There is “meat” that doesn’t come from animals and “milk” that doesn’t come from cows.
And now, California inventors have found a way to make honey without bees.
MeliBio, a start-up company in Berkeley, Calif., has developed a technology to make synthetic honey that involves “plant science, synthetic biology and precision fermentation,” its website says.
“Our first product is plant based,” MeliBio chief executive Darko Mandich told foodnavigator.com. “We proudly say that our product is honey but not produced by bees.”
The company initially plans to sell its honey to food companies as an ingredient. But MeliBio isn’t the only player in the synthetic honey game. In 2019, a group of students in Israel won a competition held by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a synthetic honey made from bacteria.
Synthetic honey may look and taste like honey, but if it isn’t made by bees, can companies and entrepreneurs market it as honey?
The definition of real honey has become a persistent problem for North America’s honey producers. For years, beekeeping associations and honey councils in Canada and the U.S. have tried to raise awareness about imports of fake honey, mostly from China.
Some Chinese manufacturers blend real honey with sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup and rice syrup, to produce a product exported and sold as pure honey.
An Ontario company is taking a similar approach but it’s being more honest than Chinese firms. Be Sweet, located in Mississauga, manufactures and sells a product called Be Sweet Honey Spread. It openly admits the spread is a blend of corn syrup and honey.
The company’s website says the spread is made with Canadian honey but honey may only be 10 percent of the blend.
“Ninety percent bee friendly and economical,” the Be Sweet website says.
Rod Scarlett, Canadian Honey Council executive director, said a company can use a “honey spread” label if the product contains some honey. However, consumers probably aren’t aware that they’re buying high-fructose corn syrup.
“Are you deceiving consumers by using the word honey on the front of the label?” he asked.
A number of companies also sell vegan honey, including Be Sweet, which makes and markets Be Sweet Vegan Honey Substitute. It is made from cane sugar, rice syrup and molasses. Be Sweet, on its website, says it “contains zero honey.”
Scarlett takes issue with using the word honey to describe a food that contains no honey.
Challenging a food label in court isn’t a realistic option for beekeepers and the Canadian Honey Council, mostly because legal action is expensive.
“We’re taking a different tack and it’s only started this year,” Scarlett said. “We are going to try and put together a Canadian definition of honey … and try and get the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) to approve this definition and descriptions.”
If a definition was in place, it could provide a guide for labelling and marketing products.
It will take time for the honey council to devise a definition and submit it to the CFIA. The definition might be similar to the U.S. version, where folks in the industry have proposed a standard identity for honey.
U.S. Pharmacopeia, a non-profit that helps develop standards for medicines and food, has developed a 15-page identity standard for honey that describes how it’s made, its composition and the different types.
“It’s not been approved yet (by the U.S. government), but it’s a pretty good representation of what we need up here,” Scarlett said. “We’ll be looking at a Canadian version.”
Beekeepers may soon need such a standard. If MeliBio has success with its synthetic honey, other players will quickly enter the global honey market, valued at US $9 billion annually.