Recently we looked at the reasons for the looming honey shortage in the U.S., and the ripple effect this would have on beekeepers, on honey processors and users, and on the growers who require beekeepers and their bees for pollination. (The high stakes poker games going on right now in the back rooms of California almond growers is do or die for both growers and beekeepers.)
But, since the U.S. imports a majority of the honey we use in this country, a shortage here isn't a crisis for you or me. Honey processors simply look to offshore suppliers. It can, if you squint a bit, be considered almost a commodity, like soybeans or crude oil. But as you might expect, beekeepers see it somewhat differently.
In case you haven't noticed, honey is by far the most expensive sweetener on the market, a fact that those with less-than-honorable intentions have not ignored. As a result it is the sweetener that is most often counterfeited. I mean, did you ever hear of anybody selling fake sugar, or fake aspartame? Ever since beekeepers figured out how to get honey into a bottle or can, others have figured out how to produce products that look and taste kind of like honey, but are made from ingredients that are much, much cheaper. This still goes on today, and there is little the FDA can or will do about it for two reasons.... First, unless these honey substitutes are dangerous (and they rarely are), they don't pose a health problem. Second, right now there isn't a good definition of what honey is, exactly.
This definition thing is being looked at, and some states have adopted a working model with the hope that if enough states do this the FDA will have to finally accept some definition and be able to enforce pure food laws affecting honey with more vigor. Meanwhile there are other viable sweeteners available to consumers... all legal, healthy (well, they aren't dangerous), and all less expensive than honey.
Right off, let's just trash the artificial sweeteners aspartame and their ilk, and the rest of those that are artificially produced, including high fructose corn syrup or agave nectar (both of which are highly refined, artificially produced and anything but natural). Nor do I include molasses or maple syrup; though both delicious and natural, they have limited uses as all purpose sweeteners.
But sugar. Sugar is all natural. It's the standard that all sweets are measured against. How much of this equals how much sugar? That's the metric they all seek.
Interestingly, honey is about 1 1/3- to 1 1/2-times sweeter than sugar, volume for volume, so you would use less honey to get the same measure of sweet. On a retail level honey is selling for, depending on variety and location, about $6 a pound. (That varies of course but let's use it for comparison.) Sugar, on the other hand, is retailing for about 50 cents a pound. (Wal-Mart may be cheaper but let's use that for comparison.) So for the same purchase price you can get one pound of honey, or 12 pounds of sugar. If it's a mouth full of sweet you want, honey doesn't even place.
There's a new kid on the block (well, kind-of new to some of us anyway) ... stevia. This intriguing sweetener is ages old in some parts of the world mostly South America and China, but relatively new in the U.S. It has no calories, no nothing that can harm you, even if you have diabetes. It is not processed like high-fructose corn syrup or agave nectar, and the final sweetener is totally unharmed in the extracting process.
It is made from a shrub that is relatively easy to grow I produced a plant on my deck in Ohio last summer that grew to six feet high and about four feet wide in only six months. But, like honey from different sources, individual stevia plants vary in the content of the compound that is sweet. That variance depends on where it is grown, the weather, soil, fertility, sunlight, harvesting and processing techniques. Most interesting to me was that to produce the plants you need seeds, and to get the seeds you need honeybees for pollination. There is some justice after all.
Varieties, too are different, with those from China containing only 5% - 6% active ingredient, while those from Paraguay have from 9% - 15%. From the bush I grew this summer I harvested the leaves and finished with about a quarter pound of dried leaves. Yeah, I was thinking the same... not much from a plant that big, eh? To get the sweet out I soak the leaves in water, which dissolves the sweetener, then I reduce the water in the mix to a syrup and use it that way. We'll see.
Stevia is about 200- to 300-times sweeter than sugar, which, if you do the math (but why bother) it's a lot sweeter than either sugar or honey volume for volume. Using water or alcohol, the sweetener is extracted from the raw plant, then made available as a powder or liquid in various concentrations. Sometimes additional ingredients are added... fiber is common, to give it bulk and some added nutrition. Ah, there's the rub. Because the FDA doesn't recognize it as a sweetener yet (I don't know why), it's sold as a food additive only (I don't know why they let one and not the other, either). An Web search will turn up all manner of products using stevia. But it's not as common in grocery stores yet as sugar.
It's hard to get a price comparison with sugar or honey on this stuff since legally it isn't a sweetener, and it comes in so many different forms packets, liquids and flavored liquids (imagine sweet chocolate), and tablets. Most of the resources you find will say to test and find what you like with their product a drop, maybe three drops, a half teaspoon or maybe less... it's a bit confusing. Some try to be helpful. But since I wanted to know here's one comparison I was able to come up with...
Stevia extract, at about 90% pure, comes in small packets from several companies (like the sugar packets in restaurants). They tend to all have about a gram of sweetening ingredient per packet. Commonly one of these packets has the sweetening power of 2 teaspoons of sugar. A 100-packet box of stevia costs about $12 retail. That's equivalent to the sweetening power of 200 teaspoons of sugar. (There's about 112 teaspoons of sugar in a pound, so one box of stevia is equal to about 14 ounces of sugar sweet, or 45 cents worth of the white stuff.)
Another way to look at it: $12 will get you 100 packets of stevia, or 24 pounds of actual sugar, or two pounds of honey. You'd need 18 pounds of honey to equal 24 pounds of sugar, or over $100 worth of the yellow gold. It is obvious why people want to make fake honey it is a lucrative and profitable business. In fact, that anybody buys honey at all sometimes amazes me... if it's just the measure of "sweet" you are looking for.
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