What the heck is vegan honey?
Update: Included at the end of this post is a statement by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee.
Honey is excluded from the vegan diet by definition. Both the definition and the term “vegan” are credited to Donald Watson, who promoted the idea back in 1944. A few months later, the Vegan Society of England adopted Watson’s model. He wrote:
Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.
So if honey is included in the official definition, there is no doubt that honey is off limits to vegans. I am frequently asked why honey is vegan, and knowing this will make it easier to answer.
But here is my question: Recently my daughter—who is vegetarian but not vegan—found a recipe that calls for “3 tablespoons of vegan honey.” She asked me, “What the heck is vegan honey?” Good question. As she points out, the phrase is confusing. Like fat-free half-and-half, it defies all manner of logic.
So I did an internet search. Lo and behold, you can buy something called “Bee Free Honee” that is made from concentrated apples, beet sugar, and lemon juice. At least one reviewer says it’s “even better than the real thing.”
Personally, I doubt it’s better than the real thing, especially since it comes in four flavors that don’t particularly remind me of honey: original, mint, chocolate, and ancho chili.
But the thing that’s most baffling? The label. It reads “All Natural • Plant Based.” While that is no doubt a true statement, you could say the same thing about honey: both are all natural and plant-based. Honey is made from nectar, and nectar comes from plants. Okay, maybe a bit of bee spit too, but when apples are pressed, all kinds of bugs and caterpillars, wormy things and slugs, get squeezed along with the fruit.
Some lifeforms are hard to avoid. According to the FDA Defect Levels Handbook, apple butter (which is also a form of concentrated apples) is not flagged until the 100-gram samples contain an average of four or more rodent hairs and 5 or more whole or equivalent insects (not including mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects). These levels are set for aesthetic reasons only, and it sounds like the mites, aphids, thrips, and scale insects are so small that they are not even counted. So much for vegan.
And speaking of animal exploitation, I wonder who pollinated all those apple trees? And the lemons? Is it possible that bees were stacked on a flatbed and trucked across the country, servants to the ag industry? Is it possible that apples and lemons are “commodities derived wholly or in part from animals” or their labor? One reviewer wrote, “No bees die in the production of no-bee honey.” I wonder how sure she is about that. Both agriculture itself, and the migratory beekeeping that serves agriculture, are very hard on bees.
I certainly have nothing against veganism: people should be free to eat what they want. But I find it odd that people take labels at face value without evaluating the subtleties—the details about where food comes from and how it’s processed.
At any rate, consider this a public service announcement for beekeepers: now you know where to send your vegan friends who can’t eat honey. But for the record, I don’t understand why vegans condone consumption of bee-pollinated crops or the ingestion of insect parts that are invariably part of our food supply. To me, that is no less abusive than eating honey—bees die either way.
Response by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee:
Thank you Rusty, for allowing me the opportunity to respond to your blog and the thread of comments following your discovery of Bee Free Honee. I would like to begin this is my product: I created it (by accident). I was trying to make apple jelly and did not read the directions. Later, I began to hear about the decline in the honey bee and began to learn more about what was happening in the industry and asked myself: Can I do something with that mistake?
My father was a beekeeper growing up; most of my life bees were our closest neighbors. I love bees and all pollinators and have a great deal of respect for them. I grew up around people that believed in doing things simply, naturally. As I got older and moved away from home, I lost touch with that world so I was shocked to find how much beekeeping had changed since my last exposure to it. I began to learn about national hive renting and local hive renting and their differences. I learned about nutrient deficiencies for our pollinators due to farming practices, grooming of the roadsides, and clearing land for construction spreading into rural areas. I read articles on the decline of the honey bee and realized that what was being put out was not a call for action but a way for people to get mad about governments allowing certain pesticides and cell phone use…but not a demand for change. I looked in the stores and saw shelves of honey, honey sold by the gallon all year long, not seasonally as I knew it to be.
I realized this is not only about neonicotinoids and cell phones; this is also about our expectations as consumers to purchase honey all year round and in unlimited quantities, at a low cost. This is about pollinating fields at the expense of the insects, without allowing the costs of maintenance of the hives cut into the bottom-line. Could almond growers have their own hives, they could but they do not want to. The reasoning given is that there is not enough water or food for the bees to live on; some orchards say it is too hot for the bees and no shelter to protect them; the bees would cook in the hives. Well, there are solutions for all of that…it is not an overnight solution but we can make this work. First of all, we build shelters for all other animals; we could build simple shelters for bees. Water is provided for livestock; why not provide it for bees. Green walls are now very water efficient, they could be built strategically to provide the nutrient diversity for the bees, and as they are built vertically, they take up almost no land. This would also increase the amount of water that is put back into the atmosphere through transpiration. According to http://water.me.vccs.edu/courses/SCT112/lecture3_print.htm : “For example a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons of water per year. About 10 percent of the earth’s atmospheric moisture can be attributed to plant transpiration. The rest is supplied by evaporation and the water cycle.” The fewer greenery the less transpiration – likewise, increase greenery and produce more fresh water.
Think of the good for our fresh water supply, cleaning up the air quality, and for our pollinators if we began to build green walls strategically. Think of the good we could do if we kept bees stationary, if we began to treat them as the beautiful special and important insect that they are. Not just think of them as a means to a commodity. Why is there not more education on the Mason bee? They are less aggressive, native to our country and easy to house….and very effective pollinators. Maybe because they don’t produce a commodity?
Through Bee Free Honee, I do my best to educate the public on these topics as well as asking them: If you are buying honey simply as a flavor profile in cooking or baking; Why not find an alternative that will provide the same result but allow the bees some time to regain in strength and in numbers? We cannot just continue on business as usual and expect it to be okay. We need to make changes. I do understand that change is hard. I do understand that there will be people who will never understand or approve of what we are doing. But to reduce it to being simply vegan does not do it justice. Vegan is one attribute of our product, another is that we need to save the bees and I am trying to do something about it in any and every way I can. It may not be the method others would choose but that is why we value the freedoms our country affords us. So we can all go forward in our own individual ways.
We try to be very clear about what Bee Free Honee is. When we did use beet sugar, it was non-GMO, but that local farmer sold his field to a company that planted GMO beets, so we switched to Vegan quality, non-GMO cane sugar. We use only as much is as needed to create tackiness, no more. Lemon juice is the only preservative and the rest is apple. That is it. From every angle of the bottle we clearly write that we are from apples and even have the words “contains no real honey” on the bottle. The word ‘Honee’ is a descriptive; ‘Bee Free’ refers to the process in which it is made, not to how it was pollinated.
I hope this clarifies our stance, if you would like to read more, we have a page on the bees on our website that talks about our stand, and there is a page on how it all got started. I hope you feel comfortable taking a look through the site. I hope you are able to see that we are trying to create a positive. Thank you for your time.
Bee Free Honee