Is Honey Better Than Sugar?

Is Honey Healthy? It's Better for You and The Environment!


By Jay R. Harman – Is honey better than sugar? As a beekeeper myself, I can think of several quite compelling reasons to keep bees and use honey.

The alleged health advantages of using “natural” sugars instead of refined white sugar are often cited as good reasons to do so. As I understand that debate the advantages remain to be scientifically demonstrated in spite of vigorous claims to the contrary. The evidence suggests that the body pretty much utilizes all sugars alike, and the additional minerals present in the natural sweeteners are available in such small amounts that one would have to eat large (and unhealthful) quantities of them in order to obtain dietary significant amounts of these minerals.

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In addition, honey and maple sugar/syrup cost much more than refined sugar, and honey is certainly less convenient to use than white sugar.

Given these questionable advantages, is honey better than sugar? And why would we seriously contemplate starting beekeeping?

I suspect that people are attracted to the homesteading lifestyle for a variety of reasons. For some of us, it’s the independence of living off the grid or growing our own food. For others, it’s a form of commentary about what we might not like in today’s world. And for still others, it emerges out of respect for the Earth and the view that we need to reduce our impact on our own environment.

Why is honey better than sugar for the environment? Beekeeping and substituting honey for sugar are very earth-friendly steps. Many choices we make involve weighing the relative costs and benefits; a desire to live in an earth-friendly way means that to some extent our choices will be guided by an assessment of relative risk, by which I mean determining which of our available options promises the lowest cost or greatest good. We may ask, “What courses carry the lowest environmental impact? Is there a desirable course of action that is actually good for the environment?” Beekeeping and using the resulting hive products (especially honey) fit very nicely into a low-impact homesteading lifestyle.

Why is that? First, because when honey bees utilize plant nectar to produce honey they are creating a usable product from an otherwise unused by-product of plant biology. (Other sources of sweetness, such as decaying fruit, may occasionally be used.) Nectar lures insect pollinators such as honey bees to the floral organs and thus promotes pollination and reproduction of the individual plants, which occurs as an accidental consequence of the insect’s quest for the nectar. Without honeybees to collect, store, and convert that carbohydrate to a form we humans (and some animals) can utilize, it would be unavailable and unharvested.

Every time we pause to admire a field of wildflowers we might want to remember that it represents a vast, largely uncaptured reservoir of carbohydrate that only the honey bee, given current technology and economics, can bring to our table.


Second, for every quantity of sugar that is replaced by honey in our diet, environmentally unfriendly farming practices are reduced.

How is the production of white sugar environmentally harmful? Commercial sugar is produced from beets or cane, both of which require intensive farming management. Practices vary, of course, depending on climate and soil, but habitat must be converted, pesticides used, fertilizer applied, energy expended in processing, and soil erosion is encouraged. It is, in other words, far from an environmentally benign process.

In contrast, the harvest of nectar by bees from a field of wildflowers or agricultural crops primarily for another purpose, such as alfalfa and cotton, is not only without impact but may actually have benefits such as promoting fertilization and therefore propagation of the species or increasing yield, as in the case of fruit crops like apples or almonds. In fact, the decline of feral (wild) honey bee populations across much of the U.S. because of the spread of two parasitic mites over the last 15 years may result in a decrease in yield of certain crops dependent on insect pollinators.

Thus, a homesteader’s decision to keep and manage a hive or two of bees may have beneficial impacts far beyond the immediate gain of hive products for the table.


Is Honey Better than Sugar … for the Bees? The Objections to Beekeeping.

What is the downside of beekeeping? If these potential gains are so convincing, why aren’t more people doing it?

Is honey better than sugar when it comes to animal cruelty? Some vegetarians object to the taking of honey from a hive because they see it as another form of humans adversely manipulating animals for their own gain. They cast it, therefore, as a moral issue. Others are opposed to it because they regard it inherently as an animal product.

To the latter objection first, honey is enzymatically altered plant nectar, as stated earlier, and except for the addition of the enzymes and reduction of water, it is, in fact, a plant product.

To the objection that beekeeping is animal cruelty, I counter that the detractors have bad information. Their charge is that the beekeeper kills the hive in order to obtain the honey. The truth is that only at the far northern end of the beekeeping range, mostly in central Canada or Alaska, where bees need very large honey stores to survive the long, cold winters, has this practice been followed. It arose because of economics-surplus honey yields were too small to generate an adequate return, and starting fresh with new bees purchased in the spring generated more profit. Even here this practice is being abandoned in favor of overwintering the hives more securely so as to keep them warmer and thus reduce their need for very large overwintering reserves. In all other areas of the U.S. and Canada, the beekeeper recognizes that killing bees is counterproductive to obtaining a honey harvest and does all that can be done to protect them and promote their well-being.

In this sense, the homesteader, whether a backyard beekeeper or commercial operator, functions like a sharecropper with the bees, leaving them all they need for overwintering and taking only what is judged to be a surplus. Cruelty to bees does not enter the picture.

Finally, others charge that a large-scale shift in public attitudes toward honey and other natural alternatives would leave the conventional sugar producers economically devastated. No doubt the market would have to make an adjustment. But farmers who produce cane or beets most likely could find other uses for their land, some of which may even be more earth-friendly.

At the same time, for the sugar that we now import (or would import if domestic sugar support prices were readjusted), greater reliance on domestic rather than foreign sources of sweet at the national level might help our current unfavorable balance of payments, which feeds the growing national debt. Every little bit would help.

Should you as a homesteader bother keeping bees? It is extra work, the expenses are front-end (getting started, rather than continuing), and the results are often unpredictable (surprising, we like to say).

But most probably what you will end up with will be a very satisfying hobby that may provide as much honey as a family of four can use in a year even with just one hive. You will have a product that was produced locally, perhaps even from plants growing on your own land, from a mix of nectar sources unique to your site, not quite like the flavor and color of honey produced anywhere else. You will end up with a surprisingly versatile and often delicious product that with a little imagination can be used in most applications for which you now use white sugar.

And you can do so knowing that your honey bee farming project has contributed to a very earth-friendly enterprise.


Favorite Recipes Using Honey 

Ponderosa Pot Roast

  • 3 1/2 pounds chuck, blade, or other pot roast
  • 1/2 package onion soup mix (2 tablespoons)
  • 3 tablespoons water or dry red wine
  • 1/2 cup tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 bay leaf

Place roast in center of a wide piece of heavy aluminum foil in roasting pan. Bring foil up around sides of roast. Mix together onion soup and wine. Stir in tomato juice and honey. Blend and pour over roast. Add bay leaf. Wrap foil around meat. Seal edges to form an air-tight package. Heat oven to 350 degrees (slow). Bake pot roast 45 minutes per pound. Skim off fat if necessary before thickening meat juices for gravy.

Mincemeat Sweet Potatoes

  • 1 can sweet potato pieces in syrup (1 pound 13 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup prepared mincemeat
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

Drain sweet potatoes, reserving liquid. Cook syrup down to about 1/2 cup. Add butter, vanilla, and honey. Simmer 5 minutes. Add mincemeat, salt, and sweet potatoes. Simmer 15 minutes, basting occasionally with sauce. Sprinkle with chopped nuts just before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Bacon Sweet-Sour Dressing

  • 4 slices bacon
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup bottled Italian-style salad dressing

Fry bacon until crisp. Remove bacon; drain on paper towels and crumble into small pieces. Set aside. Saute onion in bacon drippings until tender. Pour off all but one tablespoon of bacon drippings; then add honey, vinegar, and water. Bring to boil. Cool. Combine mixture with salad dressing and beat or blend until smooth. Stir in bacon pieces. Chill. Shake well before using. Makes about 2 cups. (Serve over fresh spinach or crisp iceberg lettuce.)

Honey Chippers

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 egg
  • 1-1/4 cups sifted flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup pecans

Cream butter and honey together; add egg and beat well. Sift together dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture. Blend well. Add vanilla, chocolate chips, and pecans; mix well. Drop by teaspoons onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Makes 3 dozen.

Chocolate Fondue

  • 1/2 cup undiluted evaporated milk or light cream
  • 2 cups (12 oz. package) semi-sweet chocolate pieces
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup butter or margarine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Assorted dippers

Combine evaporated milk or cream, chocolate pieces, honey and butter in a fondue pot or heavy saucepan. Place over low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Blend in salt, liqueur, and vanilla. Keep mixture warm over low heat of fondue burner. Serve with a choice of dippers. Makes enough for 6 to 8.

Assorted Dippers

  • Cling peach slices
  • Pitted dates
  • Fresh or canned pineapple chunks
  • Pretzel twists
  • Fresh strawberries
  • Chunks of fresh coconut
  • Fresh unpared apple or pear slices
  • Chunks of angel food or sponge cake
  • Tiny filled cream puffs
  • Ladyfingers, separated
  • Pitted prunes
  • Tiny marshmallows
  • Fresh orange slices


A Baked Ham “Honey”

  • 1 ham
  • Moist bread crumbs, about 3 cups
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1-1/2 cups crushed pineapple
  • Cloves

Select a nice quality ham of desired size. Wipe with a damp cloth and remove unsightly parts. Wrap loosely in parchment paper or in similar paper which comes wrapped around the ham. Place fat side up in roasting pan. Bake at 300 degrees., allowing 20 minutes per pound. Then remove paper. Also, remove skin. Rub surface completely with the crumbs. Press cloves 1 inch apart over the entire surface. Add honey to the pineapple and heat until hot. Pour this syrup over ham and continue baking. Baste occasionally until a rich brown glaze is secured and ham is tender.

Honey Fruit Punch

  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups grapefruit juice
  • 1 cup orange juice

Add honey to lemon juice and mix well. Add water and chilled fruit juices. Garnish with a thin slice of orange.

Peanut Butter Honey Cookies

  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2/3 cup peanut butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup peanuts, chopped

Mix shortening, sugar, honey, peanut butter, and egg thoroughly. Blend dry ingredients and stir into shortening mixture. Stir in nuts. Shape into a strip about 10 x 2- 1/2 x 1-1/2 inches. Wrap in waxed paper. Store in refrigerator for several hours. Bake as needed.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut dough into 1/8 inch slices. Place about 1 inch apart on a greased baking sheet and bake about 8 to 10 minutes. Yields about 6-1/2 dozen cookies.

What do you think: Is honey better than sugar? What is your favorite honey use?

Originally published in Countryside November/December 1995 and regularly vetted for accuracy.



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