Laura Pollard looks at some of the arguments for and against the consumption of honey.
I’m going to be honest from the outset here: I love honey. As in, love love love. As a pseudo-vegetarian and wannabe vegan, this poses a problem.
The problems with honey
If you look at any definition of veganism, it seems pretty black and white here: animal products are a no-go. Those that argue against consumption of honey point to the harsh and exploitative methods adopted by beekeepers, the splitting of colonies according to what works best for the keepers and not the queen, and the use of smoke as a means of controlling and calming the hive.
Then there is the issue of how much of the honey is taken by the beekeepers. Do we think that commercial beekeepers are taking just a reasonable amount of the honey produced and ensuring the hive has enough for itself? Unfortunately, a common practice is to take all of the honey away and feed the bees on corn or sugar syrup.
Should we really care about it?
Let’s be open about it. Some people simply do not consider bees to be as important as animals like chicken, cows and pigs. Is that so wrong?
The important question of whether bees (and other insects and invertebrates) feel pain is one that continues to be debated. Some say that bees lack the complex nervous system and pain receptors that humans and other animals have, while other studies indicate that bee behaviour when exposed to pain or shocks illustrates that they feel pain.
Another issue to consider is the possible health benefit of honey for humans. There is increasing awareness of the problems of sugar for our health, and the excess with which we eat sugary foods, and people are often on the lookout for “healthier” sweetener options. Is honey a viable alternative to a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee?
Some will simply say that sugar is sugar, and they have a point, don’t they? One difference that could be noted is that honey comprises different types of sugar beyond just glucose and fructose, which are easy for your body to digest, meaning your body will expend a little more time breaking down the honey.
Potentially of more interest are the flavonoids and antioxidants found in honey. Depending on the region and local flora, your honey could contain small amounts of other minerals. On the other hand, it is questionable whether there would be enough of these elements present in honey to be of any serious benefit to human health.
In the grand scheme of things, we can ask whether the honey issue actually detracts from the more important and compelling reasons to turn vegetarian or vegan. Many people will have some tolerance or interest in the idea of not eating meat; they have pets, they like animals, they probably don’t like climate change, etc. But convincing them that eating honey and hurting bees is a terrible wrong may turn them off the idea pretty quickly.
Is there any middle ground?
Considering cutting back on honey but not sure if you want to stop eating it altogether? There are still some options for you.
(1) Buy local. You can support local and smaller businesses, and you can try to speak to the beekeepers themselves about their practices and see if you are happy with them.
(2) Research ethical honey. Have a quick search online for more ethical honey producers. Friends of the Earth produces useful information on ‘ethical beekeeping’ and gives suggestions of the most ethical honey available for consumers. You can take a look at its honey report here.
(3) Cut down. Eating excessive amounts of sugary foods is not good for anyone, whatever their diet or ethical concerns. Try cutting down on honey little by little.
(4) Try alternatives. There are plenty of alternatives out there, particularly if your main concern is the welfare of bees rather than your consumption of sugar. Date syrup, xylitol and coconut sugar are some suggestions. Of all the sweeteners, Stevia appears to be the best alternative as it is so sweet that you need to use less of it.
What’s the verdict?
Really, I’m not here to tell you what the best decision is for you. But being an ethical consumer is one of the easiest and most important rights that we can exercise. Spending 10 minutes to make your decision, even if that decision is simply to eat a little less honey, is a positive step. For me, I think I’ll get in touch with some local beekeepers.