How we tested
America has a sky-high demand for honey: According to the National Honey Board, we eat more than 400 million pounds of the stuff every year. Considering that the average honeybee produces only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over its lifetime, that’s a lot of honey . . . and a lot of bees.
To keep up with the demand, manufacturers source honey from all over the country and globe. Today, the average jar of honey on supermarket shelves is actually a mix of honeys from many hives that’s been carefully blended and processed to engineer a preferred flavor and color. (“Single-source” honeys, or honeys from a single hive, are a different breed entirely.)
Most supermarket honey is processed one of two ways. Traditional honey is usually heated to thin it enough so that it can pass under high pressure through fine strainers to remove pollen and give the honey a clear appearance, which many consumers prefer. Raw honey, by contrast, is usually only heated high enough (about 120 degrees) to prevent it from crystallizing on store shelves. The honey is then lightly strained to remove debris and leftover wax, but it’s not filtered under high pressure and retains most of its pollen.
To find the best supermarket honey, we selected five top-selling honeys—three traditional and two raw. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tried each product plain and in honey cake.
In both tastings, we universally preferred the two raw honeys, calling them “complex,” with “slight bitterness” and “strong floral notes.” Traditional honeys, by contrast, were “one-note” and “aggressively sweet.” Some were so “cloying” that tasters thought the samples were corn syrup. What accounts for the flavor difference between traditional honey and raw honey?
Our science editor explained that pollen contains alkaloids and phenolics—chemicals that add complex, slightly bitter flavors. Tasters liked how these tempered the sweetness of honey. The fact that raw honey is also heated more gently likely helps preserve its delicate, nuanced flavors. These flavors showed through when we used the honey as an ingredient in cake, too: Tasters deemed cake made with raw honey “more complex” and more “distinctly honey flavored” than products made with traditional brands.
Flavor is also influenced by what the bees feed on. While bees are free to fly wherever they like, most manufacturers list the primary diet of their bees on honey jars. The traditional honeys in our lineup were primarily sourced from clover-eating bees, while the raw brands were mixtures from bees that feasted on all sorts of grasses and flowers. Tasters noted strong floral and grassy notes in raw honeys that stood in contrast to the milder flavors of clover honey.
So when shopping for honey, look for the word “raw” on the label and choose a product that comes from bees with a varied diet. Our favorite product sources its honey from bees that feed on a blend of wildflowers, clover, Chinese tallow, and vetch; it was slightly bitter and floral, with a deep, balanced sweetness.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tried each product plain and in honey cake.