From bee to hive to bottle, here’s the buzz on honey, one of veganism’s most contentious foods.
Hotly-debated honey often raises the same question that eggs, cheese, and butter do—Is it vegan-friendly? By definition, vegans do not eat animals or use animal products, typically for ethical or environmental reasons. While bees create honey, which is an animal product, whether you consume it or not depends on your beliefs as a vegan. Whether it's clover, wildflower, or even manuka honey, we've explored both sides of the argument to help you decide if this syrupy sweetener is right for you. Before we dive in, a quick biology lesson—all bees, specifically honeybees, are animals. These small, but mighty Arthropods belong to the Insecta class, a subcategory of the massive Kingdom Animalia, which includes living creatures from tigers to jellyfish.
How—and why—do bees make honey?
Bees depend on energy-rich honey as their primary food source. Bees suck nectar from flowering plants and carry it back to their hives for processing into honey. Simultaneously, bees release pollen, which acts as a natural fertilizer for these plants. Along with butterflies and hummingbirds, bees are natural pollinators, and many key fruit and vegetable crops such as apples, Brussels sprouts, and pumpkin depend on their pollen to reproduce. Back at the hive, bees work to thicken the collected nectar into honey before sealing it inside honeycombs as future food. Bees do not hibernate, so they naturally produce an excess of honey to survive a brutally-cold winter. This is where beekeepers come into the picture—they harvest the excess honey from the hives so that it can be packaged for consumer use.
How do beekeepers harvest honey?
Beekeeping can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where it was valued for its culinary and medicinal applications. Modern beekeepers tend to bees in apiaries, a site where beehives are kept. To collect the honey, beekeepers extract it from the honeycombs found inside the hives. Often times, beekeepers will pump a small amount of smoke into the hives to calm the bees beforehand. According to a USDA report on sugar and sweeteners, commercial beekeeping yielded 161.9 million pounds of honey in 2016. While honey can be made from a variety of plants, the most common are clover and wildflower honeys.
Why would a vegan avoid honey?
Many vegans abstain from honey for ethical and environmental reasons. From 2015 to 2016, beekeepers in the United States reported an overall loss of 44% of their colonies in warmer and colder months. Whether you’re vegan or non-vegan, this is a concerning finding—bees thrive in warm weather, so some colony loss in cold weather is expected. Year-round loss, however, is more alarming and could evidence issues with current beekeeping practices. Here are several reasons why a vegan would avoid honey.
- Hive burning: American Foul Brood, a highly-contagious disease, is deadly for honey bees. One option to control the outbreak is for beekeepers to burn affected hives along with the sickened bees. Many vegans view this as a cruel and unnecessary practice, since beekeepers can prevent the disease through regular monitoring.
- Wing clipping: Clipping the queen bee’s wings prevents her from swarming, or leaving the current hive to start a new one. While intended as a way to control bee populations in commercial beekeeping, many vegans view this practice as inhumane.
- Honey substitutes: A common practice intended to sustain bees’ food supply, beekeepers will replace the honey they remove from hives with substitutes such as high fructose corn syrup. However, a 2013 study by the University of Illinois confirmed that honey contains essential nutrients that bees need to stay strong and healthy. Without a honey-rich diet, bees are more susceptible to disease outbreaks that can wipe out entire colonies. For vegans, this practice raises the question—If honey is an essential part of bees’ survival, do humans have any part in harvesting it for themselves? While honey is energy rich, and accepted as a healthy sweetener, it is by no means essential to human survival.
- Pesticide use: Neonicotinoid, a widely-used insecticide, is often used to protect bee colonies from harmful intruders such as mites or fungi. While conflicting research exists over whether this practice is contributing to the recent colony collapse, the EPA is taking steps to find alternative ways to protect honeybees.
Why would a vegan eat honey?
Some vegans choose to consume honey if they know it’s from a humane and sustainable source such as a small-scale, local farm. These vegans may approve honey if it was harvested only from an abundance inside the hive, or when it’s “raw honey,” meaning it has been processed as little as possible. The majority of the honey you see at grocery stores has been filtered and pasteurized to create a smoother consistency and a more pleasing appearance. Many consider this practice completely unnecessary, as honey does not need to be pasteurized in the same way as milk because it is highly acidic and a natural bacteria inhibitor. Raw honey retains many of the nutrients that processed honey lacks, since it has not been heated or filtered in any way. You’ll know it when you see it, as raw honey often contains actual pieces of pollen or honeycomb.
See More: What is Raw Honey?
What are vegan-friendly substitutes for honey?
If you do not eat honey, there are plenty of suitable substitutes that can be easily swapped into recipes. While we recommend choosing “clean,” unprocessed sugars such as maple syrup, it’s important to verse yourself in the options out there.
- Agave Nectar: Derived from the agave plant, agave nectar has a similar consistency to honey, but is a notch sweeter. Touted as a natural substitute for artificial sweeteners, agave is controversial because it is highly-processed.
- Maple Syrup: Made from the sap of red, black, or sugar maple trees, maple syrup has a similar consistency to honey but a more concentrated sweet flavor. Due to its high antioxidant and mineral count, maple syrup is widely embraced as an ideal sweetener. Make sure that “pure maple syrup” is the only ingredient on the bottle you’re purchasing.
See More: Ways with Maple Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup: Made by extracting and boiling down the juice from sorghum, a whole grain cereal, this mild-flavored, sweet syrup is often enjoyed on its own as a topper for pancakes or waffles or as a spread for biscuits.
Get the Recipe: Double Sorghum Spice Cookies
- Molasses: This thick, dark brown syrup is made by refining sugarcane or sugar beets. Typically, molasses is used as a sweetener for baked goods such as cookies, but it’s also used in savory applications (think baked beans!).
Looking for inspiration in the kitchen? Check out our Vegan Cooking Guide for delicious ideas and more.