Is promoting honey as a healthy ingredient confusing consumers?

Action on Sugar has accused food manufacturers and chains of misleading consumers and called for clearer labelling.

2 May 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

The use of honey as a sugar alternative in snacking bars and food-to-go products has come under scrutiny, with health campaigners accusing companies of misleading consumers.

Action on Sugar has claimed consumers are being duped by food packaging and marketing to believe that honey is a healthy alternative to table sugar.

But when it examined a number of products from manufacturers and supermarkets boasting the use of honey as an ingredient, it found recipes contained 25 times more table sugar than honey.

Goods highlighted by Action on Sugar included snacking bars, like Graze’s flapjacks, which are marketed as Honey with Whole Oats Protein Oats Bites and consist of 20% sugars and 6% honey, and Waitrose’s Oats & Honey Bars, which came with 20.4% sugar and 5% honey.

However, others had substantially more sugar added compared to honey, such as Nature Valley Crunchy Oats & Honey, which contained 28.3% of sugar and just 2% honey. Jordans Country Crisp Honey & Nut bar packed in 22.3% sugar and 2% honey, while Stoats Raspberry & Honey Porridge Oat Bar racked up 22.4% sugars and just 0.8% honey.

Cereals and clusters were also singled out by the campaigners, including Sainsbury’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes, which came in with 28.3% sugar and just 0.4% honey, and Tesco’s Honey Nut Clusters with Belgian Milk Chocolate, containing 26.1% sugars and 2.5% honey.

“It’s disappointing that companies boast about products containing honey, knowing that honey and syrups are nearly as high in sugars as table sugar,” said Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at Action on Sugar, who is based at Queen Mary University of London. “The amount added is often really small (1 or 2g) while the main sweetening ingredient continues to be other high-sugar syrups and table sugar (25g). This is to mislead customers into thinking the products are healthier and better than they really are.”

Coffee shops and chains

It is not just supermarkets that are confusing consumers, added Action on Sugar. Popular syrups and sugar alternatives, such as agave syrup and brown or coconut sugar, are often promoted as healthier options in independent coffee shops, it said.

Chains are also contributing to the problem, according to the health campaigners, with the likes of Pret, Leon and Pure promoting breakfast options like porridge and bircher muesli that contain honey.

Consumers are also adding excessive quantities of honey to food and drink in the mistaken belief that it is healthy. For example, using a teaspoon of honey in tea adds about 6g of sugars, while table sugar would only add up to 4g, it said. If a person adds honey to both their porridge and tea, it could contribute up to two-thirds of their recommended daily sugar intake just at breakfast, according to the campaigners. (An adult’s daily recommended intake is 30g or approximately seven teaspoons.)

Katharine Jenner, registered nutritionist and director of Action on Sugar, argued there are a lot people providing misinformation, including bloggers and chefs.

“Poor nutrition labelling, misleading marketing claims, and mixed messages from well-meaning food bloggers and chefs mean customers are rightly confused about what free sugars actually are, which products contain them and how much they contribute to their total daily sugar intake,” she said.

“Too many calories from all types of sugars contribute to increasing risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, liver disease and tooth decay, all of which have devastating effects on health and wellbeing.”

Action on Sugar called on the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to mandate clearer labelling as part of his upcoming green paper and for Public Health England to create wider education for consumers via its nationwide Change4Life programme.

In terms of labelling, the group says mandatory front-of-pack labels should clearly display the true contribution from sugar variants to an adult’s daily intake, including honey and syrup.

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