It may surprise you at first to hear honey can be graded, but it makes sense if you think about it! We get grades in school, restaurants are graded on quality, other food items such as meat receive grades, and honey does too! There actually are multiple ways honey can be graded, believe it or not!
The USDA created a scale that allows all extracted honey that is filtered or strained to be measured by a number of factors/characteristics. Then, the Pfund scale is another grading method that examines honey by color and assigns a grade relating to that aspect. These two major grading scales are independent of one another and both deserve to be discussed, as well as why it matters that lighter or darker honey has a grading scale.
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How Honey Gets Graded by the USDA
The United States Department of Agriculture/USDA has a published grading system they use to assist businesses and hobbyist beekeepers in grading their honey. It is not an, “Official,” system as there is no specific professional USDA department that examines honey or anything, it is a guideline that covers certain key areas. There is grade A honey, grade B honey, grade C honey, and substandard honey, which is anything that scores below a grade C. Much like how you would get a grade on any test, a number of factors are assigned a number-rating system and depending how well these characteristics, “Score,” that is tallied-up to form the overall grade. What are the aspects of honey that get graded by the USDA, however?
The USDA grading system for honey examines moisture content, the absence of defects, flavor & aroma, and clarity. To be more specific about what these three elements involve, moisture content means just what it sounds like–how much of a percentage of the honey is water. Grade A and B honey will have no more than 18.6% of moisture content and not more than 20% for grade C honey.
In regards to the absence of defects, that refers to, “Defects,” meaning things in the honey that should not be there. Bits of honey-comb, parts of an actual bee, leaf fragments, dirt/sediment and basically anything that is not honey would be considered a defect. The absence of defects is graded on a 40 point scale, with 37-40 points being practically free of any problems and a qualifier for grade A honey. 34-36 points fall in the range of reasonably free of defect honey and is going to be grade B (31-33 is, “Fairly free,” and given to grade C).
Flavor & Aroma is all about the taste and lovely smell honey has. It does not take into any kind of unique flavor or smell, just that there is an aroma and taste from the, “Predominant,” source of floral smell and flavor. It is graded on a 50 point scale with grade A honey being 45-50 points/”Good” and earning that rating thanks to being free from caramelization, smoke, fermentation, or other chemical smells and tastes. Should honey earn 40-44 that is, “Reasonably Good,” and 35-39 is, “Fairly Good,” with the concerns being more notable in these lower grades.
Clarity is the last thing graded by the USDA and only applies to the filtered style of honey. It examines the, “Apparent,” transparency/clearness of honey to the human eye plus how much or how few air bubbles, pollen grains, or other fine particles might be found suspended within the honey. It is simply a 10 point scale. Grade A honey will be 8-10 points and only contains air bubbles that do not affect appearance and tace pollen grains or particles that do not impact the overall appearance at all. Grade B honey will be 6-7 points and, “Reasonably clear,” while grade C honey has 4-5 points and is only, “Fairly clear.”
As was noted, these are guidelines and not an official system governed by any professional graders. The USDA’s grading scale also does not cover added ingredients (such as extra sugar), the biological source itself, the labeling (“Organic,” “Raw,” and so forth), or region. For this reason, you could have Grade A clover honey from one entirely different region than another. It is simply a focus on quality by some key guidelines. When it comes to the color of honey, however, that is where the Pfund scale becomes a useful tool!
How the Pfund Scale is Used for Color
The Pfund scale is designed to exclusively measure the color of honey in terms of how light or dark it is. That at times impacts flavor, but the scale does not measure flavor itself. It operates on a level of examining the millimeters of optical density. The result is 7 levels on the scale that vary from the lightest level to very dark coloration. The scale goes as such:
|9mm – 17mm
|18mm – 34mm
|Extra Light Amber
|35mm – 50mm
|51mm – 85mm
|86mm – 114mm
This scale is not any kind of official grading system, much like how the USDA grading scale is more of a guideline. It is accepted by many as the way to measure honey coloration and a universal scale of sorts.
What Makes Honey Light or Dark
Generally speaking, darker honey is stronger than light (but not always). It is impacted by the floral content/the kind of flowers bees get the pollen they make their honey from. Using the Pfund scale can help to get across some ideas about color, but it is not the be-all, end-all. For example, light honey such as basswood would be considered to actually be quite strong-flavored while the darker tulip poplar, in fact, is considered quite mild in terms of the strength of taste. The kinds of pollen bees gather is what makes the impact when it comes to honey and its light or dark color.
The Types of Honey That Are Light Versus Dark
There are many types of honey and it would take quite a while to list them. After all, the Pfund scale has 7 levels to account for all the variations of honey! Some key ones to discuss however would be Alfalfa honey which is quite light and has many everyday uses. Then, there are very dark amber honey kinds like Manuka which some people think holds many medicinal properties. Clover honey is well-known for its uses in baking and Eucalyptus honey is beloved for its use in teas. There are so many floral varieties in the World and is a major contributing factor to how bees can make so many different kinds of honey that are light to dark. This has resulted in a big World economy where honey from one region may be preferred for certain needs (baking, adding to tea) and allows different countries to have their honey be sought-after. This allows different regions to all enjoy the economic benefits of honey!
The Cost of Dark Honey Compared to Light Honey
Darker honey tends to often be higher in antioxidants compared to lighter honey options. It also generally has a stronger taste and is more concentrated. For that reason, you can sometimes expect to need to pay more for dark honey than lighter honey. One interesting fact though is how regional tastes can influence what kind of honey is most liked. It turns out Americans like light hone so in America Water White-categorized honey will have a much higher price-tag than the darker kinds of honey at many grocery stores. This comes down to supply and demand, as even if lighter honey generally can cost less, with it more sought-after that drives the price up in the United States.
What Will Happen to Lower Graded Honey
Simply put, you should not see, “Substandard,” honey for sale anywhere or used for anything. It just isn’t of good enough quality for it to make sense to use. It has too much moisture, defects (e.g. bee parts in it) and is otherwise useless. Now, lower-grade honey like a grade C honey is a kind that is going to be heavily processed and used in commercial settings. You won’t see, “Grade C,” honey for sale anywhere. Big companies that find they bee farms have made grade B honey will most likely use it for more industrial purposes as well. After all, in grocery stores, people will find themselves gravitating towards higher-quality honey than anything that could be less-than-optimal.
One exception worth noting is that small-scale/hobbyist beekeepers who sell their honey may label it as being grade B due to the fact there can be a very thin line between grade A and grade B when it comes to things like flavor and aroma content (do not confuse grade B as if it simply means, “Raw honey,” which is a common misconception). Grade B honey is still most likely excellent, and as has been established, the grade happens regardless of color content or flavor (which has been made clear is a case of a personal preference for individuals).
A “Sweet,” Variety of Grading Processes
When it comes to how honey is graded there is how the USDA does it and the Pfund scale. Both focus on different elements of honey but all are useful when it comes to determining just what kind you might want to enjoy with your toast, tea, or in your medicine!