Wednesday, October 7, 2009

she's as sweet as tupelo honey

It never occurred to me, until a few years ago, that honey wouldn't be considered vegan. I guess it was part of my exploration of my first vegan (cook)book ever - How It All Vegan, ironically. I noticed that instead of using honey as a sweetener in some baked goods, like my fruity, hippie, all-natural cookbooks, there was a lot of maple syrup or "dry sweetener of your choice" going on. Don't get me wrong - I like maple syrup, but it has a very distinct flavor that kind of stands out.

I'm not gonna lie: I like honey.
I like it in herbal tea. I like to cream it with non-dairy butter as the first step to making the best oatmeal cookies I've ever had. I like to drizzle it over chunky peanut butter spread on a tortilla and then roll the whole thing up and eat it like candy. Now and then, I've been known to stir it into oatmeal or coffee. I like how much easier honey mixes up in a cookie/cake/muffin/bread recipe than granulated sugar.

Furthermore, when I really get to thinking about whether or not honey is vegan, I really go for it. For example - is yeast vegan? What about soy yogurt with live cultures? Those are living micro-organisms, so I guess what I want to know is: where is the line? When does PETA stop caring?

So, I've done a little homework to help myself figure out the honey conundrum.
Checking back with HIAV, the appendix, "Vegan No-Nos A to Z" gives a very simple reason why people/vegans should not eat honey. "Food for bees, made by bees." Fair enough - that has been my anti-dairy argument for years: cow's milk is meant to be consumed by baby cows to help them grown into big cows. If humans were supposed to drink cow's milk, human mothers wouldn't lactate...makes sense to me. Also, as a side note - are you aware that human beings are the only species that drinks another species' milk AND drinks milk after infancy? The dreaded curse of lactose intolerance that so many unfortunate adults seem to suffer is actually the body's natural way of weaning - it's supposed to happen.

Okay, so chalk one up for the argument against honey.

I've seen PETA's argument against honey before, but I thought I'd check it out again to see if it made more sense. The crux of their argument is that honeybees are unnatural and exploited. The honey that lines your supermarket shelves is the product of factory-farmed bees, therefore putting it on the same level as boxed cows, caged footless chickens, and udder-infected milk cows. Quick disclaimer: these are PETA's thoughts, not necessarily mine. Honeybees are born, live, and die (or are killed) in an artificial environment and therefore do not contribute to the beneficial pollination of plants that "natural" bees enact. Their entire lives are controlled and manipulated by beekeepers that I have to believe are a little smarter than PETA is willing to admit. Ultimately, PETA's stand is that because bees have exhibited intelligence by recognizing home and "family," the exploitation of their labor is on par with the abuse and misery felt by veal calves, milk cows, egg-laying hens, foie gras-growing ducks, and bacon pigs.

They make a thought-provoking argument, but I'm not sure I'm buying it. What it comes down to (for me) is this: bees are insects, not animals. Granted, that opens up a whole can of silkworms, but we'll get to that, plus wool and leather, later.

According to, a vegan is someone who eschews not only the flesh of animals, but also anything else that comes from them, such as dairy, eggs, wool, leather, etc. On their FAQ page, they classify insects as animals, but state that not all vegans "believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it's not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many 'collateral' insect deaths."

If that means we have to give up vegetables, I'm in trouble.

Wikipedia, in a very well researched article, similarly defines a vegan as someone who not only restricts his/her diet to refrain from animal products/flesh, but also lives a lifestyle which seeks to avoid the exploitation or unethical use of animals. The article primarily refers to The Vegan Society, founded in the mid-1940s, but PETA protests are in line with forsaking cosmetics tested on animals, animals in entertainment, animals used for clothing, and so on.

On, the homepage features a happy little pig in a field with this quote underneath the picture:
Veganism may be defined as a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom for food, clothing, or any other purpose. In dietary terms it refers to the practice of dispensing with all animal produce - including flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, (non-human) animal milks, and their derivatives, with the taking of honey left to individual conscience.
I feel like that last phrase (regarding honey) is kind of an underhanded guilt trip, but whatever. Even PETA manages to have a succinct and direct mission statement on their website:
PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds and other "pests," and the abuse of backyard dogs.
Just to dig a little deeper, because I'm kind of a perfectionist like that and because I figure the best decision can be made with the most information available, I checked out how close to the colloquial meaning of "animal" bees are. Science really isn't my thing, but here's a quick 7th grade science lesson to wrap things up:
Scientific classification separates everything possible into a hierarchy which begins with the broad category of "Life" and whittles it down through Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Kingdom, third from the top and among the broadest classifications are what lump bees into the animal category. Because I actually love studying how we got the words we use, I could launch into a big discussion of the root of the word "Animal," but I won't because I've already been working on this post for an hour and a half and I want to go to bed soon. Suffice it to say, though, that anything which is self-animated (can move of its own free will) is considered an animal.

By this line of thought, a vegan cannot smush the spider creeping along the wall, even if it's a black widow and could do serious harm to her, her companion animal, or her child. A vegan cannot exterminate for a cockroach problem that is invading his food supply and causing his child to have asthma attacks. A vegan cannot slap the mosquito that just gave her West Nile virus.

This may be the most thoroughly researched and thought out justification for the continued use of honey in the history of people trying to justify their love for this sweet substance, but I've done my homework and come to my own educated conclusions.

I don't see anything wrong with using honey. The case is not necessarily closed, though. If you can make an equally compelling argument against my current point of view, I will certainly consider it thoughtfully and allow it to help me more fully develop my opinion on this blurry issue.


  1. I'm going to use your same caveat that these aren't necessarily my views, but I was looking at this the other day and this seems to be the authoritative source on the party line stance:

    and specifically about the "they're bugs not animals" and killing other bugs:

  2. I just wanted to say that insects are in the animal kingdom; therefore, bees are animals. Bacteria are not. They are in an entirely different kingdom.

    At the end of the day, the choice to consume honey is personal. I, personally, do not think it's vegan so I don't eat it...but I don't lose any respect for somebody over it.

  3. We all have to draw our own lines in the sand. What about fleas? What about mosquitoes? Do we kill them (which is worse) when they are attacking us and our pets?
    Make your own conclusions and make your own mind up. Whatever is comfortable for you is what is right.