A UC Davis researcher wants honey to get the same recognition—and protection—as wine and olive oil.

By Stephanie Cain

When asked to describe the taste of honey, few would find words beyond “sweet.” Researchers at the University of California at Davis are working to change that with the new Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel.

The university’s Honey and Pollination Center has devised a tool that provides 100 descriptors to help develop a greater understanding of honey and its many varieties, with flavors ranging from fruity to earthy, spicy to herbaceous.

Led by Amina Harris, the founder and director of the Honey and Pollination Center, which is affiliated with the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, the project brought together 20 trained tasters, food scientists, beekeepers, and a restaurant critic to taste dozens of honeys produced around the world, from New Zealand to Brazil to Europe.

The resulting flavor profiles are an attempt at codifying the scents and tastes associated with different honey varietals.

“The purpose of the wheel is to develop the words that describe honey to answer the question, ‘When you eat honey, what do you taste?’” Harris says.

The wheel, which took six months to complete, shows broader descriptors such as floral, woody, and confectionary, which are narrowed down to more specific flavors like dried fruit, toffee, butterscotch, and cotton candy.

But why a honey wheel now? Harris has been yearning to establish a standard way of describing the sweet nectar since producing her own local honey years ago. She believes that this standardization will lay the groundwork for current and future efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies and institutes to define honey and its many types.

“The definitions of varietal honeys are being scrutinized, and the USDA is deciding if it should establish a real definition of honey,” she explains. “But no one really knows what these varietals taste like.”

Honey is no small industry, and the specialty food industry has helped build awareness of pure, high-quality offerings beyond the ubiquitous clover honey bears sold in grocery stores. In 2013, the American honey crop was valued at $317.1 million, according to the USDA. But the U.S. is hardly the top global producer; imports account for nearly 75 percent of all honey sold, according to the National Honey Board.

Demand continues to climb for natural ingredients—especially in the realm of sweeteners, a $339 million industry in 2013, showing more than 7 percent growth in the past two years, according to the “State of the Specialty Food Industry 2014” report by the Specialty Food Association and Mintel.

With the growing interest, Harris explains there is a need to codify tasting profiles for various honey varietals to help guard against adulteration.  She hopes that that this wheel and her continued research will aid the Food and Drug Administration and National Honey Board in determining honey standards.

“When you pick up a honey at the store, all it has to be labeled, according to the USDA, is by predominant floral source,” Harris explains. “If it’s 25 percent orange blossom, 22 percent clover, 10 percent cotton, and the rest other wildflowers, you can call it orange blossom.”

She adds that New Zealand’s Manuka honey, touted for its healing benefits, found itself a prime example of this adulteration: More “Manuka honey” was sold in the U.K. last year than even produced in all of New Zealand.

Meant more for research than wider distribution, for now, the wheel is available at UC Davis bookstore, alongside flavor wheels for wine and olive oil.

That juxtaposition demonstrates Harris’ ultimate desire: to educate and inspire a newfound appreciation for high-quality honey. “Our mission is to eat pure and wonderful honey,” she says. “If you’re out there buying wine, everyone knows what to look for. For honey, no one knows, so I’m building a honey library.”

 In this video from the Sacramento Bee, Amina Harris talks about how to taste honey.

Honey Wheel Illustration: University of California at Davis