Honey is one of the world’s oldest natural sweeteners. Long before humankind discovered how to extract sugar crystals from sugarcane and fruit, they discovered that they could sneak honey out of a beehive.
There’s a lot of debate about honey in the vegan community, though. If you’re reading this post now, you’re probably wondering, “Is honey vegan?”
Strict vegans mostly agree that honey is not vegan. Although honey is all-natural, it’s technically an animal product that’s taken against the hive’s will.
Bees need their honey to feed their young and get them through the wintertime. By stealing their honey you stand to endanger the hive, thus exploiting an animal’s labor.
Not everybody agrees, though. Some vegans think that eating honey is okay if it comes from a responsibly-managed, ethical bee farm. Others don’t believe that eating bugs is the same as eating other animals.
In today’s post, I’m going to give you a full breakdown of both sides of the argument, so you can decide for yourself if honey is vegan or not. Things are about to get sticky…
What Is The Honey-Vegan Debate?
The honey-vegan debate refers to the never-ending argument between vegans over whether or not honey can be considered vegan or not. After all, honey is one of the longest-used sweeteners in the history of mankind, so it makes sense that some people would push back a little.
Unlike obvious animal foods, such as eggs or meat, honey is in a bit of a gray area.
On one hand of the argument, you have people who believe that bee farming is exploitative. By consuming honey, you’re profiting off of the hard labor of bees that were just trying to help their young grow.
It’s no different than taking milk from cows, something which most vegans agree on.
On the other hand, you have people who claim that bee farming can be humane under the right conditions. Plus, they argue, most vegans don’t bat an eye when they swat a mosquito. So, why should they care about the lives of other food-producing insects?
For those who enjoy being politically correct, the first argument is the easy choice. The second stance tends to be taken by lifelong honey lovers and organic bee farmers who do practice humane bee farming.
Is Honey Plant-Based?
Here’s another tricky statement that might ruffle some feathers:
Honey is, in fact, plant-based.
Although it comes from the inside of a beehive, the substance itself has just concentrated flower nectar. To understand why honey is plant-based, it helps to understand how honey is made, in the first place:
- Worker bees spend most of their day traveling through their territory gathering nectar from various flowering plants. They land on a petal, insert a small tube into the heart of the flower, and suck the nectar into a special “honey stomach” that keeps the nectar fresh while they transport it back to their hive.
- Next, the bees regurgitate the nectar back into the comb of their hive (the hexagonal wax that makes up the hive structure).
- Bees inside of the hive use their wings and combined body heat to blow gusts of warm air onto the nectar which dries it out and removes excess moisture.
- The result is pure honey.
As you can see, all the bees really do is transport and dry the flower nectar. The substance itself is plant-based.
Here’s a quick video showing the process:
What Do Bees Use Honey For?
If bees just made honey for the heck of it, then taking their honey wouldn’t be as big of a conundrum. However, bees make and use honey as a food source to feed larvae. Adult bees also eat the honey as well, especially in the cold months when they can’t go out and collect nectar.
The fact that bee farmers are stealing a living creature’s primary food source is a big ethical problem for many vegans.
Is Bee Farming Ethical?
Bee farming is an ethical dilemma for many vegans. Ultimately, by collecting honey, we are stealing a food source from the hive. One of the most important ethical debates in regards to bee farming is the amount of honey that’s taken from bees.
Some farms take all the honey while others only remove excess honey that the bees wouldn’t otherwise use.
Commercial vs. Organic Bee Farming
This is where it really cuts to the chase and you can see who the main “bad guys” are.
Commercial bee farming is nothing like traditional bee farming. You see, traditional organic bee farming has a strong focus on maintaining healthy, active colonies. Conversely, commercial bee farms care very little for the health, welfare, and future of their colonies.
First, let’s take a look at how a responsible, ethical organic bee farm harvests its honey:
- The farm provides plenty of flowering plants in close proximity to each hive. Often, the bee farmers will work with a local fruit farm, as the bees help pollinate the fruit trees and plants.
- The bees use their abundant, high-quality nectar sources to make lots of honey.
- The bee farmer removes excess honey that the bees don’t necessarily need to survive, leaving them with enough to feed themselves and their young so that the hive continues to survive and thrive.
That doesn’t sound too bad, right? One could still argue that the colony’s labor is being exploited for personal gain.
But, at least they’re being taken care of and given a constant, high-quality source of nectar (something that’s harder to come by for bees as our landscape is turned into cities).
Now, to show you the contrast, here’s how most large-scale commercial bee farms work:
- Bee hives are typically placed on large farms where the bees have access to abundant nectar sources. Often wide-open clover fields are used, which yield the most nectar per square foot. This is one reason why clover honey is one of the cheapest types of honey.
- Once the bees fill their hive with honey, the bee-keepers put the hive to sleep using smoke and remove all of the colony’s honey.
- Then, they replace the honey with sugar syrup, so that the colony has something to eat. However, the sugar syrup isn’t as nutritious or healthy for the bees. It’s kind of like taking a healthy meal from a child and giving them a cracker. Too much of this simple sugar can weaken a hive, resulting in the eventual death of the hive in the long term.
- Here’s where it gets nasty. Some bee farms remove the wings of their queen bee to prevent their queen from venturing out into new colonies, which can disrupt the honey production.
Ultimately, commercial honey production is far more exploitative and almost always results in unhealthy hives and colonies that die younger.
Additionally, commercial bee farming typically takes place in an environment with more humans and machinery. This inevitably means that more bees die due to human and machine interaction.
So, Is Raw Organic Honey Vegan?
At the end of the day, even though organic bee farming is more ethical, it still involves the conscious exploitation of another living creature. PETA’s official statement is that honey is not vegan, no matter how raw or organic it is.
Honey In Other Products
Unfortunately, the honey that’s used in everyday products like BBQ sauce, oats, cereal, and even peanut butter is almost never raw and organic.
Most manufacturers use commercially produced honey to save money. So if you see honey listed on an ingredients label, just know that it’s probably not anywhere close to vegan.
There’s actually an entire sub-niche of veganism known as industrial veganism, followed by vegans who don’t eat any industrially farmed or processed foods.
What’s The Percentage Of Vegans Who Eat Honey?
That being said, there are still a number of vegans who don’t mind eating honey as long as it comes from a responsible, ethical source.
Some random surveys that I’ve found around the internet suggest that around 40% of vegans are okay with eating honey as long as it’s not commercially farmed.
Vegan Sweeteners Compared
Although honey may be the longest-standing sweetener in history, there are a number of other delicious, all-natural, vegan-friendly sweeteners on the market to choose from. Here’s a brief table breaking down some of my favorite vegan sweeteners:
|Vegan Sweetener||Tastes Like|
|Agave syrup||Very similar taste and sweetness to honey but less viscous. Has a strong herbal undertone to it that comes from the agave plant.|
|Maple syrup||Refined, sugary tree sap. Be sure to get vegan-certified maple syrup. Tastes very sweet and thick with slightly woody notes.|
|Brown rice syrup||A mildly sweet syrup extracted from brown rice grains. It’s good for baking, cooking, or sweetening tea or coffee.|
|Demerara syrup||Very similar to molasses, but thicker and sweeter. It’s made from cooking down pure brown sugar into a syrup.|
In Conclusion – Can Vegans Eat Honey?
Personally, I choose to abstain from honey. For me, I’d rather consume one of the other delicious plant-based sweeteners than have to question my conscience. However, I’m not one to judge.
If you’re committed to searching out high-quality, ethically-sourced raw honey and feel good about it, then keep on doing what you’re doing. Just make sure that you avoid any commercially farmed honey, as it’s never vegan.
If you enjoy sweets, then you’ll love last week’s post answering whether or not caramel is vegan!