It’s well-known that vegans steer clear of animal products like meat, eggs, dairy and seafood. But what about honey? Within the vegan community, it’s a hotly debated topic. Some believe that they should avoid it, as honey is meant to be food for bees, keeping them alive over winter, while other vegans include honey in their plant-based diets.
It’s not like bees are slaughtered during commercial honey production, or that honey is directly part of the reproductive process. The argument against honey though is that commercial bee-keeping is exploitative and compromises the well-being of bees.
What’s the problem with honey?
Bees produce honey as a food source, so when apiarists harvest it from a hive they have to replace it with something. This replacement is normally a sucrose and fructose syrup, but this only provides energy – it has little other nutritional value.
Contrast that with honey, which contains calcium, zinc, potassium and magnesium and gives bees all of the nutrients they need for good health. It’s these nutrients that also make honey good for humans – for instance, calcium builds strong bones and potassium helps lower blood pressure. As a result, bees suffer from nutritional deficiencies, their defences are weakened and they become more susceptible to pesticides and disease.
There are also other ethical concerns. When bees fall into poor health, some farmers will kill the entire bee colony to prevent the spread of disease instead of rehabilitating them. They also control the movement of bees by clipping the wings of the queen bee, which prevents swarming and allows the beekeeper to split hives artificially. This method is particularly controversial with vegans, as some believe it interferes with the bees’ natural instincts.
As a result of these concerns, some vegans decide to steer clear completely of honey and its related products, such as propolis, royal jelly and honeycomb.
Small-batch honey producers take pride in the fact that they use sustainable farming methods. They make sure that they leave sufficient honey for the bees to live on and they only take what is needed, and do not engage in practices such as clipping the wings of queen or feeding the bees low-nutrient sugar syrups.
Small-batch farmers also produce 100 per cent honey with no added sweeteners, which makes them more nutrient-rich than commercial honeys. But they are also a lot more expensive – a 500-gram jar of raw honey, farmed and harvested sustainably, can set you back SG$70.
Still, honey is an animal-related product, so for some vegans, even the small-batch version is verboten.
Bee-friendly vegan substitutes
So you’re convinced honey is unethical and want to cut it out of your diet for good. Now what? Well, the good news is that there are alternatives that can mimic the natural sweetness of honey. They are also high in sugar, so diabetics and those watching their sugar intake should consume them in moderation.
Here are some common options:
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. It contains minerals and vitamins such as calcium and vitamin B, the latter of which is important for cell growth. Like honey, its quality and taste vary widely. For example, if you want a maple syrup that has a strong flavour and is rich in nutrients to use in baking and cooking, you can opt for Grade A syrup from a small-batch maple syrup producer. But if you just want a basic maple syrup to drizzle on pancakes and waffles, you can opt for store-bought selections.
Made from the sap of the agave plant, which grows in desert areas of Mexico, agave’s neutral taste makes it a viable sugar and honey substitute. However, it has a high level of fructose, or fruit sugar, which means you should use it sparingly if you are diabetic or limiting your sugar consumption.
Barley malt syrup
This syrup is made from sprouted barley grains. Although it looks similar to maple syrup, it lacks the vitamins and minerals found in both maple syrup and honey. It is made up of maltose, which is a type of sugar that has a “malty” flavour. Nutrition-wise, it’s probably not the best substitute to honey. But if you are looking for a sugar substitute to replace honey, this syrup could be your best bet as it contains 50 per cent less sugar than table sugar.
Made out of Medjool dates, this syrup is also billed as a healthy substitute for sugar and a vegan alternative to honey. It has been consumed in the Middle East for centuries, and manufacturers claim that it has antimicrobial properties. It is also rich in potassium and is easy to make at home from whole date fruit.