Thursday, 24 January 2019

They're here for your honey. But why?

As we are well into Veganuary some of you may be really settling in to this new way of eating and living whilst other’s may be struggling a bit. It certainly doesn’t help when there are dozens of blog articles, memes and twitter posts out there bashing veganism and vegans. Most difficult are those that frame it as genuine concern or outrage that people being vegan may not be in line with somebody else’s ethics or values, and those that cite concerns about the perils of veganism.

One such common concern is that vegans are using specialist ingredients or replacement ingredients that are some how leading to an environmental or ethical catastrophe.

Occasionally within these scare stories are valid concerns and slivers of truth, or at least questions that need asking – why are people suddenly buying quinoa when most of us had never heard of it before now, and half of us still can’t pronounce it. Why are will looking at alternatives to sugar like agave? 

Take honey for example

A constant source or criticism is that by giving up honey vegans are somehow entirely responsible for the death of bees and consequently will be the cause of famine and a worldwide catastrophe. Now, without getting into exactly why there are a lot of problems with these arguments about honey and bees, or addressing why this has become the go to straw man argument against vegans, I have another question: why is replacing honey such a big deal at all? 
photo showing a large fluffy pancake on a plate with slices of red apple and drizzled maple syrup. photo author's own

Perhaps I am the odd one out here, but thinking back to my pre-vegan days, I just didn’t use that much honey. I liked honey and would have it occasionally, but it wasn’t a staple of my diet. I didn’t go through jars of it each week. Cutting honey from my diet was a trivial matter and required almost zero changes to my eating and purchasing habits. The tiny changes I did have to make were because honey is sometimes used as a commercial “natural sweetener as a replacement for refined sugar. This mostly comes up when I am buying muesli. It’s really not a big deal.

Perhaps other people use honey far more frequently, but I do struggle to see why honey, and replacing honey is so talked about. So I had a think and looked into it a little and I think I have found some answers.

Firstly, the rise in veganism over the past 5 years or so has mirrored the rise in “healthy lifestyle” or “lifestyle” blogging, especially on platforms like Instagram. Health and diet fads are nothing new and have been around for centuries. Associating them with aspirational lifestyles and “good living” isn’t new either. The language may have changed but the message is still the same: eat the “right” things and you too can be beautiful, happy and virtually immortal for little effort.

Sugar, meaning refined sugar, has been declared not “healthy” and to be cut out of our diets. Therefore if we want sweet treats, and don’t we all, we must replace the sugar with something else. In non-vegan cooking – as well as commercial products as noted above- the obvious choice is honey. It is so pleasingly “natural” and has excellent marketing with pretty scenes of bees, flowers and old fashioned beehives.

What then for the vegan lifestyle bloggers, who must eschew sugar but also don’t want to eat honey? Well they must turn to alternatives such as agave nectar, date syrup, maple syrup and stevia. Of course many of these are also marketed as having “health benefits” because we can’t, in the blogging world, use an ingredient that isn’t “healthy”. There are trends, fads and “aesthetics” that must be followed if you want to be seen in this sphere. You then get secondary bloggers and Instagrammers who are using those ingredients because the blogs they follow and the people they see as icons or leaders in the field. (The proliferation of faux-science blogs, “nutritionists” with little to no qualifications, and those looking for “natural remedies” as opposed to chemicals or pharmaceuticals further supports these blogs and their choices.)

Secondly the majority of blogs and websites in the English speaking world also come from the US which has a different food culture to the UK. This is important when it comes to sugar and vegans. In the UK sugar is normally produced from sugar beet which is not refined using animal products. In the US however a lot of sugar comes from sugar cane, which is usually refined using bone char (literally the ashes of animal bones) and thus makes it not a vegan product. Mindful of this US vegans look for alternative sugar sources and, since honey is also not a vegan option, may turn to other plant derived sweeteners. However, due to the influence of and crossover with health bloggers some common sweeteners such as maple syrup or corn syrup are out of favour due to them not being considered “healthy”. That means that many American vegan food bloggers are drawn to previously uncommon syrups like agave.

Again, there is a trickle down effect where people may use the same ingredients as their peers and those they look up to without really questioning the why of it. 

Take time to reflect

If we start to look at our cooking and recipes a little closer we may wonder why some of these unusual ingredients are being used. Sometimes it is merely a point of geography. Why is this food blogger using agave nectar? Is it simply as a sweetener and are they from the US? In which case we, in the UK could use our regular sugar or even golden syrup if we wanted to retain the same moisture content. If it’s for health reasons and we feel strongly about not using refined sugar then perhaps we can stick with the agave or any other acceptable sweetener.

It may be the case in some recipes that we are using agave nectar to replace honey which itself was a replacement for refined sugar. In which case, why not just use sugar?

This momentary consideration can make our cooking a lot easier. It’s certainly not limited to honey and sugar substitutes either. There are similar questions to be asked about the use of coconut oil – why not regular vegetable oil or one of the many non-dairy margarines on the market in the UK. Again the answer is either due to somebody wanting it for the specific “health” benefits or because of the availability of non-dairy alternatives in the writer’s region. (occasionally it for specific flavour or a cooking property such as it’s melting point but if that’s the case it’s normally made clear in the recipe.) 

photograph showing two wooden box beehives in a garden setting. photo credit to Tangled Bank
But this still begs the question, who are the people using so much honey that they think a vegan choosing not to use honey will have a cataclysmic effect on the bee population? Are they even aware that there are more species of bee than the honey bee?

If you are vegan, don’t worry about not using honey, but do consider what ingredient you are replacing and why. If you aren’t vegan, just relax and look at the bigger picture – it’s not always about honey.

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