Consumers are being misled by food packaging claims into thinking that honey is a healthy alternative to table sugar, campaigners have warned.
Products boasting honey as an ingredient can still contain up to 25 times more table sugar or other syrups, Action on Sugar said.
Despite honey being classified as a ‘free’ sugar – or added to products rather than ‘locked in’ naturally – consumers are also adding it in “excessive” quantities to food and drink in the belief that it is a healthy, the group said.
Action on Sugar analysed 223 honeys, sugars and syrups, all widely available in UK supermarkets, finding that honey can be up to 86% free sugars, while maple syrup can be made of 88% free sugars.
It found that adding a 7g teaspoon of honey to a cup of tea added about 6g of free sugar, while adding a teaspoon of table sugar would add 4g.
One portion (15ml) of maple syrup added to porridge contained 13.1g of total sugars, only a little less than 15g of table sugar.
Nature Valley Crunchy Oats and Honey cereal bars contained 2% honey among a total sugar content of 28.3%, while Sainsbury’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes contained 0.4% honey also among a total 28.3% sugar.
Jordans Country Crisp Honey and Nut cereal contained 2% honey among 22.3% total sugar, while Waitrose Oats and Honey bars contained 5% honey among 20.5% total sugar.
Action on Sugar is calling for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to include clearer labelling in his upcoming Prevention green paper and for Public Health England to create wider education for consumers through its Change4Life programme.
Kawther Hashem, a researcher at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London, 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 (1g 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, registered nutritionist and director of Action on Sugar, said: “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 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.”