Written by contributor NJ Renie.

We have been conditioned to think of honey as the quintessential natural food, but there is a reason that we, in the business, call the honey makers “workers.” The ugly truth is that honey is manufactured; a product of natural raw materials altered to meet the needs of selfish animals. But don’t despair folks, honey has more in common with a jar of your nonna’s marinara than the chilling uniformity of gas station snack cakes.

How is honey made?

During the honey flow a colony of bees will harvest nectar from millions of flowers. The quality and character of this nectar varies from plant to plant, flower to flower, and day to day. The beehive’s quality control engineers evaporate all this dubious raw material down to whatever seems like a good sugar/water ratio, all the while mixing in a few bazillion enzymes, some pollen, a little yeast, a secret ingredient or two, and presto! –honey.

Photo by Gianluca Cordellina

Of course, life in the honey factory is no picnic: conditions are cramped, turnover is high, deadly parasites and diseases run rampant, and the closest thing you get to time off is babysitting  the boss’ kids! This is where the beekeeper comes in, and it is her job to keep the hive healthy in exchange for a sweet cut of the profits. Doing this organically can be challenging or impossible, depending on who you ask.

Is there organic honey or not?

The classic “no” argument goes like this: a good forager will travel a couple of miles from the hive to collect nectar and pollen. Can anyone know for sure that the millions of flowers within a two-mile radius are all non-GMO and untouched by man-made chemicals? No, and even if you could, nothing is stopping your bees from taking a drink from the highway runoff or breathing in the polluted air.

The “yes” argument is that organic has never meant 100% purity, but that the production meets an agreed upon organic standard. So, there is certified organic honey —just as there are certified organic tomatoes and pork chops.

But here is where it gets tricky for America’s honey-lovers…

I will preface this by saying that there are certified organic honey producers in the US adhering to the highest standards of organic production; but the USDA does not have organic standards for honey. Certified organic honey in the US is certified to the standards of the third party organic certifier (the same certifiers that certify tomatoes and pork). Sometimes the third parties are counties, states, organic farming organizations, or foreign governments, but the vast majority are privately owned businesses.

Photo by Fran Gambín

To add one more stone to that mountain of worry, when it comes to honey, enforcement is virtually nil. This means that any beekeeper with a printer can label her honey organic without any realistic fear of reprisal and nobody is double checking the certifiers” work.

Where do we go from here?

Well, that’s up to you. I suppose should tell you that small time honey producers abound and to get out to that farmer’s market and meet your local beekeepers, but I know we won’t all do that. Honey is a lot like that jar of marinara, probably OK out of Aisle 4, but the closer you get to the hands (or legs) of the maker, the better off you are going to be.

Where do you get your honey? How much do you know about the way it is made?