Marketing your honey: make your claims crystal clear

Marketing your honey: never call it sugar free.

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

Marketing your honey: never call it sugar free.

Honey can never be sugar free, whether you feed them or not.


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  • Hi Rusty, selling honey should be simple, it’s bee made honey! Nothing more nothing less. It seems everyone needs to step up their sales pitch in order to sell. I have seen “Organic Honey” on a label. Really? What does that mean? You know for sure where your bees are going? No mite treatments? I agree with your opinion. I do have a question; I was selling honey at a Farmers Market yesterday and a man from Argentina asked me what the definition of raw honey is here in the US. What would you say? Deb

  • Did this article originally refer to an article put out by Bee Culture Magazine, about selling your honey by not necessarily being clever but honest? I’d like to read the article referred to, but can’t seem to find it. Do you have a link?

  • So, my tap water comes from an underground aquifer, pumped up through a bore within the house.

    So, I can fill jars with tap water here and sell it as organic, sugar free, chemical free, gluten free, raw honey?

  • How about putting a new term in the label that tells EXACTLY what it is? For example Kept at
    “HTOL” Hive temperature or less. Or
    “BTOL” Bees temperature or less”.
    “HMT” Her Majesty’s Temperature.

  • We had someone ask us if our honey was sugar free. I was completely perplexed by the question because honey has sugar. The lady claimed she had bought sugar free honey before. I attempted to explain why that wasn’t possible but she insisted. It all makes sense to me now if someone had labeled it and was referring to feeding bees sugar. The sad thing is, this woman really thought she had bought honey without a trace of sugar for her diabetic husband.

    • Sara,

      Thank you so much for writing. This story proves my theory that some people will interpret “sugar-free honey” literally. In a case like this, the result is both sad and scary. I hope I can convince people to drop this ridiculous practice and play fair with the consumer. Thanks for helping the cause.

  • This is not a new thing… unfortunately.

    You’ll find such deceptive practices in every craft show or similar environment. I’ve been to craft shows as a leather worker and had to compete with goods that were obviously machine stamped. And I’ve seen the same thing when I was making candles. One candle company has reps at almost every craft show, selling mass produced junk, while badmouthing actual crafters at every turn. And these are shows that supposedly require proof that your products are hand made.

    In this case it’s not just unfair, it’s literally life threatening for some people. Sadly, I doubt the practice will stop until someone dies and the seller gets sued along with the hosting organization.

    • Craig,

      I agree with you completely, and I think someone should get sued.

      Also, right after I posted that I left to attend a honey tasting. I was given a table next to a guy who was selling “organic” honey from Olympia, WA. I can tell you that Olympia is a small town and there is nowhere enough room to produce organic honey. No way, no how. It was all I could do to keep quiet. I wasn’t selling anything, so no loss there, but I don’t see why he should get a premium for calling it something it’s not, while other people are being honest and selling at a discount.

      • Sometimes you can lodge a complaint with the hosting organization but most of them couldn’t care less. I’ve seldom seen frauds get tossed from a craft show. Even so called “judged shows” will often allow Scenty distributers in.

        I’ve never participated in a honey show but I’m guessing it’s about the same. Most of these things are put together by prfessional event planners rather than the hosting venue.

  • Unfortunately it’s this sort of thing that is making the UK public so stirred up about the impeding trade deal between our two countries.

    One thing I wasn’t sure of from your post: Is what you describe actually legal or is it illegal and people are simply getting away with it?

    Over here there are specific approved phrases that must be used to describe what’s in the jar, plus there’s an overriding rule that it must not be misleading. e.g. you can’t put a picture of a flower on the jar unless the honey was made mainly from the nectar of that particular species of flower. If I sold honey as sugar free and organic I think lose sleep worrying about the trading standards people knocking on my door.

    – Or maybe ‘sugar free honey’ is permitted on the grounds that no-one would actually believe it?

    • Mike,

      It is illegal to call something “organic” if it’s not, or “sugar-free” if it is not, but people do it anyway.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I enjoy reading your blog and often, your articles in ABJ. Just a comment on a term in your post. “Ose” is a term from chemistry, not biology. Ya, I’m a stickler, comes from being a scientist, where small distinctions matter.

    Thanks for sharing your passion regarding just about everything that buzzes.

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