Every now and then I read an article related to beekeeping that truly upsets me. Today, the source of my angst was a conversation about ways to promote honey to potential buyers.
Most of the ideas are fine. Beekeepers make statements about their honey that are proven to attract buyers, and in most cases these statements are true. In today’s world, buzz words include “gluten free,” “all natural,” “local,” and “no preservatives.”
Other statements are questionable. To say your honey is “loaded with antioxidants” is probably true, but how do you know for sure? The same holds true with, “more vitamins and minerals,” or “nature’s purest product.” Although I don’t find these claims attractive, I can comfortably ignore them as “puffing.” Sales puffing is the exaggeration of a product’s virtues in order to increase sales. It is generally considered opinion and not fact, so it is legal.
Other claims are hard to ignore
But two other claims I hear are hard to ignore. The first is a claim that your honey is “sugar free.” The second is the claim of “organic” when the beekeeper does not have, nor has ever applied for, organic certification. The problem with both of these claims is that there are legal definitions associated with those terms, at least in the United States.
The first time I saw sugar-free honey, I was totally confused, wondering what on Earth they were thinking. It turns out that some beekeepers who raise bees without feeding them refined sugar are claiming their honey is “sugar free.” But what is honey made of, if not sugar? Honey is roughly 80% sugar, containing fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose, and perhaps other “oses” as well. In biology the suffix “ose” is used to indicate sugars.
Wording is everything
There are other ways a seller can explain what he means. Perhaps, “no added sugar” or “no table sugar” or “our bees are never fed refined sugar.” All of these are true statements. But “sugar free” means something different.
In fact, according to the FDA, “sugar free” means the product contains less than 0.5 g sugars per RACC (Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed) and per labeled serving (or for meals and main dishes, less than 0.5 g per labeled serving).
According to the National Honey Board, a serving size for honey is 1 tablespoon or 21 grams, of which 16 grams is sugar. That means a serving of honey has roughly 32 times as much sugar as a sugar-free product.
Oddly enough, a number of beekeepers defend this practice. I’ve been told, “It’s not a problem. Everyone knows what they mean.” But does everyone know? Do non-beekeepers know? If you sell honey to someone, chances are the buyer isn’t a beekeeper.
Why invite confusion?
What if someone who is not supposed to eat sugar buys your honey thinking that it is safe for them to eat? Lots of people don’t understand anything about the composition of food in general, or honey in particular, and are dependent on labeling to answer their questions. If they see the words “sugar free,” they might believe it. I think a beekeeper should be crystal clear about the composition of his products.
The second claim is “organic” when the honey clearly has no right to be called organic. In this case, a beekeeper truly believed her bees were raised organically since she used no chemicals in her hives. But since “organic” is a legally defined term, it is disingenuous to call your honey organic unless it is certified. And where in the United States are you going to swing that one? There are a few places to be sure, but very few.
Marketing your honey with transparency
I honestly believe beekeepers should keep their claims as transparent as possible. If your bees are not fed refined sugar, and you want to emphasize that fact, just spell it out. “Our bees were never fed refined sugar.” If you use no chemicals in your hives, just say so. “No chemicals are used in ours hives.” Why turn these simple statements into confusing lingo that can be misinterpreted?
Most beekeepers I know have every right to be proud of their product. Most beekeepers I know work very hard at producing the finest honey they can, and they treat their bees with respect. None of them need to sound like they’re selling mattresses.
Honey Bee Suite