Everyone knows sugar is bad for your health and your teeth. It’s not great for the environment either. The best thing to do is to cut down, but a diet devoid of sweetness isn’t going to make anyone happy. Switching to a natural sweetener can be a healthier choice but are they more sustainable?
Honey has the potential to be the lowest impact — even net positive — natural sweetener because you can produce your own at home. Not only will your honey be produced without processing, but raising bees will encourage you to garden more sustainably, and the bees will provide the important ecosystem service of pollination for you and your neighbors.
Not ready to become an apiarist? Commercial honey is a bit more complex. Beekeepers frequently transport their hives long distances to pollinate agricultural crops. This practice has significant environmental and economic benefits. But it generates most of the carbon emissions from honey production. Honey production in the U.S. generates between 0.17 and 0.48 kg CO2-equivalent per kilogram of processed honey. Surprisingly, the largest honey producers have the lowest emissions by volume. In a different study, honey produced in Argentina generated roughly 2.5 kg CO2eq/kg honey before export. In the UK, at least one commercial beekeeper is certified carbon neutral.
Although honey can be certified organic, the value of organic certification poses a sticky question. Even when the crops pollinated by commercial honeybees are organic, it’s impossible to guarantee that bees only visit the organically grown flowers. For most crops, organic is more important than local for sustainability. In the case of honey, the transparency and minimal processing of locally produced varieties may be more meaningful than organic certification.
Pure honey undergoes very little processing. Some honey is pasteurized, but unlike dairy products, heat is not required for food safety. Raw honey requires less energy and is arguably healthier. Especially since there have been reports of adulteration and contamination in imported honey, buying local (or at least domestic) raw honey is the next greenest option to beekeeping.