This morning I decided to turn on Netflix to see if there was anything to watch while I had my coffee. I thought with one kid in school and the other one in bed, I could take a bit of time to procrastinate before reality hit me too hard on the head. (The reality being that we have recently come back from a trip abroad, the school holiday is over so I need to be organised all the time, and I am left with a house in full disaster mode that I need to do something about. Not exactly the most uplifting thought there is.) But I’m glad I did this, because I took the suggestion to start watching “Rotten”, the Netflix documentary on food. The first episode was on honey, and being that I use honey in my baking as an alternative to refined sugar, this was a very interesting topic for me.
The honey industry is corrupt, was the main point of the show (surprise, surprise). And bee-keepers have a very hard time making a living from this activity. With bee colonies decreasing dramatically every year, with diluted honey on the market at ridiculously low prices, and even with bee theft, it is indeed very difficult to survive in the business. Not to mention surviving when you also want to put a quality product on the market, and aren’t only interested in profit and actually care whether your product makes people sick.
I was rather surprised to find out how much honey is consumed every year, more than a million tonnes. This is not just people licking spoonfuls of honey. Honey is used in so many other products. For instance, one of the companies featured in “Rotten” was preparing honey for a bread factory. Why would anyone need honey in bread? I can understand why honey may have been replaced in sweet products, I mean I do it too, but why in products that should not be sweet? I know, I know, flavour enhancement; but I mean, why, why would we do that to ourselves? And the quantity itself is mind blowing. Although I use honey because I believe it is a natural product that is better than refined sugar, that does not mean that I use it in huge quantities. I try to keep it to about a jar or so a year, plus 1-2 bottles of maple syrup. That’s all I use in my baking. This means indeed that I purposefully use only a little sweetener, the purpose is not to have your teeth clenched by the sweetness when you have a treat. The honey that I use is produced in my home country, and bought there from a specialised shop. Quality is very important. I only use raw honey and the only thing that has happened to it is that it has been taken out of the hive and put into a jar. Nothing has been added to it, and the bees that produce it are not on antibiotics.
Now I know not everybody agrees on the use of honey. Some say it is only empty calories, while others call it a miracle potion. Just today, I was looking in my What to Expect book, trying to remember what sort of solids I was feeding my first kid when he started experimenting with food, and there it was, the warning that honey is just empty calories. Before you say anything, I know honey should not be given to babies, my first kid didn’t get any, and neither will my second. Back to the point. As for the miracle potion side, I have come across entire websites dedicated to the virtues of honey. And then there are articles about the potential advantages of honey, if used in moderation, if it is of good quality, and you are not sick to begin with.
My personal opinion is, again, somewhere in between. Honey has been used for a long, long time. It has been consumed since before the modernisation of food, let alone the food industry. Ancient civilisations used it for medicinal purposes too, as an antibacterial, to treat wounds and burns, also to regulate digestion. I believe that something that has lasted for so long in the human diet, has done so for a very good reason: it is beneficial to us. Of course, this doesn’t mean that more is better. From my grandmother’s old folks’ tales, I know that you should eat no more than 1 teaspoon of honey a day. Mind you, my grandmother lived to be 94, so I tend to believe what she said about food. Not everything, of course, but still. One teaspoon is not so much; and anyone who’s ever tried eating honey with a teaspoon, at least real honey, knows that it is extremely sweet. I doubt I could even swallow that amount. I’m more of a bitter-sweet or sour-sweet kind of girl. So I use honey in my baking. But I don’t add it by the cupful. Whenever I see a full cup of honey in a recipe, my eyes pop out. Why? Because that is, roughly, a full jar of honey. A FULL JAR. Who in their right mind would take a full jar of honey and divide it between a few people and eat the whole thing? Because that is what you would be doing. So what I do if I really want to try such a recipe is read 1 cup and add to my mixing bowl 2 tablespoons. I add liquid if needed. But nobody needs that much sugar.
The reason why so much honey, or other sweeteners, is required in baking is that the taste is somewhat masked by the other ingredients. Therefore, the final product doesn’t seem so sweet. But make no mistake, the sugar is there. And it is our taste buds, trained from the beginning of our lives, that ask for sweeter and sweeter. If you don’t get so used to sweetness and sugar, you won’t find that something that sweet is also tasty; it is excessive and that’s what it tastes like. A better way to compensate for the reduced sweetness is with spices. They will add more flavour than sugar will ever be able to.
And this is my reason for Holy Cake Day right there: not training the little taste buds to crave sugar. It’s so hard to change that later in life, that it’s so much better not to get your children used to the sweetness. If you don’t give them sugar, they won’t know to ask for it. And when they do have some, don’t ladle it in. To the pure taste buds, a little bit of sugar is sweet enough.