market. When the pot calls the kettle black, red is the new brown! This whole 'organic' ideal has now morphed into a legal war determined only by whose signature is on the document. It is now a legal issue not a moral or idealistic one. Why wouldn't anyone as savvy as a Chinaman ignore such barriers and try to circumvent them? At the end of the day, everything is a commercial war as well.
Contamination of foodstuffs is one of our most vexing problems, and the least likely to be resolved instantly. Honey is possibly amongst the cleanest foodstuffs on the supermarket shelf, especially if it contains only product that came out of a beehive, as like milk products and flesh foods, if the animal didn't die, perhaps the poisons are tolerable. When my customers come by my stall at the Farmer's Market drinking a coke and challenging me over the 'purity' of my honey, I am hard put to speak with them as equals. It is nearly as bad when they demand raw honey so they can put it in boiling water, or cook bread with it.
The main reason why honey gets so much bad press over relatively small matters is that it is not a profitable commodity so our big time managers et al consider it a peasant food, the subject of children's books and old fables.. Our media think their bad press will stifle honey, but their previous tactic worked better. It was to just "ignore honey and maybe it will go away." It didn't. Now the www is making it impossible for them to keep a lid on the good news that goes with being healthy using natural honey.
Just how diluted honey has to be before it has no nutritional value is not clear. Just how polluted it might be before it becomes poisonous is also unknown. According to my understanding of the Fructose-Paradox as Mike McInnes presented it, natural fructose goes straight into the liver where it is very much in demand, especially for the process of converting any surplus glucose into glycogen. Hence, the magic of the equal ratio of glucose to fructose, but if that balance swings to lower fructose, it still must be beneficial in capturing some of that surplus glucose rather than have it trigger more insulin, which drives it into fat cells throughout the body. We are talking honey isolates here, which are really only theoretical and laboratory substances. Pure straight fructose is rare in nature if it appears at all. In most natural sweet substances (edible), fructose and glucose are both present.
Despite my having countered many of Tara's conclusions and innuendo, I appreciate her article very much. I feel confident she would not be offended by my having expressed my own opinions. I am writing this to you, as you are the one who gave me the story, and also because you are so devoted in the purest of manner to the cause of real honey. The East/West Paradox is a colourful one, but being in China and seeing the world through their English Press was quite a thought provoker for me. You are a trusted ally in this war and Tara was quite convincing, so I figure you can do with another opinion. I have yet to visit her site, but will do so soon, as I perceive that she too is a great warrior in The Honey Revolution.
Cheers, and stay well,
5 Oct 2011