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USDA Honey Grading

The USDA publishes a grading system for extracted honey that provides general standards for two types of honey;

  1. Filtered Honey: all or most of the fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have been removed.
  2. Strained Honey: strained to the extent that most of the particles, including comb, propolis, or other defects normally found in honey, have been removed. Grains of pollen, small air bubbles, and very fine particles would not normally be removed.

Characteristics covered by the USDA grading system for Honey: Moisture content, absence of defects, flavor & aroma and clarity (for filtered honey). Color is defined but not part of the calculation of grade. For imported honey that bears USDA grading information, the country of origin must be declared.

Characteristics Not covered by the USDA honey grading system:
It is important to note that this is a voluntary system. No enforcement or checking is performed. For that reason and because of the grading system is lacking in several key areas, this grading system should never be the only deciding factor in selecting honey, there are many important honey characteristics not covered by the USDA grading system. Two honeys could be legally graded as Grade A honey and be identically labeled as, “100% Organic Clover Honey from Arizona – USDA Grade A” yet be entirely different honeys. They could be a blend of honeys from all over the world, some heated to 180 degrees to make it easy to filter, contain antibiotics, chemicals and corn syrup, not made from Clover at all nor actually be from plants in Arizona!

Also note that from the USDA Rules and Regulations, “…honey does not require official inspection in order to carry official USDA grade marks and since there are no existing programs that require the official inspection and certification of honey,…”

Not covered: Purity or added ingredients (sugar or syrups), heating, contaminants, authenticity of labeling (natural, organic, raw, unheated), biological source (floral, honeydew), botanical source (Arcacia, Clover etc.), or regional source. Many of these factors are defined and followed for honeys from other countries (Europe, Australia, New Zealand) and supported via honey standards and labeling, but are not part of a grading system per se. For honey from the United States, the best policy for determining the level of quality is to purchase honey directly from the honey farmer or a trusted distributor or supplier who can vouch for the honey source and processing methods. It is important to note that some states are now considering enforcing standards for honey produced in their state. Florida is the first state to actually create and enforce a honey identity standard. Other states with honey standards: California – scroll to Division 13. Bee Management and Honey Production. Wisconsin and North Carolina are close to adopting a standard.

USDA Honey Grading Standard

U.S. Grade A is the quality of extracted honey that meets the applicable requirements of Table A and has a minimum total score of 90 points.

–  U.S. Grade B is the quality of extracted honey that meets the applicable requirements of Table A and has a minimum total score of 80 points.

–  U.S. Grade C is the quality of extracted honey that meets the applicable requirements of Table A and has a minimum total score of 70 points.

Table A: Rating Factors By Type of Honey** †

Rating FactorFilteredFiltered PointsStrainedStrained Points
Moisture ContentYGrade A – 18.6% max
Grade B – 18.6% max
Grade C – 20% max
YGrade A – 18.6% max
Grade B – 18.6% max
Grade C – 20% max
Absence of DefectsYA – 37 to 40 pts
B* – 34 to 36 pts
C* – 31 to 33 pts
YA – 37 to 40 pts
B* – 34 to 36 pts
C* – 31 to 33 pts
Flavor & AromaYA – 45 to 50 pts
B* – 40 to 44 pts
C* – 35 to 39 pts
YA – 45 to 50 pts
B* – 40 to 44 pts
C* – 35 to 39 pts
ClarityYA – 8 to 10 pts
B – 6 to 7 pts
C* – 4 to 5 pts
NN/A
Color (see designations below)NN/ANN/A
TotalGrade A – Min 90 pts
Grade B – Min 80 pts
Grade C – Min 70 pts
Divide total by .9 then apply below
Grade A – Min 90 pts
Grade B – Min 80 pts
Grade C – Min 70 pts
*Limiting rule – sample units with score points that fall in this range shall not be graded above the respective grade regardless of the total score.
**Substandard grades not shown

† How to Interpret Table A:

  • Moisture Content: Percentage of water. Percentage of soluble solids =100% –  moisture content%
    • Grade A – Maximum Moisture Content: 18.6%; or Minimum Percent Soluble Solids: 81.4%
    • Grade B – Maximum Moisture Content: 18.6%; or Minimum Percent Soluble Solids: 81.4%
    • Grade C – Maximum Moisture Content: 20%; or Minimum Percent Soluble Solids: 80%
  • Absence of Defects: Means the degree of freedom from particles of comb, propolis, or other defects which may be in suspension or deposited as sediment in the honey.
    • Grade A – 37 to 40 points; Practically free – practically none that affect appearance or edibility
    • Grade B – 34 to 36 points; Reasonably free – do not materially affect the appearance or edibility
    • Grade C – 31 to 33 points; Fairly free – do not seriously affect the appearance or edibility
  • Flavor & Aroma: The degree of taste excellence and aroma for the predominant floral source
    • Grade A – 45 to 50 points; Good – free from caramelization, smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes.
    • Grade B – 40 to 44 points; Reasonably good – practically free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation,chemicals, and other causes.
    • Grade C – 35 to 39 points; Fairly good – reasonably free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes.
  • Clarity: With respect to filtered style only, the apparent transparency or clearness of honey to the eye and to the degree of freedom from air bubbles, pollen grains, or other fine particles of any material suspended in the product
    • Grade A – 8 to 10 points: Clear – may contain air bubbles that do not materially affect the appearance; may contain a trace of pollen grains or other finely divided particles in suspension that do not affect appearance.
    • Grade B – 6 to 7 points: Reasonably clear – may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles in suspension that do not materially affect the appearance.
    • Grade C – 4 to 5 points: Fairly clear – may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles in suspension that do not seriously the affect the appearance.
  • Color designations (not used for grading): Typically the color indicates the strength of the flavor of the honey. Darker honey tends to be stronger than light. There are some exceptions. Linden or Basswood honey is light in color but has a strong flavor, while Tulip Tree honey is dark but has a milder flavor.
    • Water White: Honey that is Water White or lighter in color; Pfund Scale: 8 or less; Optical Density: 0.0945
    • Extra White: Honey that is darker than Water White; but not darker than Extra White in color.Pfund Scale: Over 8 to and including 17;Optical Density: 189
    • White: Honey that is darker than Extra White, but not darker than White in color; Pfund Scale: Over 17 to and including 34; Optical Density: .378
    • Extra Light Amber: Honey that is darker than White, but not darker than Extra light Amber in color; Pfund Scale: Over 34 to and including 50; Optical Density: 595
    • Light Amber: Honey that is darker than Extra Light Amber, but not darker than light Amber in color; Pfund Scale: Over 50 to and including 85; Optical Density: 1.389
    • Amber: Honey that is darker than light Amber, but not darker than Amber in color; Pfund Scale: Over 85 to and including 114; Optical Density: 3.008
    • Dark Amber: Honey that is darker than Amber in color; Pfund Scale: Over 114

Next: Raw Honey: From a consumer’s point of view—the best grade of honey.
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Other Resources and Further Reading
United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey PDF
United States Standards for Grades of Comb Honey PDF
USDA Revises Standards to Include Country of Origin
Honey Labeling Regulations
Department of Agriculture Official Rules – Country of Origin Labeling of Packed Honey

12 comments to USDA Honey Grading

  • Stan Kanter

    REVISED COMMENT (delete previous comment)

    Please note that there is some country of origin labeling confusion that is the result of USDA only requiring country of origin on the label, if a USDA Grade is used.

    Many honey packers interpret that to mean that if you do not put a USDA Grade on the label, country of origin is not required.

    This is correct. However, it does not override U.S. Customs requirements that any imported product requires that the country of origin appear conspicuously to the end user.

    Only product of USA does not require a country of origin designation.

    It should also be noted that many years ago, Customs determined that blending and bottling imported honey does not change the state of the product. Therefore, country of origin is still required.

  • HT

    Hi Stan:

    Can you cite the actual document that refers to this requirement?

    Is this it?
    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2010-title19-vol1/pdf/CFR-2010-title19-vol1-sec134-11.pdf

    …Scott

  • Carol Richard

    In Grade A honey, is most of the pollen left ?

    Is Grade a honey filtered or strained?

    Is it correct to say that honey without pollen is not honey?

    Please respond to my email address.

    Thank you

  • The short answer is that the style of the extracted honey must be included along with the Grade to determine the likelihood of pollen. The styles are, filtered and strained, The definition of Grade A honey – filtered will likely not have pollen. Grade A honey – strained may have pollen.

    Here is the USA Honey Grading definition for Extracted Honey:
    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3011895

    Of course, comb honey contains all the pollen and is unprocessed!

    Here is the USA Honey Grading definition for Comb Honey: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3011894

    The legal definition of honey varies by country. Here in the USA, the legal definition of honey is basically non-existent. However the EU standard is the Codex Alimentarius for honey and does include pollen. http://www.codexalimentarius.org/input/download/standards/310/cxs_012e.pdf

    My opinion is that honey should be labeled correctly. Honey without pollen is a type of processed honey. If it is so labeled as processed, filtered honey, then I accept that. If it was flavorful, I might use it for cooking.

    Raw, unprocessed, unheated honey strained to remove large visible foreign substances but allowing very low concentrations of unnatural substances (less than a few parts per million), is what I would accept to be the definition of honey. This is what I would prefer to eat.

    …Scott

  • Hi Scott,

    Can you tell me anything about Signature Clover Honey (US Grade A Pure)? To get nutritional facts on it, you have to write to them (snail mail). After reading your little article “USDA Honey Grading”, I thought this might be an attempt to dodge some aspects of this honey’s content. (Who writes letters any more?)

    As a teacher, I’m interested in educating students as consumers, even(especially?)if it means questioning the choices of the dining service we recently hired.

    Thanks, Dave Arnold

  • Hi Dave:

    That’s a great question! I applaud your desire to vet your food supply choices for school dining. Looking carefully at the label and questioning what we are eating is an important part of being a responsible member of society, not to mention our own health and well-being. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!”

    The drive toward low cost food and availability is at the center of the food quality issue. The government’s first responsibility is food safety. The need for safe food is obvious, yet we must be able to trust what we read on the label if we are to have a viable food market, especially when we are buying through distribution (the middle men between suppliers and retailers) and not from the farmers themselves. Food grading laws and guidelines could be the answer to that.

    As I have mentioned before, the current USDA honey grading system and enforcement is not up to the task. It IS fairly adequate if you want a generic honey flavored sugar replacement that looks and tastes like “honey”. But it is woefully inadequate when honey is purchased for its intrinsic healthful properties and flavor. The current honey grading system doesn’t cover:

    • - Varietals (type of plant/flower)
    • - Nectar sources (both geographically and type of plants)
    • - Contamination from invisible, non-lethal, yet questionable contaminants (antibiotics, pesticides, etc)
    • - Processing techniques (heating, filtration, processing, blending)

    Additionally, it doesn’t come close to addressing questions of organic production, but that is another issue.

    If you are looking for more than a generic, honey-flavored sugar replacement, the only way to be sure of the honey you buy is to obtain it directly from a trusted bee-keeper who can credibly respond to the requirements above. Period.

    Now to answer your question. If you are referring to Costco Kirkland Signature™ Honey, then let’s start with the following article produced by Costco itself Cosco Connection, Page 66, Sept. 2012. It seems like a nice response to consumer’s concerns about tainted “foreign honey”. It is beautifully written and I can find little wrong with anything it says… if you accept the fitness of the current (inadequate) USDA honey standard. The information about ultra-filtration has inaccuracies. Ultra filtration is not at the molecular level, but it does remove pollen—which is currently the best way to determine the source of the honey. It doesn’t strip out other dissolved sweeteners and contaminates or flavor necessarily (heating to facilitate the process does though). Pollen identification can help determine if the plant actually exists in the country where the honey was apparently produced and confirm the country source. (For more, see Common Processing – Filtered Honey)

    The good news is that Costco Signature honey is based upon the “True Source Standards.” Yet while this standard addresses the country source of the honey, it does not address the other honey attributes mentioned above. Nevertheless, it is a good beginning towards improving the trustworthiness of labeling. There are still problems with the True Source Standards in my opinion. For instance, it categorizes specific countries as low and high risk, but omits countries that have much better overall honey standards and enforcement than the USA (and many of the listed low risk countries). Omitting the European Union (France, Germany etc) with some of the finest varietal honeys in the world seems like a protectionist tactic rather than a safety issue.

    Philosophically-speaking, we need to work towards raising our honey standards and enforcement to those currently enjoyed by the wine production market in the USA. Some states are leading in this area (Senators Urge FDA to Adopt Honey Standards). And we can learn much from the European Union, the masters of agricultural marketing.

    While I see nothing wrong with the Signature Clover honey produced by Costco when compared to other mass produced, blended honey products, I would encourage your school to purchase honey from local producers. Why not support your local farmers? Honey is easy to store and lasts for years. There is no food safety or freshness reason not to. Please consider making it part of your overall food services philosophy to purchase all locally-produced food possible and the rest through your usual sources.

    Finally, here is an interesting thread on this very topic by US beekeepers (Costco Honey).

    …Scott

  • Maria

    Hi Scott,
    I recently bought Kirkland Clover Honey (Grade A) from Costco which is “a product of USA & Argentina”. Can you please tell me what that means? Is the honey from Argentina and bottled in the US? Is it a mix of honey from both countries? Etc. Just curious… Thank you!

  • Hi Maria:

    I am going to make an educated guess and say that it is likely a blend of Argentina and USA honey. Argentina is a very large producer of honey and recent changes in honey labeling ‘laws’ (not enforced) requires bottlers/distributors to show the country of origin. Large bottlers /distributors commonly blend honeys from a variety of sources to meet demand. Nothing wrong with Argentinian honey in my opinion!

    How was it?

    …Scott

  • Glenn

    What a stupid grading system…!!!

    The best, most health giving, beneficial, honey is raw honey. This is unheated, unprocessed, unfiltered, unstrained honey which has all of the enzymes, vitamins, minerals, pollen, and propolis that the bees created it with. It tends to be cloudy, and you can see pollen and bits of propolis and comb floating around in it.

    Refined honey has been heated and strained, which destroys all of the beneficial enzymes, removes the nutrition, and essentially leaves the honey nothing more than honey flavored sugar with none of the health benefits that people take honey for to begin with. The reason for the heating and destroying of the health benefits is simply to make the honey look appealing. refined honey is crystal clear with nothing floating in it. This is thought to be more appealing to consumers and believed to sell better because of its visual appeal, though it is closer to being toxic than healthful in this refined form.

    The grading system tells no one anything about whether honey is nutritious, raw, or processed in any way at all.

    You can have strained raw honey, which is clear with nothing floating in it, and still retains all the enzymes, vitamins and minderals, and nutritional and health giving benefits.

    The grading system does not let anyone know whether honey is raw strained honey, with life giving benefits, or whether it’s refined and devoid of any health giving benefits at all.

    This grading system tells the consumer NOTHING about the quality of the honey. It tells the consumer NOTHING about the nutritional value of the honey. It tells the consumer NOTHING about whether there are any life giving enzymes present at all or not.

    The only thing the grading system does is grades visual and aromatic quality of the honey, regardless of any nutritional value, and regardless of any health giving, or health robbing qualities at all.

    The grading system for honey is essentially useless to the consumer, and provides no nutritional or health giving quality evaluation at all.

    Leave it to the government to come up with a system that is useless to the consumer and actually deceiving, as the lower the grade, the higher the quality in reality since, unfiltered, unheated, unprocessed raw honey has pollen, propolis, and bits of comb floating in it giving it a lower grade though it has the highest nutricnal, and health giving benefits of all.

  • Hi Glenn:

    The most important aspect that is not included in the USDA grading system is a test for heating. This is normally done (in other parts of the world) by testing the levels of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a substance created by heating (and by age) of honey.

    If this was added to the grading system, and one chose the strained style of USDA rated honey (to ensure we get the non-soluble honey components such as pollen), then we would have a better chance of using the USDA grade as a factor for determining a healthy honey product.

    For now, in the absence of any other grading factors (or buying it directly from the beekeeper), then choose a USDA Grade A, strained honey for the best chance of getting a good product. And of course, the best way in absence of any other information is to buy honey in the comb, produced within the last 2 years. This is never heated and never filtered. Honey the way the bees made it.

    …Scott

  • Anna

    Hi Scott,

    Is Honey considered a food or sweetener by USDA standards?
    And where would honey stand used in a beverage on the sugar tax bill?

    Anna

  • John

    Is there such a thing as U.S. Choice honey? Thanks.

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