Super-Sensitive Celiac? What You Need to Know About Honey

Two Jars of Honey Plus a Honey Dipper
What You Need to Know to Choose a Safe Brand of Honey

If you're interested in using natural sweeteners, instead of highly processed sugars, you might be wondering how to find a safe brand of honey. Since honey is made directly by bees from pollen and bodily fluids, with little manufacturing interference, it often shows up on safe gluten-free food lists as being a naturally gluten-free food.

For the average celiac or person with gluten intolerance, those who can handle up to 20 ppm of gluten without reacting, this might very well be true. Under most conditions, honey shouldn't contain enough gluten to worry about, unless you're eating huge quantities.

But what about those who are super sensitive to gluten? Those who react to less than 20 ppm on a daily basis? What should super sensitives know about choosing a safe brand of honey?

Truth About Raising Honey Bees

When it comes to gluten-free products, whether specialized or not, super sensitives have to go beyond common thought and look at exactly how a product is made. In this case, you have to go back further than the hands-on potential for cross-contamination at the manufacturing level, and inquire into how the bees actually make honey.

Ordinarily, bees gather pollen from the local area and bring it back to the hive, but this is a fanciful picture that the public-at-large has created in their mind and not actual reality. Life as a honey bee isn't like a cartoon, where flowers are growing in abundance and there is plenty of pollen to go around.

Cartoon Honey Bee Smiling and Offering the World Its Honey

For most of the year, especially in temperate climates, bee colonies spend a majority of their energy competing with one another for resources. When an abundance of the protein and carbohydrates they need to survive are available, they store the sugars away in the form of honey and protein in the bodies of their nursing bees.

Raising bees is like raising any other animal. They need a diet that is rich in protein, containing the proper balance of amino acids peculiar to honey bees. Sugary syrup will keep the bee alive, but if that's all they're getting, the sugar won't help them thrive, especially if the bees have to dig into their honey reserves to keep the workers alive.

For that reason, large honey producers use pollen supplements.

Naturally, bees get their protein, vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids from a mixture of different types of pollen. The mixture is important since fatty acids and proteins will differ from source to source.

A proper mixture allows the bees to produce the royal jelly they need to feed the queen and rear brood.

Natural pollen comes from:
  • wild flowers
  • vegetable garden flowering plants
  • flowering weeds in area
  • garden and lawn flowers
  • trees in bloom
  • and anywhere pollen might be laying around
Keepers can also capture the hive's pollen and feed it back to them. When pollen is scarce, however, bee keepers report that bees tend to gather up any type of dust they can find. This dust includes:
  • coal dust and other products with carbon
  • sand and sawdust
  • sugary soda in an empty can
  • grain dust from nearby crops
  • wheat flour from open sacks or spills
  • sweet foods and gluten crumbs lying around
  • rotting fruit in the yard
Take a moment and think about those summer picnics and barbecues.

Family Picnic at the Park
Ever Had a Group of Bees
Spoil Your Picnic?

Have you ever had a group of bees spoil the party? They will land on your sandwiches, cookies, cakes, fruit salad, meats dressed in sweet barbecue sauces, and anything that's available, accidentally picking up all kinds of crumbs and maybe transporting those gluten molecules back to the hive.

Bee Hive - Bees Making Honey
Look at How Easy it Would be for
Bees with Gluten on Them to
Contaminate the Honey

On a commercial scale, trapping enough of the bees' pollen isn't always practical, although some growers do add pollen trappings to their homemade mix. These growers use:
  • high-protein soy flour for protein and bulk
  • soy milk for protein
  • casein or powdered milk for protein
  • brewer's yeast for Vitamin B
  • sea salt
  • wheat or rye flour
  • cane sugar mixtures
  • beet sugar mixtures
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • Crisco type shortening
Brewer's yeast is a by-product of beer production and was in every single recipe I looked at online, so these pollen substitutes are hardly ever gluten free, unless bee keepers only need to supplement the bees with a bit of sugar water. As a Vitamin B source, yeast that comes from beer is thought to be more consistent than other varieties, so every single recipe called for Brewer's yeast.

According to the Scientific Bee Keeping site, the protein volume needs to be at least 25 percent, so we are not talking about a little bit. Some growers add wheat and/or rye flour to give the mix a better protein blend, while others also include oils and fats.

Pollen substitute can either supplement the pollen the keeper naturally collects or it's used deliberately to increase the beehive's yield. Products with gluten ingredients, such as Brewer's yeast, are also available at bee-keeping supply stores, so it's not just those creating homemade recipes you need to watch out for.

To save money, many bee keepers do mix up their own pollen substitute, which is where the wheat or rye flour might be used.
Here is an example of a honey bee pollen substitute recipe. Almost every site I looked at had a similar recipe.

In addition to all of the above, if the hive is located in an area where wheat, rye, or barley is being grown, the wind can blow gluten dust into the hive and honey being made. This is more likely to occur during grain harvest, but since honey is sticky, there is no way to filter out that gluten dust.

Some super sensitive celiacs have reported getting sick on local honey, but I never have.

The main question is how much of that Brewer's Yeast or gluten-contaminated pollen the bees brings back to the hive is actually getting into the honey? How much gluten dust in the air actually finds its way into the honey, as well? On a windy day, gluten dust can travel quite a distance.

In general, large manufacturers like Sue Bee will simply tell you that honey is naturally gluten free. It contains no wheat, barley, rye, oats, or other by-products.

However, if contamination occurs at the bee or hive level, no gluten ingredients might not be enough to keep you from getting sick, especially if the hives are located near grain fields. Manufacturers of commercial honey pump the honey, filter it several times, and fill the bottles it comes in, but they don't oversee their honey's production.

In the next section, we'll talk about those who do.

Pinterest Image: Large Honey Jar

Extra Concerns About Local or Raw Honey

So what about local or raw honey?

Typically, raw honey is unheated and unfiltered, but the term "raw" isn't regulated, at least, not here in the States. For this reason, some bee keepers strain the honey for local debris and will heat the honey to 118 degrees, which they are allowed to do by law. The filtering and heating won't be on the label, though. The honey can still be marketed as a "raw" product.

The benefit of raw honey is that above 116 degrees, the heat begins to destroy the honey's enzymes, antioxidants, and vitamins, so if the bee producers only strain the debris, those factors will still be intact.

In addition, raw honey is allowed to contain a certain percentage of bee parts and waxy bits, so if those bee parts came in contact with a gluten substance, it's likely that a super sensitive might react to it.

Wheat dust and other air contaminants will be higher in volume in raw or local honey, than they are in commercial varieties, because the honey will only be filtered slightly, at best, and may or may not heated to less than 118 degrees.

Some people believe that local honey is more beneficial for those with seasonal allergies, but I never experienced that myself.

What Type of Honey Do I Use?

Since honey is made from a variety of pollen and other ingredients, it is a complex mixture of several sugars. Typically, honey contains:
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • sucrose
  • maltose
  • and other sugars
Some products also add flavorings and acids.

What makes some products hard on the body is their degree of concentration. Honey is never concentrated, but sometimes, it is thinned down, or cut, with corn syrup or sucrose syrup. You need to make sure that you are getting 100 percent real honey from a safe supplier.

We don't live in an area where gluten grains are grown. Most of what they grow here is field corn. But ranchers do give their horses and other cattle gluten grains in their feed. For that reason, I eat very little honey, including local honey.

When I was new to the gluten-free lifestyle, I chased after cleaner foods, like natural and organic products, but after six years, my health had not improved eating that way, so today, I just go with whatever I don't react to. For this reason, my knowledge base of natural sweeteners is very limited.

When I do eat honey, I use:
  • Kirkland brand clover honey
We pick it up at Costco. In the amount I eat, a little drizzle over cornbread, I haven't experienced any problems. I have also done fine with:
  • Sue Bee honey
But I honestly only eat a teaspoon of honey maybe once every month or two. The major sweetener I use is refined cane sugar.

For awhile, I was putting honey in my homemade lemon tea, but I don't remember having any problems from it. Occasionally, I might stir it into a cup of hot herb tea, but that is rare as well.

Hubby eats honey far more often than I do. I use it in the spicy sauce I stir into his shredded pork for sandwiches, but he also has a higher gluten tolerance than me. For example, he doesn't react to Chex cereals, Mission gluten-free tortillas, mushrooms, or Lara bars made with dates. I do.

How to Find a Safe Brand of Honey

Since commercial vendors can't verify cross contamination before the honey reached their facility, it's extremely difficult to know the potential for cross contamination.

If you're reacting to commercial honey, it's best to stick with local honey from the Farmer's Market, or a brand that produces honey from hive to table. This way, you can ask:
  • how they raise their bees
  • what they feed them when pollen is scarce
  • and if they live in an area where gluten grains are grown
With raw and local honey, you might also want to know if they strain their honey at all or if they heat it, even just a little bit.

One Additional Caution About Blaming Honey

Keep in mind that all sugars are difficult to digest if you:
  • are brand new to gluten-free living
  • have been accidentally glutened
  • or are getting more sensitive
This is especially true for sweeteners like honey that combine fructose with glucose and other sugars. Fructose isn't absorbed and tossed into the bloodstream as glucose is. It must be handled and broken down into glucose by the liver first. I'll talk some more about fructose, and what to watch out for, when I do a post on agave nectar.

Like dairy products, honey and other sugars are broken down during digestion by enzymes produced by the tips of your villi. If your intestinal villi are blunted or destroyed, you'll get sick, even if the honey is free of gluten.

Reacting to honey and other sugars can be a warning from the body that you are getting glutened from somewhere, but the culprit isn't necessarily the honey. This is one of the main reasons why tracking down a gluten reaction can be so difficult and time consuming.

For example, when I've been recently glutened or are getting contaminated in some way, I react to all forms of:
  • sugar
  • dairy products
  • oils, and other fats
That reaction lets me know that something is wrong with my diet, but often, the offender is not a sugar, fat, or dairy product. At one time, it was a brand of chicken broth I was using, and another time, it was the maltodextrin in bulk sugar substitutes.

While it might be easier and far less stressful to be given a list of safe brands of honey, like all gluten-free foods, your individual reactions to products depend on more than just the parts per million found in the food you're suspecting.

Environmental contamination, air quality, and even stress play a role in how the body reacts to foods and beverages.

Unfortunately, gluten free has evolved into a trial-and-error game for super sensitive celiacs, thanks to the FDA ruling. There are no short cuts. Plus, what's safe today might not still be safe for you to consume tomorrow. Tolerance will change from day to day, due to the amount of cross contamination that has accumulated, both in your environment and in your overall meals and snacks.

What might be safe to consume in tiny amounts, like a teaspoon of honey once or twice a month, may cause problems when you use a quarter of a cup to sweeten a sauce or baked good. Especially, if you're also eating gluten-free flour tortillas or some other gluten-free product on the same day.

How your body reacts to any degree of gluten depends on what else you're eating and how much invisible contamination you're getting from day to day.

That won't be the same for everyone.

This is why I thought about doing a series on products like this one, but never carried through with the idea. Until now. There are too many variables to be able to make any safe recommendations. All I can do is share my research and what I have experienced for myself.

Do YOU eat honey?

If so, what safe brands are you able to use?

Related Articles You May Find Helpful:

How Much Gluten is In a Single Breadcrumb?
Why is Wheat Starch Allowed in Gluten-Free Products?
The Truth About Gluten-Free Oils
Dr. Fasano's Gluten-Free Diet for Super Sensitive Celiacs
How to Create Your Own Personalized Core Diet