Honey is defined via the work of Jonathan White and associates in Composition of American Honeys, 1962. See a copy here. A summary of the findings is found in Beekeeping in the United States. Agricultural Handbook 335, Revised October 1980, pp. 82-91 at Bee Source.
Honey, as it is found in the hive, is a truly remarkable material, elaborated by bees from floral nectar, and less often insect residues to produce honeydew. Nectar is a thin, easily spoiled sweet liquid that is changed (“ripened”) by the honey bee to a stable, high-density, high-energy food. The earlier U.S. Food and Drug Act defined honey as “the nectar and saccharine exudation of plants, gathered, modified, and stored in the comb by honey bees (Apis mellifera and A. dorsata); is levorotatory; contains not more than 25% water, not more than 0.25% ash, and not more than 8% sucrose.” The limits established in this definition were largely based on a survey published in 1908. Today, this definition has an advisory status only, but is not totally correct, as it allows too high a content of water and sucrose, is too low in ash, and makes no mention of honeydew. The National Honey Board approved the following definition in June 15, 1996, updated September 27, 2003:
“Honey is the substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees. The definition of honey stipulates a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance. This includes, but is not limited to, water or other sweeteners.” A fuller document is found at The National Honey Board’s website.
There is no official definition of honey at the moment. A general one would be that honey is modified nectar, collected by honey bees foraging on blossoms or other parts of living plants. A variant of honey is known as honeydew, modified juices collected by honey bees from insects that are actively feeding on plant tissue. The following is taken from an FDA document dedicated to providing guidance on honey and labeling honey products
“On March 8, 2006, the American Beekeeping Federation and several other honey-related associations submitted a citizen petition requesting that FDA adopt a U.S. standard of identity for honey based on the 2001 Revised Codex Alimentarius Commission’s Standard for Honey. The petitioners asserted that a U.S. standard of identity for honey would achieve the following goals: (1) clarify what the term “honey” means with respect to the food’s composition and therefore promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers; (2) combat economic adulteration of honey by aiding enforcement and industry compliance; and (3) promote honesty and fair dealing within the food trade in general, where pure honey is used as an ingredient in other foods.
In a letter of October 5, 2011, we denied the petition because the petition did not provide reasonable grounds for FDA to adopt the Codex standard for honey. We also concluded that the petitioners’ goals can be achieved by our existing authorities and a standard of identity for honey would not promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers. To address the labeling issues relevant to the petition and to reinforce existing laws and regulations to the industry, we are issuing this guidance document, which includes a summary of the current legal authorities that are most relevant to the labeling of honey and questions and answers on the labeling of honey.” Honey is an extremely variable product, and what beekeepers do with it also flexible as noted by contributor Rusty Burlew.
One way to ensure that honey is legitimate is to examine the product for pollen. And the preferred way to identify the plant source of any honey is to use pollen analysis, usually accomplished by microscopic examination to determine the amount and specific kind of pollen found in the product. This requires specialized skills and some kind of pollen atlas to use for comparison. There have been books published describing pollen from many parts of the world and at least one on line resource is available. Note: This does not work for honeydew, which usually contains minimal pollen, however, this is a specialized product that rarely is produced by beekeepers.
Other issues surrounding honey include economic adulteration, tropical honey, HAACP in processing, and the organic designation. Many of these issues are currently examined by the National Honey Board, which has in interesting history in its own right. A unique approach to honey marketing has been developed by Airborne Honey in New Zealand via tracking batch numbers.
Here’s a fun explanation of how bees make honey.
Finally, honey has been used as a natural product in human health for centuries, not only for its nutritional value, but also as “nature’s first aid kit in a jar.” There is no “best” honey as it is infinitely variable. Rather like wine, honey has its own terroir, and many tastings around the world exist to examine the subtleties of this unique sweet material, only available from a unique collaboration of plants and insects.
A final issue concerns something called “raw honey.” The definition is often inconclusive here as well. Contributor Rusty Burlew provides her take on this product and how it might be conflated with “pasteurized” and “gluten free,” which might also appear on honey labels.