Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine - Barts and The London

Consumers misled on honey

Consumers misled on honey and so-called healthier syrups, despite them being officially categorised the same way as table sugar

3 May 2019


  • Honey and syrups are free sugars, just like table sugar, and need to be reduced in our diets

  • Some food products claimed to be made with honey are actually made with up to 25 times more table sugar than they are of honey

  • All food and drink packaging should have mandatory front of pack labelling, clearly displaying its true contribution to our daily free sugars intake (30g)

  • Action on Sugar is calling for Public Health England to educate consumers about free sugars, including those from honey via its Change4Life programme

NEW data by Action on Sugar at Queen Mary University of London, which analysed a total of 223 honeys, sugars and syrups, all widely available in UK supermarkets, found that honey can be up to 86% free sugars (i.e. any sugars added to food or drink derived from fruit juice, honeys or syrups) while maple syrup can be made of 88% free sugars.
This comes as experts are deeply concerned that consumers are still adding excessive amounts of honey and syrups to food and drink products believing them to be ‘healthy alternatives’ to table sugar, not knowing there are almost as much sugars in them as in table sugar.

One portion (15ml) of Morrisons The Best 100% Pure Canadian Maple Syrup added to your porridge contains 13.1g of total sugars, not that much less than 15g of table sugar.4 Adding a teaspoon (7g) of Asda Extra Special Manuka Honey to your tea, contains about 6g sugars is, again, similar to adding a teaspoon of sugar (4g). Consumed together for breakfast that is almost two-thirds (19.1g) of an adult’s maximum intake of sugar per day (30g).

Consumers are being warned that the evidence around the supposed health benefits of honey is limited. There are no approved health and nutrition claims for honey. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and PHE found there was only enough evidence from randomised controlled trials to suggest honey reduced symptoms of acute cough in children and young people,5 however, it was noted in these guidelines that honey is still a sugar and can contribute to tooth decay.

Mandatory front of pack labelling, clearly outlining the sugars from free sugars and their contribution to our maximum sugar intake is vital. Action on Sugar found products sold in supermarkets boast the addition of honey in their product descriptions - often misleading consumers into thinking they are a healthier option - yet contain up to 25 times more table sugar or other syrups than honey.

It is not just in supermarkets that these confusing messages are being given to customers. Popular so-called healthier syrups and sugar alternatives e.g. agave syrup and brown or coconut sugar are often promoted as healthier options in independent coffee shops too. Moreover many of the leading cafes promote honey as part of their ‘healthy’ porridge offering, which is still contributing to a person’s maximum free sugars intake: Pret a MangerBircher muesli (honey), LeonPorridge of the Gods (honey), PureOrganic porridge with Manuka honey blend and EATBanana, honey and Grape Nuts.

Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London says: “It’s disappointing that companies boast about products containing honey, knowing that honey and syrups are nearly as high in sugars as table sugar. 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. Our advice is to always opt for less sweetness by using less sugar, syrups and honey.”

Katharine Jenner, Registered Nutritionist and Director of Action on Sugar says: “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. Too many calories from all types of sugars contributes 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.

“How can we be expected to make healthier choices, as suggested by the Secretary of State for Health, when we don’t even know what’s going into our food? Clearer labelling, and education about what that means, really could help us to live well for longer.