How To Shop For Sustainable Sweeteners

I’ve been doing a ton of reading on the importance of the gut microbiome and stumbled upon a new report which highlights how artificial sweeteners affect it and in many cases make it really toxic. So it got me thinking about just how sustainable sweeteners are and what are the best options when it comes to your health and the health of the planet. Here is my guide on How To Shop For Sustainable Sweeteners.

In my humble opinion, it’s best to avoid artificial ones at all costs. I used to suffer from the worst migraines and to try to mitigate these headaches I cut out certain things I was consuming, one of those being sweeteners, after 3 weeks I had zero migraines, its now been a few years and they have never come back to the extent that I was getting them. I attribute this to both my diet and cutting out these artificial sweeteners. Let’s talk about two of the most common sugar substitutes, honey, and maple syrup.

HONEY The production of honey in Canada is BIG business. The Canadian Honey Council notes the following stats on their website:

  • There are approximately 7,000 beekeepers in Canada operating a total of 600,000 colonies of honeybees.
  • The value of honey bees to the pollination of crops is estimated at over $2 billion annually.
  • Canada ranks 1st in the world for canola production. Pollination of canola is a major activity for the Canadian honey bee industry. Each year around 300,000 colonies of honey bees (half the colonies in Canada) contribute to the annual crop of 12.6 million tonnes of open-pollinated canola oilseed. As well, another 80,000 colonies (approximately 12% of the colonies in Canada) are dedicated to pollinating the highly specialized hybrid seed canola industry. This hybrid seed industry is dependent on honey bees for precise pollen transfer of specific genetic lines.
  • Canada ranks 2nd in the world for blueberry production. (North American produces 75% of the world’s blueberries). Beekeepers provide around 35,000 colonies of honey bees for blueberry pollination.
a bee keeper tending to bees
Photo: Unsplash

Using honeybees in this manner is certainly not sustainable at all. The high volume of pesticides used in farming is contributing to a massive population decline. Something we all need to be very worried about. Here’s a video from BBC about what would happen if bees went extinct. Along with colony decline is the carbon footprint of processing honey, as well as transporting it all over the world. There are also ethics at play here as well. Bees work their butts off to make honey, they pollinate, then return the hive to make honey which they store for their own use during the winter. Honey producers extract the royal jelly and beeswax in the fall, leaving bees without the nutrition they’ve stored for the cold weather and instead we feed them on sugar supplements. Not good. In some cases of large-scale honey production, cheap additives are added to the honey removing all of the benefits.

honey on a honey pot
Photo: Unsplash

What to look for when buying honey:

Look for local beekeepers who are more likely to practice sustainable beekeeping methods. Local also means fewer miles travelled from the farm to your table, therefore reducing your carbon footprint. Shop for organic to reduce the amount of exposure to pesticides and other environmental issues that arise thanks to agrochemicals and emissions from production that can pollute our waterways. If the products claim to be organic, make sure there is a visible third-party certification.

The best practice is to shop for fair trade, honey. Often in large-scale honey production workers are not paid fairly for their work.

Related PostIs Fairtrade Still Relevant?

Try to look for sustainable packaging, or bring your own container where possible. There are so many local honey companies to connect too.


When shopping for Maple Syrup the same principles can be applied, as noted above. Shop locally, look for organic and fair trade. Now when it comes to how sustainable maple syrup production is, its a little more complicated. Canada is the world’s leading producer and exporter of maple products, accounting for 71 percent of the global market. In 2016, Canadian producers exported 45 million kg of maple products, with a value of $381 million. The province of Québec is by far the largest producer, representing 92 percent of Canadian production (1). This article highlights the major difference between conventional production and organic production.

dripping honey onto a stack of pancakes
Photo: Unsplash

Along with production, climate change is actually having a very negative impact on the maple tree. Back in January a study published in the journal Ecology examined assessed how environmental conditions impacted the growth of more than 1,000 sugar maple trees at four forest sites in Michigan between 1994 and 2013. The findings were sobering: Climate change has led to warmer, drier growing seasons, stunting the growth of sugar maples. Maple trees are at risk from attacks by insects like the Asian long-horned beetle, which kills entire plantations if left to multiply unchecked. The beetle also has no natural predators, so more ecologically-friendly practices such as importing natural predators cannot be used against this beetle. Diseases such as tar spot, maple wilt and sap streak also infect maple trees and syrup producers are often left with no choice but to spray to protect their livelihoods when these appear.

What can be done to help maple trees?

We need to eliminate coal burning, which used to release sulphur into the atmosphere. Cleaning your footwear before you go hiking or camping can reduce the transmission of diseases and invasive species. If you go fishing, don’t dump earthworms, as they pose a threat as well.

What to avoid when buying honey or maple syrup: 

  • If you are worried about honey bees or maple trees then consider eating them less;
  • Avoid any kind of large-scale production or “factory farming” methods;
  • Think ethically, in some cases the Queen bees wings are clipped. Not so good.

It’s hard to say that one is more sustainable than the other, both have an impact when it comes to harvesting, processing, agricultural practices, transportation, and waste. Both of these practices have been around for thousands of years, but it’s up to us to ensure that they keep going, so the key is to connect with small-batch, organic for both.

a small ramekin of homey

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