Is honey vegan? Why it’s not and what honey alternatives to use

Author: Elena Orde

Read Time:   |  27th July 2022

People are often confused when it comes to the question of is honey vegan? In this article, Elena Orde from The Vegan Society explains why honey isn't vegan and shows you what honey alternatives you can use instead.

Honey is probably the product most frequently mistaken as being vegan. There is a common misconception that bees make their honey especially for us, but this is untrue.

It is in fact made by bees for bees, and their health is sacrificed when it is harvested by humans so honey is not vegan. When we examine the process of how honey is made, it becomes clear that it does not meet The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism.

According to the definition, veganism is a ‘way of living which seeks to avoid all exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.’ As we explore the cruel and unethical practices of honey production, it is clear why honey is not vegan.

How do bees make honey?

Honey is the bee equivalent to our food and water. It provides them with energy, nutrients, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Each bee will visit up to 1,500 flowers, collecting nectar as they go, storing it into a separate stomach known as their ‘honey stomach’. This is where digestion breaks the collected nectar down into what we recognise as honey.

The bee will then return to the hive, and regurgitate the contents of its honey stomach for the other worker bees to chew and process further. Yep, honey is practically bee vomit. Not so appealing when spread on toast now is it? 

Working as a collective, the bees work tirelessly to ensure that each member of the hive receives their supply of honey. As each bee produces only a small amount of honey in its lifetime, just a twelfth of a teaspoon, it’s fundamental to a hive’s well-being.

One of the major issues with commercial honey production is that most beekeepers replace the stolen honey with high fructose corn syrup. This means that the bees are unable to enjoy the rewards of their hard work which is vital to their wellbeing.

Bees visit up to 1,500 flowers collecting pollen which they then regurgitate in the hive for other bees to process. Image: Francis Fu via Getty

Bees visit up to 1,500 flowers collecting pollen which they then regurgitate in the hive for other bees to process. Image: Francis Fu via Getty

Why vegans don’t eat honey

Bees produce honey for one main reason: they require a source of energy, food and nutrients to help them survive hibernation and overwintering. Without this, they will starve. 

Honey farmers remove the maximum amount of honey from the bee’s hives before they hibernate to reach a high product yield, leaving the hives stripped of this life-sustaining honey.

Some farmers replace the stolen honey with a sugary syrup, which lacks the essential nutrients bees need for longevity and health.

The consequence? These bees will either die, reduce in numbers due to hunger, or famish later in their lives due to nutrient deficiencies. This is because the sugar substitutes are lacking the essential nutrients, fats and vitamins of honey.

As humans, we do not need to eat their honey. There are no nutrients in honey that can’t be obtained otherwise from alternative food sources.

Farmers often replace stolen honey with sugary syrup that doesn't have the nutrients bees need. Image: Serban Tunde Irina via Getty

Farmers often replace stolen honey with sugary syrup that doesn't have the nutrients bees need. Image: Serban Tunde Irina via Getty

The unethical practices behind honey production

The story gets worse. The hive’s Queen Bee often has her wings clipped to prevent colonising in other hives, demobilising her from her natural progression.

Commercial honey bees are often specifically bred to maximise productivity, which narrows the bee’s gene pool and increases the likelihood of inter-species diseases developing.

What’s more, hive populations are often culled after a season of honey collection, as it is far more cost-effective for larger farmers to kill an existing hive and buy in a new one than to keep a hive fed over hibernation periods.

Considering the added pressure of disease from pesticide use, and an ever-reducing amount of free-flowering land due to agricultural practices, we really aren’t giving our bees a chance to flourish.

Why we need bees to protect the planet 

Let’s put these quantities into perspective: in its lifetime each bee will produce just a 12th of a teaspoon of honey. Think about how many bees are needed to make just one jar? During their journeys across miles of land, these bees pollinate the very crops that keep us alive and fed.

Each bee is an important member of our farms, veg patches and local ecosystem. Approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination, along with thousands of species of wildflowers, trees, and plants.

Despite what honey manufacturers will tell you, keeping bees and eating honey is not the way to preserve our bees – just as fishing is not the way to preserve our fish stocks.

Avoiding eating honey, products that contain honey, and buying sustainable organic produce wherever possible helps protect our precious hives from collapse.

 Bees are vital to our ecosystem as approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination. Image: Sumiko Scott via Getty

Bees are vital to our ecosystem as approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination. Image: Sumiko Scott via Getty

What to watch out for when reading ingredients labels 

Honey is often snuck into all sorts of seemingly vegan products. When used in food, honey rarely shows up as an emboldened allergen, so take caution when reading food labels.

Common foodstuffs that list honey as an ingredient include granola and cereals, granola bars, yoghurts, and sugar-free items. You’ll also find it in some brown breads, flavoured herbal teas, throat sweets and over-the-counter cold medicines.

Make sure you also look out for baked goods, chewing gum, sugar-free drinks and salad dressings. As for beauty products, also look out for these bee by-products:

  • Bee propolis: A gel used by the bees to seal the hive together. It’s often added to face creams and certain oral supplements.
  • Royal jelly: A substance enriched with proteins, fats and vitamins. It is fed to all bees to nourish them and concentrated around the Queen Bee and her larvae. Royal jelly can be infused into skin products designed to anti-age or help repair scarring. Also found in haircare products such as shampoos and conditioners.
  • Manuka honey (Mel): Manuka honey is in all sorts of products. While Manuka honey is healing to the skin, there are alternatives such as aloe vera.
  • Beeswax (cera alba): Beeswax is often used in lipsticks, lip balms, makeup and cosmetics. Always read the ingredients list of non-vegan makeup brands.
Honey and beeswax is often added to products under other names such as royal jelly so make sure you check the labels. Image: Oscar Wong via Getty

Honey and beeswax is often added to products under other names such as royal jelly so make sure you check the labels. Image: Oscar Wong via Getty

Vegan honey alternatives

Here is a list of the best vegan honey alternatives to try with all the sweetness but no sour effects on our ecosystems:

  • Agave syrup: Extracted from cacti, this syrup has a low glycaemic load and is perfect in hot drinks.
  • Maple syrup: The classic syrup for vegan baking and home cooking.
  • Yacon syrup: My personal favourite. Extracted from a root similar to a sweet potato and naturally probiotic. Great on porridge and pancakes.
  • Date syrup: Easy to make yourself by boiling dates and blending them together.
  • Honea: A vegan substitute made by Plant Based Artisan, mimics runny honey without the use of bees! This is a great alternative and comes in a few varieties.
  • Molasses
  • Golden Syrup
  • Stevia
There are many tasty options when it comes to finding vegan honey alternatives like maple syrup and agave. Image: Getty

There are many tasty options when it comes to finding vegan honey alternatives like maple syrup and agave. Image: Getty

The bottom line: Why honey isn’t vegan

As vegans seek to end animal exploitation, honey is not part of a vegan diet. This is because taking honey from bees does not meet the definition of veganism and is detrimental to their health.

Instead, vegans will opt to sweeten their food with a wide range of readily available honey alternatives which do not involve taking honey from bees.

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Written by

Elena Orde

Elena is the Communications Officer at The Vegan Society and Editor of The Vegan magazine. She has written for numerous publications including The Independent and The London Economic and regularly speaks at vegan events.

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