What is honey?
In ancient Greece, honey was described as the ‘food of the Gods,’ whilst in China it’s classified as a medicine. It’s reported to have antimicrobial properties, wound-healing powers and, in its natural form, is a source of several micronutrients.
Honey is the product created by bees following the collection of nectar from flowering plants. It’s stored as honeycomb in the beehive to provide a food for the winter. This is important because over this colder period there are fewer opportunities for the bees to forage and fewer flowers from which to gather nectar. Honey makes the perfect storecupboard staple in the hive, supplying the colony with nutrients and energy.
In its raw form, honey consists of amino acids, antioxidants, micronutrients and sugar. Although it has a high fructose content, it has a relatively low GIycaemic index (GI), making it a useful sugar alternative. Commercial honeys undergo a filtration process and are heat-treated to both prevent the sugars from crystallising and to kill microbes including yeasts before storage. This extends the shelf life and makes it more attractive in the jar, but negatively impacts the honey’s antioxidant content and its potential health benefits.
Can everyone enjoy the taste of honey?
Although most of us enjoy honey in our diets, it’s not acceptable to all. Honey is not vegan, as those following the diet seek to exclude any food that exploits living creatures. Harvesting honey is seen as detrimental to the bees, who have worked hard to manufacture it in order to support their own survival through the colder months.
In addition to this, all infants under the age of 12 months should not eat raw or commercially produced honey. This is because they may be at risk of a type of food poisoning called botulism.
How is honey made?
Making honey is staggeringly hard work and consumes a lot of hive energy. Bees collect a sugary liquid called nectar from flowers using their long, tube-shaped tongues and store it in a special ‘stomach’ called a crop. Here it mixes with enzymes which alter its composition and pH, to make it more suitable for long-term storage. Once back at the hive, the bee responsible for collection passes the nectar to a receiving bee by regurgitating the liquid from its crop into the other bee’s mouth. This process continues until the partially digested nectar, now a combination of simple sugars (glucose and fructose), is passed to the processing bees who eventually collect the syrup into a honeycomb.
At this stage, the honey has a high-water content, which makes it unsuitable for storage. The bees fan the comb with their wings to speed up the evaporation process. When the water content has reduced to less than 20 per cent, the bees seal the comb with a liquid secretion from their abdomens – this hardens to the substance we know as beeswax. Once protected from air by the beeswax, and with a reduced water content, the honey can now be stored indefinitely as a food source for the hive.
What are the vegan alternatives to honey?
There are a number of vegan alternatives, although it’s worth bearing in mind that, just like honey, these syrups are classed as ‘free’ sugars, the type we are advised to cut back on.
- Date syrup is a paste or syrup made by blending dates. The resulting syrup has a low GI and a lower fructose content than most sweetners. Date syrup is rich in protective plant compounds called polyphenols, and like honey has natural anti-microbial properties. It contributes some micro-nutrients including potassium.
- Maple syrup is made by extracting the sap from the trunks of the ‘red’ or ‘sugar’ varieties of maple tree. The sap is boiled to produce a thick syrup and then filtered to remove any impurities. The syrup is graded based on colour and flavour with grade B being the darkest and strongest. Variations in colour are due to the length of the season and also determine the concentration of protective phytochemicals – the darker the syrup, the richer the phytochemicals. Compared to honey, maple syrup has a lower fructose content. Check labels when buying to ensure the product is 100% maple syrup.
- Inulin syrup is typically made from chicory root. This syrup is actually a prebiotic fibre which passes un-metabolised through the digestive tract to the colon. Here, resident microbes use it as a source of fuel. The syrup has a low GI and a mild sweet flavour, but if eaten in large quantities, may have a laxative effect for some people. Its use has been associated with health benefits including lowering the production of blood triglycerides which may be associated with atherosclerosis.
- Rice syrup is made by exposing cooked brown rice to enzymes which break down the natural starches to simple sugars. The syrup is then filtered to remove impurities. Being predominantly glucose, rice syrup has a high GI but a low fructose content, it contributes little in the way of nutrients and, being made from rice, may be at risk of arsenic contamination.
- Agave syrup is made from the juice of the leaves of the agave plant. This syrup is thinner in consistency than honey, with a lower GI. However, it does have a high fructose content and for this reason it is not one of the healthiest alternatives and best avoided by those with diabetes.
Try our moreish vegan recipes…
This article was published on 9th November 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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