Thoughts on Honey & Sustainable Sweeteners

Sugar is hell on the environment, and we eat far too much of it. Even though the familiar white and pink bag looks totally innocuous, sugar (according to a 2004 WWF study) is responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop (yes! more than palm!). It’s a water and chemical intensive crop, and processing it produces yet more chemical waste, often in fragile and threatened equatorial regions. Even if you buy fair trade, organic sugar, you’re doing a good bit of environmental damage for something that we don’t even need in our diets.

There are plenty of other alternative sweeteners, but some of them are highly processed (high fructose corn syrup and synthetic low calorie sweeteners like Splenda), some of them taste kind of funny (stevia), and none of them are local to me (brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, maple syrup).

And then there’s honey. The beekeeper at my local farmers’ market is a brusque woman with a perennially bruised thumbnail and a talent for winding honey samples around toothpicks without so much as a drip. Her wares range from pale gold (alfalfa) to warm amber (wildflower) to dark brown (tarweed). And the flavors vary, too — the fragrant neroli-laced scent of orange blossom, the toasted marshmallow sweetness of meadowfoam. If you’ve only had commercially produced honey, you are seriously missing out.

Honey is the only sweetener that is produced within 30 miles of me. I can talk to a local, independent farmer (she says her honeybees aren’t experiencing colony collapse, incidentally) and support my local economy. And although I still use a little sugar for baking, honey is my sweetener of choice for just about everything else.

You might be turned off by the details of how honey is produced, but I think it’s fascinating. Honeybees collect nectar and regurgitate it in a half-digested form. Then worker bees fan the stuff to evaporate the water content. The remaining substance is a very shelf-stable form of food for the bees over the winter and in times of low food. Beekeepers encourage their bees to produce more honey than they need and collect the excess, making sure to leave enough for their hives. (Starving your hives is not a good business practice.) Honey is naturally antibacterial and can be used for everything from treating allergy symptoms to soothing dry, irritated skin. 

Of course, there are ethical questions about eating honey. It might be an environmentally sound option, but is it right to exploit bees and take their food?  

Maybe not, but it might be the lesser of two evils. It’s important to first realize that honey is actually something of a byproduct. Our agricultural system heavily depends on semi-domesticated bees to pollinate crops — most nuts, most stone fruits, berries, melons, some vegetables. Commercial beekeepers make more of their money renting out their hives to farmers than from selling honey. And while we used to have lots of native pollinators, habitat destruction has forced us to rely on honeybees for pollination. Even a strict plant-based diet involves the systemic exploitation of honeybees.

That in itself is not a good reason to exploit honeybees further. But ultimately, it comes down to a choice. Choose local honey, and you can visit the farm, support an independent farmer in your community, see how the bees and human workers are treated, and make a good guess at how the total carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting the honey. Choose another sweetener, and everything is suddenly much more opaque — from the location and size of the farm, to how it’s processed, and the total impact on local biodiversity, economy, and workers.

Do you eat honey? Do environmental considerations influence your choice of sweetener?

25 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent post! I’m not so sure about the “exploitation” thing. I mean, it’s not like we’re forcing the bees to do something they don’t naturally do, or forcing them to live in misery, or killing them or something. We’re actually helping them to thrive.

    Have you seen Michael Pollan’s film “The Botany of Desire?” It’s a great study of how certain plants have thrived by being desireable to us for some reason or another… it takes the view that it is the plants that have us doing their bidding, not the other way around, and I think one could look at it the same way with the bees.

    Anyhow, I use either honey or maple syrup for almost all of my sweetening needs including baking. I think the only place I still use sugar is for shortbread Christmas cookies which CatMan totally loves. I have one bag that has lasted for over 5 years now and it’s only half gone! I hope sugar doesn’t go bad…🙂

    Reply

    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      I’m not the best person to explain vegan philosophy, but the general idea is that entrapping and using animals is tantamount to enslaving another species. Beekeepers sometimes do use measures to keep their bees from leaving, and collecting honey does kill some bees. I have read Botany of Desire, and it’s an interesting point. From a Pollan perspective, honeybees as a species have (apart from recent colony collapse) benefited from their interaction with humans. They’ve spread into new areas, grown in number, and in some cases, outcompeted native pollinators. This is an interesting world we live in!

      I need to experiment more with substituting honey for sugar. Is a straight 1:1 substitution, or do you need to adjust moisture and quantity?

      Reply

      • I dunno about the vegan stuff. I mean, there is a point, but I also wonder if some of it isn’t taken too far. I mean, by that logic, one could argue that I’m exploiting my cats by keeping them confined indoors and subjecting them to vetrinary care.

        Reply

        • Actually, some abolitionist vegans also object to having domestic animals. I overheard one Twitter conversation in which the abolitionist vegan would have preferred to see cats go extinct than to breed them. An unlikely scenario, of course — cats are pretty good at procreating without human intervention — but really? A world without cats?

          Reply

  2. Great post! I use honey as a sugar substitute in most of my baking. I like that it’s not processed and can be purchased from local suppliers. Honey also has so many medicinal uses-it’s amazing for a sore throat and has some anti-inflammatory and antiseptic benefits too.

    Reply

    • Hi Lori,
      Akismet was having an off day and put you in my spam folder, for some reason.😦 I’m not too familiar with the medicinal uses of honey, though I’ve been drinking honey lemon tea for sore throats for years and have just started experimenting with honey masques. I’m just looking up medicinal uses now, and apparently you can slather it on cuts and take it for stomach aches and ulcers. Not sure how much of that is anecdotal, but I’m willing to give it a shot the next time I have a paper cut!

      Reply

      • The only medicinal use I have tried is as a substitute for cough syrup and it worked amazingly well. I found that the trick was to take a straight spoonful (as opposed to mixing it in tea or something like that). It also didn’t work well if you drank or ate anything afterwards, so last time I had a cough I would take a big spoonful right before bed and slept through the night like a baby.

        Reply

  3. Posted by Kris on 05/04/2011 at 13:13

    Hmm…I knew you could use honey as a sweetener but never thought to bake with it. I would think it would change the taste of things..and I’m a huge baker. I would like to use a different alternative to sugar though. I don’t think it’s necessary in everything.

    Great post..lots of informative information regarding honey.

    Reply

    • Hi Kris,
      I don’t have much experience substituting honey for sugar in baking, either. It probably would change the taste, although some of the really lightly flavored honeys might work. I’ve heard honey is actually sweeter than sugar, so it probably isn’t a straight substitution.

      I’m not as big of a baker as you are (and I’m currently into bread, which doesn’t require much, if any, sweetener), but I know there are a handful of recipes I’d be willing to make an exception for and use sugar. I think my conscience could handle a pound of sugar a year.🙂

      Reply

      • I admit that I don’t bake that much, and generally I both eyeball the measurements and aim for half of the sugar that the recipe calls for, so I really don’t know what the ratios would be. The main things I bake are cornbread and zucchini/pumpkin bread, and it works great in both of those recipes.

        Reply

  4. I love my local honey! Honey is definitely sweeter than sugar, I would love to find out some substitution guidelines for baking. I also never quite got how we could take so much honey from the bees and not stress them out… Like anything, we should use it wisely as treat. For every teaspoon, think of all the hard work from all those bees!

    Reply

    • Hi Sherry,
      Yes, indeed! Just because honey is more sustainable than sugar doesn’t mean we should be guzzling it mindlessly. Honeybees are amazing creatures, and we should be a lot more grateful for the work they do. I recently read that bees can reliably find the shortest route between flowers — the same calculation takes a supercomputer hours.

      I found this guide to baking with honey: http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1923,145167-243192,00.html . Apparently, due to honey’s ability to retain moisture, baked goods with honey remain soft and moist longer than those with sugar. Good to know.

      Reply

  5. Hi Mrs Green,
    you have inspired me to start using honey in my tea and coffee. I will let you know how that goes for me.

    I understand what you were saying about all the different tastes of honey. The honey is Australia is so different from the honey in America. All our Aussie wildflower particularly gum teas make a huge difference to the taste.

    Reply

    • Hi Colleen,
      I gradually stopped using sugar in my tea (I like my tea the British way, with milk) and noticed that the sweetness of the milk gradually seemed stronger and entirely adequate. Now I take sugar only if I’m stressed or feel like my blood sugar is plummeting. I have used honey in my tea before, but tea isn’t usually strong enough to mask the flavor. On the up side, tea with honey and lemon is my go to beverage when I’m under the weather.

      I’ve heard eucalyptus honeys have quite a distinctive taste. I wish I had paid more attention to honey when I was in England. In retrospect, I would have loved to sample and compare English honeys to the Californian ones I’m familiar with. I am currently having a glass of water with lemon and local wildflower honey, which has an interesting tang to it. I’m hoping it will help with my seasonal allergies!

      Reply

  6. Hi Jennifer, I do eat honey and sometimes use it for baking too. I’ve recently started to use stevia too – it does have a liquorice aftertaste, especially if you use too much, so I like to use only a minimal amount, and then use other sweeteners.
    I’m trying to cut down on sugar as much as I can, not just for the environmental issue but for health reasons too.
    Like with any other things in life, moderation and balance are key – buying 3-4 packets a year of organic brown sugar doesn’t wreck the environment, consuming a huge amount of refined sugar does…

    Reply

    • Hi Cristina,
      That’s not a bad thought to use a little stevia and then cut down on sugar. I’ve enjoyed liquorice teas that were very sweet, but it wasn’t the sweetness of sugar. However, if you say that it’s fine to use in baking, I’ll believe you! Do you use organic brown sugar for everything? I’ve started using demerara sugar for most things, but I’m not sure I could use it for, say, frosting or anything that required a really smooth consistency.

      Reply

      • Mmm… you could try reducing Demerara sugar to a fine powder (like icing sugar); I used to make my icing sugar when I had a high power food processor; now I only have a cheap one and it’s not strong enough to pulverise sugar…a VitaMix is on my wish list🙂

        Reply

  7. Posted by Emily on 05/05/2011 at 21:27

    I’ve thought about what changes I’d have to make if I was on a strict locavore diet. Switching to honey would be one of them. I currently only use honey in my tea and when I make granola. I use sugar and half-and-half in my coffee (of course I’d have to drink locally-roasted coffee if I only ate local foods). I’m not sure I could stomach the taste of honey in my coffee!

    I’ve seen large sugar beet farms in Idaho and Montana and I’m sure that they exist in many other states. Apparently there is an organic sugar producer (from sugar beets) in Montana (where I live), but I’m not sure if they supply the Co-Op or any other local stores. For folks that are interested in local “white sugar,” try researching into sugar beets.

    Reply

    • Hi Emily,
      I didn’t know that about sugar beet farms, but now that I think of it…duh, sugar comes from beets as well as cane. I just hopped over to Google to check it out. Nothing extremely close by to me, but there are certainly some farms in California. Now, I guess the question is — where do I buy the stuff (and how much will it cost me)? This sounds like a happy compromise. Honey for most things that I need sweetened, California beet sugar for delicate shortbreads and other baking needs. Thanks!

      Reply

  8. Posted by Amy on 05/05/2011 at 23:54

    Honey is a fascinating entity to me. As I work in a microbiology laboratory, I am especially interested in it’s antimicrobial activity, which researchers are finding to be useful in treating even the most resistant strains of MRSA (which is just an insanely exciting discovery in my field (see article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3787867.stm )) . And while I have used it in my hot lemon water for years, I have yet to start baking with it, although I hope to start soon since I have a beekeeper I work alongside of at the lab who can hook me up with a great deal of local honey for only $20.

    And while I know it isn’t local, I really enjoy the taste of agave nectar. Especially drizzled over a chunk of parmesan. *sigh* Now I’m hungry😉

    Reply

    • Hi Amy,
      Thanks for the link! Wow, I did not know that about honey. I had the opportunity to buy some manuka honey a few weeks ago but passed it up on the grounds that a beauty blogger I trust commented that it smells like wet towels. I’m going to guess it’s not going to stop the scientists! Honey for cancer treatments? I’m amazed.

      I don’t mind the flavor of agave, but I love the depth and variety of honey. The newest bottle of local wildflower honey I bought to see if it would help my allergies has an interesting and quite assertive tang.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Lane' on 05/06/2011 at 14:37

    I’m a die hard honey fan. Always have been and always will be. I’m also an animal lover but I’m not vegan. I believe the two can live harmoniously and cohesively if done with care and concern for the earth.

    I HIGHLY recommend you watch the new documentary Queen of the Sun. I learned so much about bees, honey, etc. in that hour in a half than I ever thought imaginable. When I purchase honey, I try my hardest to purchase it from a local farmer. In my part of the US, that’s pretty easy. I think just about every Portlander is beekeeping these days. After I learned about the practices of major honey farmers my heart sank. I know they’re “just bees” but they seriously DO rule the world and without them who else will pollinate our crops?

    Reply

  10. I’m trying to rely solely on honey and maple syrup for sweeteners. I love my local honey – it is super sweet and syrupy and makes me feel good for supporting local agriculture. I did hear that bees that make honey are not native to North America, and come from Europe. I wonder if this is bad for native bees, and what would that mean for ecosystems and habitats?

    Reply

  11. Honey is amazing, and I don’t think we’re exploiting the bees. Or at least, before addressing that issue we should first abolish all factory farms, no? I’m pretty sure the bees live a pretty comfortable life inside those hives and are hopefully only mildly annoyed that we steal their hard work – but at least we’re not keeping them in inhumane conditions and subjecting them to feed, additives, and medication that isn’t good for them.

    Reply

  12. […] friendly and sustainable sweetener like local honey or maple syrup. Here is a great post about why natural sweeteners are better, that has no health […]

    Reply

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