Consumers are being misled on honey and so-called healthier syrups, despite them being officially categorised the same as table, or regular white sugar, according to the campaign group.
Action on Sugar analysed 223 honeys, sugars and syrup products, all widely available in UK supermarkets. It found that honey products might contain up to 86% free sugars (i.e. any sugars added to food or drink derived from fruit juice, honeys or syrups). Maple syrup products could have up 88% free sugars.
Some food products claimed to be made with honey were actually made with up to 25 times more table sugar than they were of honey, it discovered.
“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. 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),” it said.
It is not just in supermarkets that these confusing messages are being given to customers, said the group. Popular so-called healthier syrups and sugar alternatives -- such as agave syrup and brown or coconut sugar -- are often promoted as healthier options in independent coffee shops too.
Action on Sugar claimed that many of the leading cafes promote honey as part of a ‘healthy’ porridge offering, but which is still contributing to a person’s maximum free sugars intake: Pret a Manger – Bircher muesli (honey), Leon – Porridge of the Gods (honey), Pure – Organic porridge with Manuka honey blend and EAT – Banana, honey and Grape Nuts.
Honey and syrups are free sugars, and just like table sugar need to be reduced in our diets, said the group. It said all food and drink packaging should have mandatory front of pack labelling, clearly displaying its true contribution to a person’s daily free sugars intake.
Action on Sugar called on the UK’s health minister Matt Hancock to order clearer labelling on such products in his upcoming prevention green paper. It also wants Public Health England to educate consumers about free sugars via its nationwide Change4Life programme.
“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,” it said.
“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.”
The health claims of honey and syrup are ‘spurious’
The evidence around the supposed health benefits of honey is limited, according to Action on Sugar, which claimed there are no approved health and nutrition claims for honey. It cited evidence from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and PHE which noted honey is still a sugar and can contribute to tooth decay.
Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar, said: “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, a registered nutritionist and Director of Action on Sugar added: “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.”
High and lower free sugars-containing sugars, honeys and syrups
Free sugars category
Sugars (g) per 100g/ml
Sugar (tsp) per 100g
Sugars (g) per 100g/ml
Sugar (tsp) per 100g
Table Sugar or equivalent
Billington's Fairtrade Golden Granulated Natural Unrefined Sugar Cane
Whole Earth Sweetener Co. Sweet Mini Cubes with Stevia
Morrisons The Best 100% Pure Canadian Maple Syrup
Clarks Carob Fruit Syrup
Asda Extra Special Manuka Honey
Odysea Pine & Fir Tree Honey
Examples of products with marketing claims or product descriptions highlighting the addition of honey, even though there is more sugar added to the product than honey
Marketing claim/product description on pack
Total Sugars (%)
Nature Valley Crunchy Oats & Honey 5X42g
Crunchy cereal bars made whole grain rolled oats and honey
Sainsbury’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes
Crunchy toasted, sweetened cornflakes with chopped peanuts and honey
Tesco Honey Nut Clusters Belgian Milk Chocolate
Oat flakes and crisped rice clusters with peanut and honey, garnished with milk chocolate curls
Graze Honey with Whole Oats Protein Oat Bites 4x30g
Wholegrain oat flapjacks with honey, mixed seeds and soy protein
Stoats Raspberry & Honey Porridge Oat Bar 4x50g
A classic Fan-favourite, our raspberry & honey porridge oat bars are made by hand with wholegrain Scottish oats, creamy butter, tangy raspberries and sweet honey. Packed with natural goodness and a source of fibre for a deliciously filling treat.
Jordans Country Crisp Honey & Nut
Honey & Nuts: a classic combination. Get ready for light and crunchy golden oat clusters baked with honey and a generous handful of sliced almonds plus roasted chopped hazelnuts. And the best part? They stay crunchy to the last bite.
Waitrose Oats & Honey Bars 5x30g
A wholegrain fibre bar with oats & honey