Published On: Fri, Aug 3rd, 2018

Honey: Why isn’t honey vegan, and what we can use instead?

Vegan but missing honey on hot toast? Charlotte Willis gives you the low-down on why you shouldn’t eat it but how you can get your bitter-sweet-tasting fix.

Why isn't honey vegan

There was a time when I loved nothing more than a slice of hot toast, topped with a dollop of pure honey. Despite my vegan diet, I continued to eat honey for around a year after I became vegan. I know, now, I was naïve to the cruelty that honey brings upon our bee population.

What are you eating?

Honey is the bee equivalent to our food and water. It provides them with energy, nutrients, protein, vitamins and minerals. Each bee will visit hundreds of flowers, collecting nectar as they go, storing it into a separate stomach known as their ‘honey stomach’, 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, eh?

Bees need honey

Now some may be able to look past the reality of what they are consuming but there’s more to this story. 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 famish.

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. 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.

Why isn't honey vegan

Cruel Practices

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.

We need our bees

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.

Why isn't honey vegan

What to watch out for

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 harbour honey include granola and cereals, granola bars, yoghurts, sugar-free items, some brown breads, flavoured herbal teas, throat sweets and over-the-counter cold medicines, 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 scaring. 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.
  • Bees wax (cera alba): Bees wax is often used in lipsticks, lip balms, makeup and cosmetics. Always read the ingredients list of non-vegan makeup brands.

Vegan honey alternatives

While I won’t pretend there is an alternative to honey that tastes exactly the same, here is a list of the best options to try with all the sweetness but no sour effects on our ecosystems:

For sweetness

  • 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. Available online.

Why isn't honey vegan

For healing

  • Turmeric & maple syrup: To heal a sore throat and aid your immune system, combine a teaspoon of turmeric with a tablespoon of maple syrup, add to hot water and stir in some fresh lemon juice.
  • Ginger shots: Freshly juiced ginger is a great immune-boosting tool to use when feeling a little under the weather.
  • Chamomile tea: Sipping on chamomile can ease a tickly throat and help relax a cough.
  • Echinacea: Buy as tablets or a tincture, Echinacea contains phenolic compounds to enhance white blood cell actions.

About the author 

Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.

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