Why are so many drinks flavoured with honey?

Honey Image copyright Thinkstock

Honey has long been in people's shopping baskets. But why is it increasingly finding its way into bread and alcoholic drinks, asks Luke Jones.

From honey-roasted ham to hot toddies or as a topping on your breakfast porridge, it's a familiar ingredient.

But now honey has experienced something of a surge in popularity. The number of food and drink launches in the UK with honey as a named ingredient has doubled over the past four years to 4%, according to market researchers Mintel.

In October Warburtons launched a "Honey Wheat" loaf. Sugar Puffs were recently rebranded as "Honey Monster Puffs". Drinks such as Jack Daniels' Tennessee Honey and Three Barrels Honey brandy have been "a huge success", says Vince Bamford, food and drink editor at The Grocer magazine. Honey-flavoured meat glazes are increasingly popular, he adds. Honey is having a moment.

It is largely down to "perceptions of health" says David Turner, a food and drink analyst at Mintel. He highlights data from the US where a third of those surveyed believed sugar was bad for their health, but six out of ten thought honey was good for them - which might account for the rise of honey-flavoured meat products, chocolate, ice cream and yoghurts.

But while science does suggest that some high-quality honey has some health benefits, the kind of honey flavouring your cereal is "hardly different to the white sugar on your table", says dietician Sarah Schenker.

The trend started in food production - specifically cereals and food bars, says Turner. They still account for a quarter of food launches containing honey.

It can be seen as indulgent - as in southern barbecue glazes. But it's also portrayed as a natural, organic alternative to "sugar made by men in white coats", suggests Turner. "Customers are starting to see honey as a flavour and not just a sweetener", he says.

How does honey compare?

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption From Left: Stevia plant, jar of honey, leaves of the blue agave
  • Honey: Comprises 80% natural sugars, 18% water and 2% minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein.
  • Agave: A syrup which is about 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar and has a similar consistency to honey, it has a much lower glycemic index than that of sucrose
  • Xylitol: Has 40% fewer calories than sugar, 75% less carbohydrates and a low GI (of 7), and it also is thought to inhibit the bacteria in the mouth that causes tooth decay
  • Stevia: A natural sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant, a high intensity sweetener, 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, and comes in liquid or powder form

BBC Food: Sugar alternatives

How did Stevia become mainstream?

Food manufacturers know that sugar has negative connotations and that honey has a better image, says Bamford. However, it's not simply a question of them trying to sneak sugar into food in the guise of wholesome-sounding honey. "There is certainly a taste for honey and they are meeting that demand."

The rise is most noticeable in the drinks industry. With alcopops falling out of favour, honey flavouring is being adopted to attract younger drinkers with "a distinct preference for all things sweet" says a Mintel report. But "unlike some fruit flavours, honey has a fairly old-fashioned and nostalgic profile".

The craft beer industry "has been the most likely to incorporate honey flavours during the past year" according to the report. This "clearly fits the millennial preference for sweet flavours".

Honey is also a big trend in whiskey liqueurs, says drinks columnist Alice Lascelles, a drinks columnist. "The spirit world's upper crust is very sniffy about them but proponents argue that they are in the whisky industry's interests, as they serve as a stepping stone to 'proper' whiskey", says Lascelles.

Honey "really taps into that nostalgia, that yearning for homespun authenticity that American whiskey brands like Jack Daniels have exploited with such phenomenal success", Lascelles says. The combination appears to be increasingly to consumers' taste.

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