Vegan Honey Guide — Is Honey Vegan?

Vegan Honey Guide — Is Honey Vegan?

Most issues surrounding vegan living are pretty straightforward. Dairy clearly comes from a cow, eggs come from chickens, and it should go without saying that the animals themselves are strictly off the table. Honey remains a sore spot for many, with confusion lingering over whether it is or isn’t vegan. Let’s set the record straight by focusing on the facts—and also talk about all the fantastic vegan honey options that exist today.

Is Honey Vegan?

In a nutshell, veganism is a way of living meant to minimize animal exploitation, cruelty, and death. By refusing to support a broken system that treats lives like commodities, plant-based alternatives are used in place of all animals and animal products. For many, veganism is more than just a diet. It’s a lifestyle that touches every facet of daily routine—from the clothing you buy (leather, wool, and silk are common offenders) to the makeup you use (animal testing is still a huge problem), and beyond.

The technical definition of vegan is:

veg·an /ˈvēɡən/  

“a person who does not eat any food derived from animals and who typically does not use other animal products.”

By that definition, honey, a product that is made by bees for bees, is not vegan.

However, if vegan living is an ethical choice to reduce suffering and there is an animal product that doesn’t involve any suffering (lab grown “clean meat,” for example), is that product vegan? Some will say yes, and others will say no. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Ultimately we must each come to our own personal conclusions about what we will and won’t eat, and what we believe qualifies as vegan.

The next important question is: do bees suffer when honey is harvested? The answer to this question is a point of controversy, as many beekeepers firmly believe that their bees are not harmed. Then again, many dairy and meat farmers believe their animals are leading happy lives, so we need to take everything with a grain of salt, right? 

Do The Bees Suffer for Honey?

Insects don’t get the same appreciation as more cute and cuddly animals, like dogs and cats, but they are still sentient beings nonetheless. Bees have a centralized nervous system, can communicate, have developed complex a division of the labor within hives, and are incredibly intelligent. Their brains may be about size of grass seeds, but studies have shown that they’re capable of learning from one another and even solving math problems! If that’s not a creature worthy of our respect, I don’t know what is.

Girl Hugging Cute Bee Art Save the Bees World of Vegan Illustration

But wait! Don’t bees need to produce honey to survive?

You’re absolutely right, but that doesn’t mean it’s ours for the taking. Honey is their fuel that helps them weather the colder days of winter, when no flowers can be found to pollinate. When you take their honey, you’re literally taking food out of their mouths.

Is It Cruel to Harvest Honey?

Industrial bee farming is notoriously unscrupulous, disregarding the bees’ lives with harmful practices that can destroy hives. Once the honey is harvested, bee keepers may replace it with nutritionally lacking sugar syrups which can kill entire colonies. Often, the queen bee will have her wings clipped to prevent swarming to ensure ensuring honey production will maintain steady yields.

While there are certainly backyard beekeepers who sincerely love their bees, commercial honey harvesting, like all commercial enterprises, is about maximizing profit with little concern about the welfare of the bees. 

Could Avoiding Honey Be Doing More Harm Than Good? 

This article by Dr. Michael Greger brings up the solid point that honey harvesting may actually harm fewer insects than other sweeteners (unless you buy exclusively organic). Dr. Greger reminds us that pesticides used in farming produce are specifically designed to kill insects. He argues that by policing the use of honey vegans may be making ourselves appear more fringe, extreme, and un-relatable than ever to the general public, which could in turn cause fewer people to become vegan.

One longtime vegan says:

“I agree that commercial honey production methods can be quite tough on bees. But I do suspect that honey production likely causes less animal suffering than the production of some other types of sweeteners such as cane sugar. That’s not to say that honey is great, but if the concern is about causing the least animal suffering via our food choices, it seems probable to me that honey does less harm than at least some common plant-based sweeteners.” —Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat

As you can see, this topic is very complex and there is no single “correct” answer to the honey debate. But regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing is certain. There is a plethora of vegan honey alternatives that taste just as good as honey. So leaving the honey for the bees as nature intended is not that hard. 

The Best Honey For Vegans

There are plenty of natural alternatives to honey that you can find in any grocery store, and probably in your pantry right now, too! Essentially any liquid sweetener is an easy honey substitute, especially when just enjoying it outside of a recipe swirled in tea, drizzled over acai bowls, or used for dipping apples on Rosh Hashanah. For baking, there are a few rules of thumb to go by.

Agave Nectar

Derived from the same plant as tequila but far less potent, this syrup is made from the condensed juice found at the core of the agave cactus. It is available in both light and dark varieties—the dark possesses a more nuanced, complex, and somewhat floral flavor, while the light tends to provide only a clean sweetness. Agave is sweeter and thinner than honey, so bear in mind that baked goods will brown more quickly, and not rise quite as high.

Golden Syrup

Especially popular overseas in the UK, golden syrup tastes like caramel without the heavy cream or butter notes. It’s made from cane sugar cooked with citric acid and is perhaps the closest you’ll come to honey for matching the sticky, thick texture. It’s tough to find in some parts of the United States, but you can easily make your own from scratch.

Maple Syrup

There’s nothing quite like real, 100% maple syrup. The flavor is deep, woodsy, and slightly earthy, which makes sense considering that it’s the condense sap from maple trees. It has a distinctive taste that can take your treats in a whole new direction if you’re open to something differently delicious.

Brown Rice Syrup

Something of an old school throwback to the early days of veganism, brown rice syrup is a natural sweetener that is produced via the fermentation of brown rice. It tastes less sweet than granulated sugar, adding a wholesome complexity to baked goods. The deep flavor of brown rice syrup is best cast in supporting roles, complimenting other aspects of the dish without taking center stage.

Corn Syrup

Light corn syrup that you’ll find at the grocery store isn’t the evil high-fructose corn syrup much reviled in processed foods. This is simply a liquefied cane sugar that’s pure glucose. It’s completely neutral in taste which makes it great for candy making, or when you have very strong competing flavors in the mix.

World of Vegan Honey Art Agave Maple Molasses Date Syrup Illustration

Store-Bought Vegan Honey Alternatives

When you’re craving the distinctly floral flavor an inimitable viscous texture of genuine honey, you can still get all of that while making compassionate choices! These brands have created bee-free honey options that make vegan living that much sweeter.

Make Your Own Vegan Honey From Scratch

If you’d like to take the DIY approach, there are plenty of vegan honey recipes recipes for making your own plant-based honey from scratch.

  • Vegan on Board uses dandelions to get that authentic floral flavor.
  • Mary’s Test Kitchen starts with whole apples and lemon juice in a very, accessible approach.
  • Another Music in the Kitchen takes existing liquid sweeteners and combines them to create a golden elixir that’s greater than the sum it’s their parts.

Isn’t Honey A Healthy Superfood, Though? I Want Those Health Benefits!

Honey does have some beneficial properties, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat it. In fact, it may be better not to. You can reach for any number of other plant-based superfoods instead. Honey has more antioxidants than cane sugar, but it’s still incredibly high in glucose, which is particularly detrimental to diabetics. Honey is also very calorie-dense, and can contribute to weight gain just like any other sweetener. You can find similar attributes in maple syrup if you want a natural, whole foods option. Also, don’t forget, being vegan doesn’t always mean being healthy. Oreo cookies and French fries are vegan, after all!

Help Save The Honeybees

Colony collapse disorder is a serious problem facing honeybee hives across the world. This is when worker bees suddenly disappear, leaving the queen and immature baby bees behind, ultimately destroying the colony.

If you want to help the cause, buying honey is NOT the answer! There are many more effective approaches to make a positive difference.

  • Plant bee-friendly flowers – Create your own open air bee buffet with gorgeous blooms! It doesn’t have to be something big; window boxes, flowerpots, living walls, and planters all offer vital space to grow pollinator-friendly flowers.
  • Dump pesticides – These chemicals can’t differentiate between harmful pests and welcome guests. Besides, you’re essentially poisoning your own food if you’re using pesticides to grow fruits or vegetables.
  • Stay away from hives – This should go without saying, but if you see a hive, don’t poke at it, swat at it, or try to get it down. Likewise, leave bees alone if you see them while picnicking or enjoying the great outdoors. They live here too! You won’t get stung if they don’t feel threatened.
  • Oh honey, don’t bother the bees! You’re already sweet enough as it is. Honey is not vegan and is easily replaced with a wide range of plant-based alternatives.

This vegan honey guide was written by Hannah Kaminsky and Michelle Cehn. Art by Jeanne Ee Wei Yen copyright of World of Vegan. Please note that this article may contain affiliate links which supports our work at World of Vegan.

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