Before I became a nutritionist I studied economics and international resource conservation. I worked in rural Zambia teaching sustainable agricultural practices like traditional beekeeping and aquaculture. Now knowing what I know about sustainable agriculture, resource conservation, as well as nutrition, honey is an interesting case study.
First of all, let’s discuss some other commonly used sweeteners, specifically the one we are all most familiar with: sugar. Sugar is hard on the environment and even harder on our physiology. We eat far more than our bodies can healthfully handle.
According to a 2004 WWF study sugar is responsible for more biodiversity loss, worldwide, than any other crop. It’s a water and chemical intensive crop and the high level of processing it requires produces even more chemical waste, often, in places that are fragile and already threatened environmentally and financially.
Even if you buy fair trade, organic sugar, you’re doing a good bit of environmental damage for something that we don’t even need in our diets.
There are plenty of alternative sweeteners out there, but some of them are highly processed (high fructose corn syrup and synthetic low calorie sweeteners like Splenda), some of them taste funny (stevia), and most of them you could not get locally (agave, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup). Maple syrup may be the one alternative (other than honey) that is possible to get locally and minimally processed.
But then there is honey.
Honey is the only sweetener that most any American could find locally and is minimally processed.
Photo From Beeyond the Hive
In the whole scheme of agriculture, honey is actually something of a byproduct. Our agricultural system heavily depends on semi-domesticated bees to pollinate crops — most nuts, most stone fruits, berries, melons, some vegetables. Commercial beekeepers make more of their money renting out their hives to farmers than from selling honey. And while we used to have lots of native pollinators, habitat destruction has forced us to rely on honeybees for pollination. However, when we are talking about agricultural sustainability the truth is in the process. Honeybees collect nectar and regurgitate it in a half-digested form. Then worker bees fan the stuff to evaporate the water content. The remaining substance is a very shelf-stable form of food for the bees over the winter and in times of low food. Beekeepers encourage their bees to produce more honey than they need and collect the excess, making sure to leave enough for their hives.
Choosing local honey allows you support an independent local farmer in your community, and you can be pretty sure if you are getting local, raw, unfiltered honey, the process isn’t producing any chemicals or toxic byproducts. When you choose honey as your main sweetener you also get the all the numerous health benefits from its ability to treat allergies to soothing dry, irritated skin.
Do you eat honey? Will these environmental considerations influence your choice of sweetener?
Clara Wisner is a Certified Nutrition Therapy Practitioner and Lifestyle Coach. She attended school at the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, CO from 2012 to 2015. Clara Wisner is also a Certified Primal Expert and a Certified Sugar Detox Coach. She has a BS in Resource Conservation and a BS in Economics from the University of Montana. She specializes in helping women ditch toxic habits and release the self-sabotaging beliefs that keep them from creating the health and happiness they desire with her unique approach that addresses mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health. She is a world traveler and is working on cookbook tentatively called Global Superfoods: 10 Traditional Recipes for Cutting Edge Health. Clara organizes the Paleo Pop Events in Denver, helping to create a healthier, stronger, more connected community. She currently lives in Denver, CO with her husband and the paleo puggle, Ooli. In her free time she crossfits, cooks, writes poetry, walks dogs (other peoples’ and her own), listens to A LOT of podcasts, reads fantasy novels and also loves to read about biology, neurology, and marketing.