Honey Gaining in Sweetener Popularity for Many Food Manufacturers

Honey is a do for manufacturers looking to create flavorful, all-natural alternatives to sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.

By Deborah Cassell, Contributing Editor

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For as long as bees have been building hives, people have been drawn to the taste of honey. And the attraction is growing, with honey popping up on product labels for everything from Greek yogurt to alcoholic beverages. As a flavor, honey appeals to consumers' desire for something sweet; as an ingredient, it addresses nutrition demands — hence all the buzz.

The National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo., cites many categories in which honey is excelling, including food/energy bars, alcohol and sports/energy drinks … and for good reason.

"Honey's popularity among food and beverage manufactures continues to increase, mainly being driven by consumer preferences for more natural, clean-label products that taste great," says NHB Director of Marketing Catherine Barry. "Honey is the perfect sweetener, inclusion and flavor enhancer for consumers who want natural products but want them to taste like indulgent foods and beverages."

Many consumers are looking for all-natural products that don't contain additives and preservatives, adds Lisa Hansel, assistant vice president of sales and  marketing for Sue Bee Honey, Sioux City, Iowa. "One-hundred percent pure honey is also fat-, sodium- and cholesterol-free and contains healthful antioxidants and micronutrients. Second, a growing number of consumers are becoming aware of the importance of the American honey bee, which is responsible for pollinating hundreds of American crops, like almonds, oranges, apples, cherries and more. Third, honey is the perfect all-natural sweetener to replace sugar in recipes for both consumers and manufacturers. It provides a great flavor as well as a consistent texture and taste."

Honey Do's

When it comes to taste, no two honeys are alike.

"What many people do not know is that honey varies incredibly by color and taste depending on what species of flower the bees collected the nectar from," says Ted Dennard, president of Savannah Bee Co., Savannah, Ga. "So a sourwood honey [made from the blossoms of a sourwood tree] will be completely different from an orange blossom honey. Even the ratio of fructose and glucose sugars varies between honey varieties.

"I believe what most people associate with a honey flavor is something drummed up by a flavor company many years ago that was based on a strong smelling blend of honeys, which is what most companies bottle," Dennard continues. "They are blended to achieve a consistent color without regard to the taste."

Just ask the folks at Sue Bee, which "has a long and proud tradition of supplying 100 percent all-natural, product of U.S.A. honey," Hansel says. Sue Bee's floral sources include orange blossom and clover, and its varieties include Aunt Sue's Strained Honey and Organic Honey, plus a spreadable clover spun honey.

"We are consistently researching innovative ways to develop new recipe ideas and promote the delicious benefits of honey," Hansel says. "We also partner with many companies throughout the U.S. who are fulfilling consumer demand for more honey-flavored products."

Private label is getting in on the action, with store brands such as President's Choice selling items such as chocolate bars in Swiss dark or milk chocolate, both with "honey almond nougat"; honey dijon (and honey dijon yogurt) salad dressings; and a Greek yogurt smoothie frozen novelty in honey flavor — the last a low-fat, probiotic novelty made from "100 percent Canadian milk" and Honibe honey from Island Abbey Foods Ltd.

Meanwhile, Honibe has two new products: Honey Lozenges ("Nature's Cough Drop"), in menthol and eucalyptus varieties, and Honey Vitamins ("Honey for Health") in vitamin C and D with honey varieties. All are examples of how honey is "expanding beyond being a flavor into an active ingredient within the natural health product platform," says Lindsay Mulligan, marketing manager for Honibe producer Island Abbey Foods Ltd., Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

"The possibilities are endless," Hansel says. "We are constantly providing consumers (via Sue Bee's website) with new recipes and ways to use honey in their daily lives," she says, as appetizers, main dishes, salads, soups, beverages, desserts and more. "Honey is not just for tea and toast anymore. An increasing number of consumers are preparing family meals at home with honey. Popular cooking shows are presenting creative ways to use honey as a substitute for sugar or an all-natural alternative to other sweeteners."

Honey as a flavor is more prevalent in breakfast cereals and granola bars, as well as healthy snacks and energy bars for athletes, Hansel adds, "due largely to its immediate absorption into the bloodstream, resulting in a quick initial boost of healthy energy, as well as a source of steady, longer-lasting energy."

Honey is making a name for itself as a flavor in alcoholic beverages, too.

"One of the biggest whiskey producers (Jack Daniels) recently launched a honey line (Tennessee Honey), and competitors (including Wild Turkey) were quick to follow their lead," Barry reports. "Several lines of honey-infused vodka, tequila and rum have made their way to the shelves, and are used to create new and unique cocktails."

Dennard agrees that "there seems to be a new honey whiskey popping up every month." Meanwhile, Savannah Bee Co.'s flagship retail store is introducing people to mead, which Dennard describes as "wine made with honey rather than grape juice. There can be many variations on this with the addition of fruits, herbs, hops, etc. The Mayans had a mead made of honey, water, yeast and hot peppers."

Now that's thinking outside the hive.

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