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Is Honey “Kosher” for Vegans?

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Rosh Hashanah is still more than a month away, but after reading Slate’s article on “The Great Vegan Honey Debate,” I’ve got the sweet stuff on the brain.

With so many other natural and delicious alternatives to honey available (maple syrup, agave nectar…), questioning whether or not a vegan should eat honey seems somewhat irrelevant. But author, Daniel Engber, posits that, “There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey.”

He says some vegans scoff at the very notion of indulging in a food that is most often produced in a “cruel and exploitative” manner, while others wonder if saying no to honey opens up a larger can of worms hive of bees. Engber writes:


“Honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total honeybee economy in the United States; most comes from the use of rental hives to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops…Life for these rental bees may be far worse than it is for the ones producing honey.

In other words, if vegans insist on being honey free on grounds of cruelty, must they also give up most of the pollinated fruits and vegetables grown in the world? Practically speaking, the answer has to be no. Even the strictest vegan couldn’t commit to growing all of their own food with their own well-cared for bees. Neither can they stop eating entirely. But the moral relativism in question is fascinating.

It makes me wonder, is there any ethics-based diet that *doesn’t* have a little bit of hypocrisy clouding up its ideals? Compassionate carnivorism has the whole “cows are not carbon friendly” issue, vegetarianism has the dairy = death question (which Engber also brings up), raw foodists tend to rely heavily on non-local fruits and vegetables, and now vegans have to justify their inherent support of the bee industry.

Personally, I’ve always puzzled over how eating a food created by a decidedly non-kosher creature could be considered okay for the Tribe. (Like Rabbi Shmuel, I prefer my Rosh Hashanah apples with maple.) But it seems that for vegans, the question of whether honey is “fit” for consumption holds a far greater sting.

Hey vegan readers (or interested veggies and omnivores) – What is your take on the “Great Honey Debate?”

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11 Responses to “Is Honey “Kosher” for Vegans?”

  1. chyk Says:

    I admit I indulge in honey from a local hive, but rarely and only when agave will not do. In general, though, I shy away

  2. lauren ahkiam Says:

    it’s hard, since it’s a better option than refined sugar (which is bad health, bad labor, bad ecology, and sometimes also considered not veg-friendly if refined through charcoal made of bone).

    that said, i am not vegan and eat lots of honey, but would not harsh on vegans who chose not to. agave nectar and maple syrup are delish!

  3. Michael Croland Says:

    I avoid honey, but if I’m drinking something that I see has honey in it, I won’t hesitate to finish it.

    And I try not to talk about it because it just isn’t a big issue to me and doesn’t do much to promote veganism (see this article titled “Why Honey Is Vegan”: http://www.satyamag.com/sept05/greger.html).

  4. chanie Says:

    not vegan, and eat/use honey, but have also used date honey for rosh hashana and other times (which may be more what the torah meant by ‘dvash’ anyway)

  5. Judith Says:

    Death of animals happen on even the most organic of farms – tractors accidentally run over bird nests, gophers are intentionally trapped, and any tilling (even hand digging) kills some soil life. Death is part of the cycle of life – even a vegan’s life. Earth worms count.

    I studied under a truly master gardener at the UCSC Farm who’d warn that as farmers “if we want to be vegetarians, we’ve got to kill.” If that is understood, there is no hypocrisy. He’d also advise us that “working the soil is a radical act. Maintain an insane reference for the soil.” We do have to till but we can choose to till at exactly the right time so as to do the least amount of damage. If that is abided by, if the intention is true, even the strictist of vegans can eat in peace. To keep your heart as pure as possible – grow your own.

  6. Ron Says:

    I have no honey debate. Honey tastes great and I love it. There is no debate. There is only DO. :)

  7. mollyjade Says:

    I think you have it right. Part of the vegan philosophy is not to cause any harm that you can reasonably prevent, but that doesn’t fit into the elevator pitch. There are animal ingredients in the manufacture of cars, computers, and some tap water. You just can’t avoid causing any harm at all. Saying “vegans don’t use anything that comes from or harms animals” is a convenient way to sum things up, but it gives as much of a practical explanation as saying keeping kosher means “eating only kosher foods and not mixing meat and milk”.

    I really don’t care about honey. I don’t buy it, but I didn’t buy it before I went vegan either.

  8. Eli Says:

    Did anyone see that bee movie in which Jerry Seinfeld did the voice for the main character? This movie made me so angry. If you’re ever going to see it, stop reading now, because I’m about to spoil it:
    Basically the bees realize they’re being exploited by the humans stealing their honey, so they demand to be paid. They make so much money so quickly that they end up shutting down honey production. Suddenly plants everywhere are dying–because the bees became very lazy and stopped pollinating everything. So then the bees have to go back to work for the humans. The lesson that I got out of it was: we must exploit animals to make the world work.

  9. Arsenio Says:

    So Eli, you are saying bees become lazy when they are not exploited…? Would you mind to explain that mechanism?

  10. ploughboy Says:

    “The cut worm forgives the plow” – from an old timer I once read (from some 18th century literature). So, are vegans not willing to cut a worm, for vegetable production?
    Also, from the same old timer: “Drive your carts and your plows over the bones of the dead”.

  11. Shelley Says:

    For me, silan (date honey) is the best vegan replacement for honey at Rosh Hashanah. In fact I’ve read that the biblical references to the honey in the land of Israel actually referred to the dates rather than bee honey. It’s delicious in itself and can replace honey in almost any recipe.

    My UK-based gift basket company (http://www.mannagifts.co.uk) specialises in kosher, vegetarian and vegan gifts. This year we will be making a completely vegan version of our popular Apple & Honey gift box which will replace the honey with Silan. There will also be delicious kosher vegan chocolates, fresh crisp apple, kosher wine for kiddush and a beautiful honey drizzler from Culinary Concepts, London. All products will be kosher l’mehadrin. We deliver throughout the UK and Europe, so if you want to send Rosh Hashanah gifts to friends or family, do look us up!

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