Honey Finds Sweeter Spot With Beverages

The National Honey Board, an industry-funded organization, has long been a prominent representative of honey producers, promoting sales of the ingredient to food and beverage manufacturers. In recent years, beverages, in particular, have attracted greater interest from the Board. In 2015, an internal volumetric study surveying food and beverage companies found non-alcoholic beverages have surpassed baking as the most popular category for honey.

Keith Seiz, ingredient marketing representative for the National Honey Board, said when he began working with the organization six years ago, its top focus had been promoting honey’s use in baked goods, cereal, bread, and other food products. But about four years ago, he said, the Board was increasingly fielding more requests from both alcoholic and non-alcoholic brands.

“It’s such a great time for honey because it really falls in line with all the consumer trends on the beverage side,” Seiz said. “I don’t have to say how much scrutiny sweeteners have accrued recently, and honey is one that hasn’t. And it’s one of the only sweeteners you’re ever going to be able to use in a beverage product you can also market as a positive.”

Indeed, for many companies that have branded around their use of honey, it is a way of delivering the message of a clean labeled beverage to consumers. Positive consumer perception of honey is “overwhelming,” Seiz said, and that allows it to fulfill their paradoxical desire for sweet beverages that don’t contain large doses of sugar or artificial sweeteners.

The Honey Board, Seiz said, has a “robust” approach to reaching new companies, including traditional advertising methods and public relations opportunities. It regularly works directly with brands to develop new products, and seizes the opportunity to use trade shows, such as the Natural Products Expos, to grow its clientele. One-on-one conversations have been key to aiding the growth. The Board also runs a “Honey Up Close” program where it travels to large beverage manufacturers and provides two-hour info sessions for R&D teams in order to outline the importance and potential of honey and to pitch product ideas.

“It’s definitely having a moment, but I don’t want to call it a ‘moment’ because that makes it sound like it will go away,” he said. “I don’t see us every going back to a time where we’re okay again with adding all these processed ingredients to our products.”

EnerBee, which is featured on the Honey Board’s “Beverages With Honey” website, markets itself as an all-natural energy drink that uses organic honey with no added sugar. While there are a number of “clean energy” drinks available, using honey as its key ingredient also carves out the brand’s identity — making use of bee and honeycomb imagery on its cans (not to mention the punny name).

The brand’s co-founder, Zach Grossman, is an athlete and told BevNET he would use honey for his own pre-workout energy boost. The sugar in honey also has a unique composition, making it easier for the body to absorb the glucose and fructose.

“I’m a certified personal trainer, so I understand the importance of carbohydrates and your energy when you’re working out,” Grossman said. “If I ever needed an extra energy boost I popped a tablespoon of honey before my workout.”

According to Seiz, honey is increasingly seeing use as an energy ingredient. Honey is used in products such as BeeBad Energy, X2 All Natural Energy, RevHoney, and Bee Energy Shot.

For other brands, honey can also take on a more holistic quality. Wild Tonic is a maker of “jun kombucha,” different from other kombuchas in that it ferments the product with honey instead of sugar — an approach that is also said to eliminate the vinegary taste often associated with kombucha.

“Since we’re not fighting that vinegar flavor it allows us to have things like our blueberry basil flavor and our blackberry mint flavor,” Jason Bezdek, director of sales and marketing for Wild Tonic, told BevNET. “Flavors like basil and mint, in a traditional kombucha the vinegar would just back over them like a truck.”

But there are pitfalls with using honey. Prices are high and unstable. According to Grossman, EnerBee sources its organic honey from Brazil where prices vary between $2.25 and $3.00 per pound, much higher than organic cane sugar, which sells for under a dollar. Availability can also be an issue, Bezdek said, and the health of bees is a major factor.

Mainstream environmental news has made no light issue of the plight of bee colonies. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 10 million bee hives died from “Colony Collapse Disorder,” more than twice the normal rate. Pesticides have since been linked as a major contributor to the deaths, but without stabilization, honey supply issues will remain for CPG manufacturers.

“It would be great if there were bee hives everywhere producing all this great and wonderful honey and I wish it [the bee deaths] wasn’t even in the conversation,” Seiz said. “But it is, and it’s something the National Honey Board takes very seriously, because without bees we don’t have honey.”

Frequently, conservation efforts and awareness have fallen onto the companies that rely on honey. The Honey Board donates a significant portion of its research budget to bee conservation annually, while numerous companies, including Wild Tonic and EnerBee, have gotten behind the cause.

“Honey and the bees are the foundation of our whole company,” Bezdek said. “That’s why we give back. We’re constantly involved in different conservation efforts, because without the bees none of us have anything.”