CHICAGO — An intense focus on added sugars consumption and links to obesity, diabetes and heart disease is motivating consumers to not only reduce total sweetener consumption, but to switch to sweeteners perceived as more healthful, such as honey, according to market research firm Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. The current high level of consumer interest in honey makes it a great time to offer innovative products that piggyback on the latest and emerging trends for this sweetener, said David Sprinkle, the firm’s research director.

Keith Seiz, spokesperson for the National Honey Board, said honey is a timeless and relevant sweetener.

“Honey’s advantage as a sweetener is its marketability, its story that has always started with the honey bee,” he said. “Honey complements today’s clean label formulating trend. Marketers are bringing honey to the front of the package to clearly communicate to consumers its inclusion in a packaged food.”

The National Honey Board partnered with Chicago-based market research firm Technomic to better understand how honey is used in the United States. Using primary research, industry sources and U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Technomic estimated that of the 576 million lbs of honey sold in the United States in 2015, 40% was sold at retail as packaged honey. Food processors used 30% of the honey in prepared and packaged foods, while chefs and food service operators used 21%. The remaining 9% went into such industrial non-food applications as personal and beauty products, candles and medicine.

“We were surprised to learn that beverage was the leading food processing application, with packaged cold beverages being No. 1 followed by beer being No. 2,” Mr. Seiz said. “Cereal, both hot and ready-to-eat, came in third, followed by bread and doughs. Granola, snack and nutrition bars were fifth.”

Sauces featuring honey
Honey appears in several sauces, dressings and marinades.

To meet demand, the U.S. imports about two-thirds of the honey required, with the majority of suppliers based in Argentina, Brazil, India, Ukraine and Vietnam. The leading honey-producing U.S. states are California, Florida, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“Across the country there’s a growing trend in urban beekeeping,” Mr. Seiz said. “Chefs who want to market the use of local ingredients are driving this growth. Local beekeepers also sell product at farmers’ markets.”

Mr. Seiz emphasized that honey is honey regardless of where the raw material is sourced.

Regardless of where it originates, honey is honey. It contains no fillers, preservatives or any other ingredients.

“Honey is a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance,” he said. “Codex Alimentarius is very explicit and states ‘honey sold as such shall not have added to it any food ingredient, including food additives, nor shall any other additions be made other than honey.’”

This is not to say that all honey is created equal. Honey varies in color, flavor and even consistency, based on the flowers worker bees extract nectar that eventually becomes honey. The colors of honey form a continuous range from water white to dark amber. Light-colored honey typically has a mild flavor, while a darker color is more intense.

There are three types of honey, with liquid honey being the most common. It is extracted from the honeycomb by centrifugal force, gravity or straining and is typically free of visible crystals.

Jars of colorful honey
The colors of honey form a continuous range from water white to dark amber. Light-colored honey typically has a mild flavor while a darker color has a more intense flavor.

“Dried honey is derived from pure liquid honey and will include processing aids and other ingredients,” Mr. Seiz said. “The honey is dried to a low-moisture content. This gets converted to free-flowing powders, flakes or granules with a minimum 50% pure honey content.”

Both liquid and dried products are used as sweeteners in food formulations, with the former having additional functions, such as ingredient binder and humectant. The third type of honey is known as whipped or creamed honey. It is sold in a crystallized state and at room temperature used as a spread much like butter or jelly.

Recent retail packaged food innovations shows honey being used in almost every conceivable product category, with inclusion recognized on front labels or product names.  Formulators are embracing the natural sweetness of honey, along with the color, flavor and viscosity it contributes. In some instances, honey is being promoted as a source of natural, sustainable energy.

Honey varieties
Honey flavor varies by the flowers from which worker bees extract the nectar.

In such grain-based foods applications as hearty bread made with ancient, sprouted and whole grains, honey is recognized for its ability to round out bitter notes and robust textures. It also will function as a natural shelf life extender, as it inhibits mold growth in baked foods by binding moisture. The same property makes it a useful humectant in gluten-free baked foods, which tend to dry and stale easily.

With spicy foods, honey adds just enough sweetness to mellow the initial heat, while with some fruit flavors, honey balances floral notes. In high-protein foods, especially when the protein comes from plants, honey may mask undesirable green, beany off flavors.

There are important considerations when working with honey and in product reformulations, as there is no direct one-to-one substitution. This is because honey may be as much as 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, on a dry basis. Honey also contains enzymes that may break down other ingredients in a formulation, impacting the finished product.

Honey bee on honeycomb
There are 20,000 known species of bees, with only seven recognized as honey bees. The U.S. is home to only one type of honey bee.

“Amino acids in honey can elevate the flavor intensity of spices and herbs, which is why honey is often used in dressings and sauces,” Mr. Seiz said. “Honey will also speed up the Maillard reaction in baked goods, so time and temperature often needs to be adjusted.

“In brewing, the point of honey addition is important, as honey is fermentable.”

For the most part, honey works well with other sweeteners and is almost always used with one or more in packaged prepared foods. This is because too much honey flavor may be overwhelming in some applications, for example, yogurt and ice cream.