Life is sweet for honey farmers as sales soar

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Honey sales are booming for the first time in decades, driven by its growing use by celebrity chefs and by health-conscious diners keen to avoid sugar. Britons are now eating 25,000 tons of honey every year - an increase of 11 per cent in the past 12 months, according to the AC Nielsen research company.

The trend has reversed a 20-year decline in sales and has left British beekeepers struggling to cope with demand. The rise is being attributed to parents worried about giving their children sugar and by shoppers concerned about the burgeoning obesity epidemic.

Another factor is the popularity of the GI diet, which favours low- glycaemic foods that release energy slowly. There may also be a culinary reason - people are increasingly exploring the different varieties of honey and becoming honey connoisseurs.

Honey sales stabilised three years ago, shortly before the discovery of antibiotics in cheap Chinese honey, which was later banned by the European Union. People were forced to try other, finer honeys, such as Tasmanian leatherwood and Spanish rosemary, and they liked the taste. For the first time earlier this year, sales of honey passed those of marmalade, which has a higher sugar content, making it less suitable to dieters. Research suggests that marmalade, once a staple of the breakfast table, is used less and less by younger consumers.

Brian Butcher, chairman of the Honey Association, which represents British honey importers and packers, said: "Over the past 20 years honey sales have been declining, then four or five years ago they stabilised and over the last few years sales have been showing signs of growth, and this year there has been significant growth."

British beekeepers make about 10 per cent of the total consumed in the UK, with the remainder imported from across the world. The more exotic imported varieties of honey include Tasmanian meadow, Sicilian mountain, Italian eucalyptus, Polish silver fir, French chestnut, Jamaican logwood and even Brazilian rainforest.

Stuart Bailey, managing director of Rowse, the biggest British honey packer with 28 per cent market share, said: "I think people are discovering honey in the same way that people discovered wine a few years ago. People are getting interested in the varieties just like people did when they decided they didn't just want to drink plonk.

"Honey is not just for putting on toast; it's being used increasingly as a sugar substitute. You watch Ready, Steady Cook and almost every week a chef seems to be using honey."

Two other factors have helped popularise honey. The honey companies have introduced squeezy plastic bottles that removed one of consumers' surprising objections to honey - its stickiness. And publicity about the anti-bacterial properties of manuka honey from New Zealand, which is reputed to protect against stomach ulcers, has added to its appeal.

Despite its growing nutritional reputation, though, the dietary benefits of honey are far from clear cut. Although a tablespoon of sugar has 77 calories, a tablespoon of honey has a still substantial 64 calories.

Sue Baic, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, said: "Honey has got a few extra antioxidants and minerals so it's not completely empty calories like sugar. But it doesn't have a huge benefit.

"It has the same sugars as sugar - fructose and glucose - and it still has the same tooth-decay effects as sugar."

Hives of activity

* Bees have been making honey for at least 100 million years, since the Cretaceous period.

* Honey has been eaten by humans for at least five thousand years. The Ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetening agent.

* Three types of bees are responsible for a honey-producing hive: one queen bee, worker bees and drones.

* Female worker bees collect pollen and nectar to make honey to feed the bees. The male drones are there to mate with the queen bee.

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