Here's What You Need to Know About Honey if You are Super Sensitive to Gluten

Two Jars of Honey Plus a Honey Dipper
What you need to know to choose a safe brand of honey
if you're super sensitive to gluten

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?

There are many things you need to look out for if you react to less than 20 ppm, so here's what you need to 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. Just looking at the ingredient list or allergy warning on the label is not enough.

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 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 is not 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 this reason, large honey producers use pollen supplements.

Pinterest Image: Honey bee sitting on a purple flower

What Do Bees Eat? And Where Do They Get It?

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 the 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 or still on the tree
Take a moment and think about those summer picnics and barbecues.

Family Picnic at the Park
Ever had a group of hungry bees
spoil your picnic?

Have you ever had a group of bees spoil the party? They will land on your:
  • wheat-bread sandwiches
  • cookies
  • cakes
  • fruit salad
  • meats dressed in sweet barbecue sauces
Anything that's available allows bees to accidentally pick up all kinds of crumbs and transport 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 all of the honey the hive is making

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
Most brands of soy flour are not gluten free, as soy is contaminated in the fields due to crop rotation. Bob's Red Mill also produces their organic and regular soy flours in their normal, non-gluten-free facility. I'm guessing this is because they know that the flour is already above 20 ppm by the time it gets to them.

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 of a pollen substitute needs to be at least 25 percent, so we are not talking about adding just a little bit of protein. While soy flour packs a huge protein whallop, some growers add wheat and/or rye flour to give the mix a better protein blend, while others also include oils and fats.

Pollen substitutes can either supplement the pollen the keeper naturally collects or it is 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. Soy flour costs more than all-purpose blends.

Here is an example of a honey bee pollen substitute recipe. Almost every site I looked at had a similar combination of ingredients.

In addition to the above, if the hive is located in an area where wheat, rye, or barley is grown, the wind can blow gluten dust into the hive while honey is being made. This is more likely to occur during grain harvest, but since honey is sticky, there is no way to filter out that type of 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 that 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. Manufacturers of commercial honey pump the honey, filter it several times, and fill the bottles it comes in, but they don't oversee the honey's production.

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.

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.

Bee Keeper
Raw honey is allowed by law to contain a certain
amount of bee parts and waxy bits.

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 a benefit myself.

What Type of Honey Do I Use?

There are a lot of super sensitives that react to traces of gluten much smaller than I do, so I want to make that very clear before I talk about what I use. You may or may not be able to eat what I can.

In general, I can tolerate products that contain up to 10 ppm, if I only eat them occasionally.

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 manufacturers 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.

If you're super sensitive to gluten, 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.

My diet is limited enough, due to being a pre-diabetic, so I don't believe in putting more restrictions on myself than I need to. For this reason, my knowledge base of natural, alternative 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 100-percent pure cane sugar because beet sugar (store brand and off-brand white sugars) makes me sick if I eat too much of it. Cane sure does not.

Most products use beet sugar because it's far cheaper and more abundantly available, so I was already limiting the amount of processed foods I eat long before hubby and I went gluten free.

For awhile, I was putting honey in my homemade lemon tea, but I don't remember ever 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 do use it in the spicy sauce I make for pulled pork sandwiches, which he eats quite often, but he also has a higher gluten tolerance than I do. For example, he doesn't react to Chex cereals, Mission gluten-free tortillas, mushrooms, or Lara bars made with dates like I do.

[NOTE: This is what I was doing at the time I wrote this post. Today, I'm using liquid sucralose and a bit of erythritol instead of cane sugar, and I can also eat mushrooms again.]

How to Find a Safe Brand of Honey

Since commercial vendors can't verify cross contamination status before the honey reaches their facility, it's extremely difficult to know the potential for cross contamination of gluten. And due to the habits of bees and beekeepers alike, I'd be very, very wary of any gluten-free claim on the label.

If you're reacting to commercial honey, it's best to stick with local honey from the Farmer's Market, where you can ask questions, or choose 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
  • how close do they live to neighbors
  • do they live near a park or picnic area
  • do 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 to gluten
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 talk about fructose, and what to watch out for, in our 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.

In addition, 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. Same goes for dairy.

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
These reactions reactions let 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 huge 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've been dragging my feet about discussing particular products. There are so many variables involved that it's impossible 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


  1. This is really an awesome article. Thank you for sharing this.It is worth reading for everyone.

    ?Natural Honey?


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