Perhaps you’ve experienced the oddity that is imitation honey. You’re in line for a hotel’s continental breakfast or having coffee at your Great Aunt’s house. You reach for the container of honey and notice the first sign of uncertainty: the ingredients list. But isn’t honey just made of, well, honey? you wonder.
When defining honey, the FDA defers to reference materials in the public domain (they’ve cited the Encyclopedia Britannica): Honey is “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.” If the syrup stored in the bottle is not made in this manner, it must be labeled “imitation honey” or “honey product.”
Most imitation honey products are sold as “sugar-free substitutes” to the real deal, aimed to provide those with diabetes (or food restrictions that recommend avoiding sugar) with a sweet topping that tastes like honey. “Sugar-free,” however, doesn’t mean the product isn’t highly processed. While whole foods-based sugars extracted naturally from fruit are typically safe when consumed in moderation, most sugar-free products sold at a typical stores are sweetened with sugar alcohols. For example, the popular brand HoneyTree's Sugar Free Imitation Honey is mostly comprised of Maltitol syrup, a low-calorie hydrogenated corn syrup that, via processing, becomes sorbitol, a sugar alcohol. Sorbitol naturally occurs in dates and prunes—both of which can be pureed into a sweet syrup—but the Maltitol syrup that's used in imitation honey is a processed ingredient that may not be great to put into your body if you have restrictions.
Acesulfame K, a wildly sweet yet calorie-free artificial sugar-substitute, is also a main ingredient in HoneyTree imitation honey. Original testing for the sweetener suggested it could be carcinogenic, but recent studies have suggested those tests were inaccurate. Ultimately, acesulfame K is currently approved by the FDA, though its safety remains in controversy.
Even if the label on your sweetener says “made with real honey,” I’d recommend considering a different syrup. Indeed, imitation honey and comparable products are, like fake maple syrup, cheaper, and potentially lower in calories than the real sweeteners. However, a low calorie count doesn’t necessarily mean better for the body. Ultimately, diabetics who choose not to eat honey may want to consider using no-sugar-added date syrup or coconut nectar. People without problems digesting sugar should use real honey or maple syrup, or just go for plain old unbleached granulated sugar.